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The heat is on.

I spent 5 consecutive days at home last week and realised late last night that I was slowly going mad. So here I am, at my office, doing things more like a human being than a writing-crazed zombie, like checking emails and writing this post.

I am 2 chapters down at the moment and am halfway through a third. I have until March 4th, at the latest, to have a full working draft of my thesis done, and I’m feeling upbeat and hopeful about meeting my target.

That said though, it is HARD work. The paradox is that at the time when you need to be churning out words and sentences productively and producing logical, tangible volumes of writing, your mind goes blank. You spend hours just staring at the page, looking over your chapter plan, over the papers you have to cite. You know what you want to say but you can’t put it into words. Or if you can, it sounds cumbersome or illogical.

I’m supposed to be submitting in May and I still can’t write a sentence. Well, I can. I’ve written thousands of them already, and I will keep doing so until the job is done. But exactly how great my writing will convey my ideas, I have no clue.

On top of which I found out over the weekend my internal examiner has declined to examine me due to a clash in his schedule. So that’s great. I’ll be chasing after my supervisor today to see if we can have a chat about moving our viva date around a bit to make this work, because I really, really don’t fancy changing examiners at this late stage.

I just want them to stay alive and safe, not to have heart attacks or schedule clashes.

Everything’s all over the place again. This is supposed to be a peaceful time, I’m supposed to be sitting quietly at a desk in a peaceful room, turning all my research into a sensible narrative, all comfortably in time for my submission deadline. Instead, I am writing madly in the midst of examiner melodrama and trying fruitlessly to hold on to my sanity.

My lab colleagues, though I am sure they have problems of their own, wander into the office at half past ten to find, though I am sure they take it for granted, that the kitchen is clean and freshly disinfected, the printer cartridge has been replaced, the heating adjusted, and the door propped open so newcomers don’t have to punch the keycode in. All these things are done by a certain lab fairy, who gets in 3 hours earlier than them because she has to submit her thesis in May. Sometimes, she feels a little bitter towards them.

labfairy

“And I shall cast a spell on thee, and thy experiments shall fail!”

And however much I’ve lived and breathed psychology for the best part of a decade, there are days when my humanness gets the better of me, and I fall prey to feeling lonely and sorry for myself because nobody understands me, everything is failing, and it’s such a cruel, unfair world. These are my vices, my biases, the things that get me down. These are the things that make me worried, withdrawn, and grumpy on the inside of my stoic scientist exterior.

Despite the fact that I will, I hope, finish my PhD in relatively record time, it feels like I have been working in these labs forever. My exclusive love relationship with my research has become more of a love-hate relationship of late, and, today, this seems to have morphed into a hate-only affair.

It’s normal, though a little unhealthy, but I’m going to confess: Today I hate my thesis. I hate every aspect of it – its topic, its style, its content, its ideas. Not only do they make me feel nauseous, I find them inherently repulsive. Strangely, this maddening repulsion manifests in my behaviour as a bittersweet kind of screw-it attitude, which makes me laugh disturbingly when things go wrong, sometimes do things wrong on purpose, and, most of all, my colleagues look at me as if I’m a rabid flesh-eating alien.

crazy-student

“I swear, dude, I’m like, totally fine!”

In my (probably biased and naive) mind, this research will never amount to anything, and, in comparison to the research of many of my colleagues and postdocs in this place, is inferior, boring, and useless. It’s also profoundly bizarre – located at the crossroads of psychology and a mismatched spectrum of other social sciences, it sits awkwardly in the middle of the road, no doubt liable to be squashed to bits by oncoming traffic. Other people’s research seems so simple, so elegant, so…neat. Mine, on the other hand, struggles to fit into any box. It’s difficult even for me to describe it in a way that makes sense, let alone explain how it might be useful for anything. I think it might have something to do with the fact that my work is wholly non-experimental, which is unusual in my department, which houses a string of high-tech labs up and down the hall just outside, where most of my colleagues spend the days running bamboozling, wires-coming-out-of-their-ears experiments and having experimental meetings to talk about experimental stuff. Because of my epistemological stance and patched-together interdisciplinary locatedness, I am a bit of an outsider! I guess I can’t blame them for being indifferent towards me.

Life is inherently unfair. I don’t believe it has to be that way, and I believe that if we – all of us together – resolved to eradicate injustice and inequality, we could do it. But, at this point at least, this is only likely to happen in an ideal world. PhDs are no exception to unfairness. Other people will have sexier research, geekier equipment, more celebrated publications than you. Their achievements will outshine yours and will be trumpeted louder and farther afield. There won’t necessarily be a justifiable reason for any of this – it will just be. You will try your best to soldier on in the academic jungle, but there will be times when you just think, screw it.
You will run away and hide in a cave – or, more likely, under your bed or at a bar – and sulk for a while. It will seem like the end of the world and a return to academia will feel like an absolute no-go.

Then, I think, you will resolve to come out again, and find a way to go on.

Today I’m back in the office.

And in a state of utter confusion.

Well, not confusion. It’s more that ubiquitous sense of blankness that’s been haunting me on and off for the last 6 months. I just feel drained of the excitement I had for my PhD when I first started it and am more inclined to just push myself to get through each day to the end now. I’m getting there, but progress seems slower than ever. I’ve got my analysis to finalise. I’ve got draft chapters to edit, and possibly even rewrite from scratch. I’ve got a postdoc proposal to develop and applications to prepare. I’ve got a viva in July for which I need to prepare myself mentally, and I am terrified of this because I am a diehard perfectionist and I am petrified of failing. And I’m supposed to be submitting in May. May, dammit!

I have no idea how other people do this, or whether I’m doing it right, or whether I’m on the track to complete and utter failure, or indeed whether my research, argument, or even entire thesis are of any intellectual value whatsoever.

I just don’t know.

When I ask other people (my supervisors, lab colleagues, people I meet at conferences and seminars), they have a habit of saying “You’ll be fine,” as if everything is going to be fine, no matter what. When people tell me I’ll be fine, it frustrates me because I’ll only be fine from other people’s perspectives – after all, they just go about their lives and observe me being fine. I, on the other hand, am the one actually doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine, and that feels kind of different from looking at me as an observer because, well, I’m the one doing the work in order to make sure I turn out fine.

It’s the work, you see, that is they key to fineness. If you don’t put in the work, you won’t be fine.

When people say “You’ll be fine,” maybe they mean that they’re sure I’ll be fine because they’re sure I’ll do the work to a high enough standard that ensures I will be fine. I don’t see how they can be sure of that. What if I suddenly catch on fire? What if I’m kidnapped? Sectioned under the Mental Health Act? Succumb to bubonic plague?

What if I just lose motivation and quit?

 What happens then? Am I still fine?

Right now, I’m less than three weeks away from entering a 3+ month period of self-imposed solitary confinement for the sole purpose of writing my thesis. Its skeleton is there, there’s some drabby flesh on it, but it needs rebuilding and perfecting. Crucial parts of it don’t even exist yet. When I think about how on earth I am going to get this together, I feel woozy and dazed and confused. But most of all blank.

I feel blanker than the blank Word document in front of me, blanker than the pure white sheets of notebook paper on my desk, blanker than the blankest blankity blankness, ever.

To think that by the beginning of May, this blankness is expected (by my supervisors, my examiners, my family, and just about everyone else holding their breath for me to graduate) to have been populated with ideas, arguments, words, sentences, charts, tables and diagrams, to be whirling with answers, critiques, suggestions, contradictions, definitions and discussions, and to be completely, totally, and utterly ready for the viva.

I’m not quite sure whether I’ll be fine, or even whether I’m fine right now. I feel more blank than fine. I’ve been sitting in this office 50 hours a week for 2 years. I’ve become part of the furniture. People hardly notice whether I’m there or not. I want to finish my thesis, have my viva, and leave. I don’t ever want to come back.

Today I’m back in the office.

I’m not confused, I’m just blank.

I spent the weekend rewriting some of my chapter outlines because I’d figured out that the chaotic scribbles, notes and corrections I’d added all over them in times of afterthought were preventing me from really seeing what the final product looked like. Now, I have new, revised chapter outlines for my first four chapters, and I’m about halfway through planning the fifth one. I’ll probably get to the sixth and final outline tomorrow. Maybe. Potentially. But I do pen-and-paper work at home. Right now, I am sitting at my desk in the office again, and my mind is completely blank. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

You see, that’s a problem with being nearly finished in a PhD programme. When you’re at the beginning, everything is new and exciting and you’re busy setting up your studies. When you’re in the middle, you’re busy running the studies, reading, and running to conferences. But when you get to the end, your studies are complete, you have no data to analyse, your supervisors never see you any more because you’re supposed to be writing, and you walk around like a ghost every day, quietly procrastinating on one pointless activity or another, all the while wondering what on earth it is you are meant to be doing. Life feels so…meaningless. As if you have no worthwhile purpose in it.

I know I’m going to submit in May. I know I’m going to do whatever it takes to have my thesis ready on time. I know I have to start now before it’s too late. I just don’t know how.

So I’ve taken to looking ahead at what my life is probably going to look like from now until I submit.

It’s probably going to go something like this:

From now until November 28th: Dragging myself into the lab to do data clean-up and preliminary analysis for my last study, and whipping up the results into a snazzy conference presentation for a conference in December.

November 29th to Christmas: Assessing the possibility probability of doing mop-up data collection to up my sample size, doing the full analysis, analysing another dataset I collected last summer, and writing up summary reports for both datasets.

Christmas/New Year: Notoriously avoiding all celebratory activities, people, shopping madness and social media to spend the winter break writing, and probably feeling paradoxically sorrowful that I’m all alone and nobody likes me.

January, February, and potentially March: Becoming a complete social recluse and writing, not even coming to the office any more for fear of running into my supervisors/reviewers/optimistic colleagues who always expect me to say I’m fine and would no doubt get uncomfortable if I burst into tears about not being able to write well, and editing, and daydreaming about how unreal my thesis is going to look when it’s printed and bound.

April and maybe the first half of May: Completely crashing and potentially going mad after spending three months in self-imposed solitary confinement while doing final editing and proofing and sending off the file for printing and binding.

Sometime in the rest of May: Submitting the thesis, breathing a huge sigh of relief that’s it over, and then starting to worry again when I remember my viva is in July.

Oh, to be an undergrad again!

I spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

…and I feel like I’m miles behind on my work and that I will never, ever do everything I need to do to be ready to submit my thesis.

When I turn the calendar over to a new month it always makes me worry that I haven’t achieved enough in the past month and now time seems to be rushing on at an unreal speed – so fast, in fact, that I hardly have time to keep up with the time, let alone all the work I’m supposed to be doing.

There’s just no time left. I’m submitting in May. Every day brings us closer to submission. And I’m in a state of complete chaos – confusion, exhaustion, and a small, fast diminishing supply of motivation.

Everything’s everywhere. I don’t know what I’m doing any more!

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!