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I had a great meeting with my second supervisor yesterday. I think retired life agrees with her – she was in a better mood than I’d ever seen her in before.

We talked about my analysis together, talked stats, went through the calculations I’d made. It turns out my stats are right, but it’s difficult to justify why the effects I’ve found should be of theoretical interest. My supervisor asked if I’d looked at some of my other variables instead – ones I had originally been interested in, but didn’t bother exploring very much because the nature of the data didn’t fit the tests I could do and, more importantly, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a way to change the nature of the data. Of course, it turns out there is, and now, thanks to her, I know how to do it.

I love talking about statistics. The philosophy of statistics is bizarre, ironic, and contradictory. Statistics can be mind-blowing – just when you think you have the answer, it escapes you. There are strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons to everything. There are assumptions and conditions in which you can violate assumptions. There are multiple ways of doing the same thing, and multiple ways of deciding which way to do it. I still have the undergraduate reflex of flinching when I see a significant p value, but I have matured enough to put my excitement to one side and check other indicators of significance, and dilute my enthusiasm with caution for sample sizes, skewed distributions, and Type I errors.

For all her coldness, I have a great second supervisor. She knows her stuff, and she likes it when you share her passion for stats. We had some great ideas, and she showed me how to do things I hadn’t even thought about before. My final study was going to go in some bizarre, barely-justfiable direction I wasn’t even sure I was interested in, simply because that was the only area in which I could find results worth reporting. Now I see results worth reporting aren’t merely the significant ones – they’re the ones that spark theoretical interest. I’m not going to do what I thought I had to do – I’m going to go back to what I was originally interested in, and reanalyse that data. I didn’t find much of interest in it the first time round, but, thanks to my supervisor, and the beauty of stats, I find there are things in my data worth talking about.

Wow.

This is a great feeling.

I’m in the game again! Maybe I’ll even get my head around this thing!

My supervisor is going to be here in just over 4 hours. Perhaps I should clarify – my second supervisor, with whom I am meeting this afternoon, is a retired emeritus professor and lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere, a good three hours’ commute away from London. Fortunately, after several distasteful altercations with our head of department, she got permission to claim for travel expenses to come to London once in a while and discuss stats with me. She wouldn’t hear of me being given a replacement supervisor. “I will supervise you no matter what,” she said. God bless.

Except that now that she lives three hours away (on a good day), however much she has much more time to spend on our own research, I feel guilty about calling her in to see me because of all the time and stress it involves. And now that I have called her in for our meeting today, the pressure is on to show her that it was worth it!

My second supervisor is a little different from my first, although ironically, the two have known each other for donkey’s years and are the best of friends. My second supervisor is very focused, likes to get down to business immediately, and hates it when you make a fuss about anything. Until recently, she seemed to be irritated even by simple social conventions like saying “How are you?”, at the start of a meeting. I always felt silly asking her this, even though I would ask out of genuine interest rather than just paying lip service to British politeness, because she would give me a cold reply like “OK.” and not even return the enquiry. Fortunately though, perhaps because we have had some very in-depth debates about stats and psychometric theory in which she really seemed to enjoy herself, she has warmed up a bit and now actually asks me how I am back.

Now that’s progress.

Anyway, the fact that she has warmed to me isn’t the point here. The point is that she has a very focused way of working in which she likes to examine things in detail in advance, have a think about it, and only then hold a meeting. I’ve known this for some time and have, since then, always emailed her my datafiles and notes in advance. Whilst this helps her understand my questions better, and allows her to come prepared, I’ve found I feel very stressed between emailing her my stuff and meeting her, simply because of my anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I imagine she’ll find in my work. I keep thinking, “I’m a psychologist. Psychologists have rigorous academic training in statistics and research methods from year 1 right up to PhD level. I’m supposed to be on the ball with everything stats related. And here I am still having to look up ANOVAs in a textbook! I’m hopeless! My supervisor is going to eat me alive! I’ll never amount to anything! My thesis is going to suck! I’m going to fail my viva! And end up homeless and penniless on the streets!”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

These irrational thoughts are still stuck in my head even now, as I write this. It’s maddening. I know I have put in a good effort to try my hand at the analysis, so as not to make my supervisor feel like I am dumping my work at her feet and saying “Here. Just tell me the answer.” She hates that. She hates dumb, needy students coming to her and begging her to just tell them the answer, or, worse, to actually do their work for them. But still, I feel like I’m not going to be able to live up to her standards, like I have not done enough work to impress her, and like I am going to be left feeling like an idiot – not just for not being smart enough, but for wasting her time.

I have 4 hours to get my head straightened. I have to review my analysis, make sure all my datafiles are saved on my flashdrive, reread my notes, pick up the keys to the meeting room, and get everything set up early. I concede these things will not actually do much to get my head straightened, but they will, hopefully, distract me from the madness that’s brewing inside.

Disclaimer: No particular logic was employed in entitling or composing this post. I take no responsibility for any confusion, incredulity, or insanity that may result from reading it.

Today is such a blah sort of day. For those of you who may still be at the start of your PhDs, trust me, towards the end, just about every day will be a blah sort of day. That means you will have a seemingly endless number of things to do, but, rather than worry and try to keep up with them as you did in the beginning, you will take on a relaxed, apathetic kind of attitude that will still ensure you get things done eventually, but will freak out everyone around you in the process. It being a blah day, however, you will not care much about this, and will continue blahing around until there is blah no more.

This being my first and, so far, only time doing a PhD, I am still uncertain of how this actually works, but I will make sure I continue blogging about it to inform future generations of PhD-goers.

I had a quick-catch-up-before-Christmas-and-the-foreseeable-future meeting with my third supervisor on Saturday (yes, we occasionally come in to the office on weekends…academia is such a passionate place) and in all honesty I came out with more questions than when I went in. So many different things to chase up, look up, finish up. I have a meeting with my second supervisor tomorrow. No doubt that’s going to be just as chaotic, stirring up another list of things to do and not doing much to resolve others. Why is it that after two and a half years of virtually non-stop work and countless attempts at early preparation and drafting, my last few months of being a PhD student seem more hectic than ever? Sometimes I get the feeling I have the completely wrong idea of when this is going to end – it doesn’t end when you enter write-up, not when you submit, not when you have your viva, not even when you do your corrections, but when you get your certificate in the post. When you’ve got your certificate in the post, that’s it, you’ve got your PhD. That’s when all the PhD-related chaos finally comes to an end.

Of course, that’s when the postdoc-related chaos begins. But I don’t fancy writing about that right now.

Today is a blah sort of day. I have more on my ever-rolling To-Do list than I did last week, even though I thought the opposite would be the case. For my supervisory meeting tomorrow, I have to re-run all my analyses ready to show my supervisor, and track down some admin forms for her. For my other supervisors, I have a list of things to run after from our meeting on the weekend – mainly papers and other literature, but I also have to do the reading and actually work some kind of interpretation into my analysis, because field research is only ever quasi-experimental. Oh, the joys of social science!

Apart from all that, I also have to do that little job that’s been pushed back continuously for several months now…what was it again? Ah yes, writing my thesis.

Too bad you can’t write blah blah blah in that.

The meeting I had with my supervisor yesterday was the best we have ever had.

Like ever.

I told her everything I had resolved to tell her – that I was completely lost, blank, confused, and didn’t have a clue what I should do about it. I had expected her to purse her lips and fidget uncomfortably, disappointed that I wasn’t my usual brilliant, always-knows-what-to-do self. But she didn’t. She just told me she was surprised this hadn’t happened to me sooner and that it’s completely normal to lose the will to live at some point in a PhD.

Then she asked me to summarise the biggest thing I was confused about.

I explained that my biggest fear about the months ahead is the prospect of (mis)understanding. I am afraid of misunderstanding my work – the rationale and aims of my research, the meaning of my studies, and the integration of my project into the spectrum of existing literature. I am afraid of misunderstanding other people’s work, and of writing my thesis ‘wrong’ because I’ve misunderstood how to write a thesis ‘correctly’. I am terrified of misunderstanding every premise my argument is based on and of not making it through my viva alive because my examiners will reveal how badly I’ve misunderstood everything.

Then she said we’d just talk through the misunderstanding until we understood.

I showed her the chapter outlines I’ve been working on – the ones that I’ve divided into sections, lists of topics, and brief notes about citations and key points – and she actually spread them out across her desk and listened as I talked her through them. I was amazed at how much easier it was to make sense of my confusing thoughts as I explained them to her, going through each outline, one chapter at a time. I showed her my analysis and pointed out the confusing results. She just looked at them and said, have you considered blah blah blah? And I just sat there, speechless, unable to understand why I hadn’t thought of that before.

In the space of two hours I went from a mad, chaotic mass of brain cells to a calm, motivated, valid human being. More importantly, many of my formerly confusing ideas are now starting to gain some clarity. And with the ones we didn’t find an answer to, I have clear actions to take to follow up. In short, now I understand, and I know what to do.

Wow.

Today is like a revelation. After long months of soldiering stubbornly through work and blankness I didn’t understand, now I see.

I think I’m going to make it after all.

I’m due for a meeting with my supervisor this afternoon. I don’t know how it’s going to go, because I think this meeting is going to be a lot different from any other we’ve had over the last 3 years. Usually, we’re very focused, and can tick our way through a list of items on the agenda without getting too immersed in anything. We can do that because usually, my progress is brilliant and everything’s fine. We’re usually done in less than 2 hours and we get through everything we planned to talk about. There’s a lot of “Well done!” and “You’re doing fine!” and other compliments that give me a spring in my step for the day.

But today is different!

Today I’m going to walk into my supervisor’s office, sit down, and tell her I’m stuck. I’m going to tell her I’ve arrived at a point where I’ve just about finished my final analysis, have half my thesis written in draft, and am less than 6 months away from submitting, and yet my mind is completely blank and I am utterly confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m going to say that I’m good at running stats on the computer and reviewing the literature, but I cannot for the life of me make sense of the results or even understand what it is I’m looking for or want to find out.

I’m going to confess I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on, that I haven’t done anything even bordering on productive in the last 3 or 4 days, and that even last week and the week before all I did was some data clean-up and some analyses I don’t understand.

Basically, I’m going to declare I am a useless, hopeless failure and will never stand a chance of finishing my thesis, surviving my viva, or getting my PhD.

At this point my supervisor will probably butt in (as much as I love her to bits she does have this little irritating habit) and insist this is completely untrue and that I can, and in fact must, finish this project, because I have a long and fruitful career ahead of me during which I will become a professor by 30, publish 500 papers, attract billions of pounds of research funding, accumulate a lab full of postdocs the size of a small army, and generally be a critically acclaimed academic celebrity internationally recognised for my profound and unquestionable expertise in a tiny, obscure patch of research that nobody, not even the big cheeses in my topic area, has ever heard of, nor would have even the slightest inclination to be interested in finding out more about.

Blah blah blah.

This is all great.

The fact is that none of this is going to happen until and unless I write my thesis. Conceded, it isn’t going to happen anyway, but if I want to at least upgrade my chances from impossible to implausible, I’ve got to get myself back into a disciplined work routine that will put me on track to finishing. This prospect is extremely daunting when I think about the fact that the two main things I have left to do before I finish – interpreting and writing – are the ones that make me the most nervous in the research process. I find interpreting data terrifying. I have to interpret not just the meaning of my own results, but link that with the results other people have obtained, and I become acutely aware that I risk misinterpreting my results, or, worse, misinterpreting other people’s results, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of being criticised my them for failing to understand their work properly. Following interpretation, I get to writing it all up, which is tedious and frustrating. Just when you think you’ve written it all out clearly, you re-read it only to find your text unclear, long-winded, or unable to convey your key message concisely enough. Once you’ve fixed all that, then up come the typos, the grammar errors, the formatting imperfections, and hey presto, it’s the perfect wall for any perfectionist to bang their head against.

An immediate example of this occurring is the fact that my first thought upon finishing that last sentence was “you can’t finish a sentence with a preposition!”

I have no idea what’s going to happen at the meeting. Right now I feel blank – the same blankness I’ve been feeling, in immediate memory, for at least 2 weeks, and probably the same blankness that I’ve been describing as ‘confusion’ or ‘inspirationlessness’ in the last 6 months or so. It’s just a general loss of mental energy and enthusiasm for my work – something my other supervisor has told me she experienced towards the end of her PhD as well – a mental state in which you walk around, sit at your desk, eat, sleep, and breathe with a relentless “WTF??” spaciness in your head that seems to prevent any kind of intellectually productive or progressive thoughts from entering or being created.

It’s maddening.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so blank, confused, inspirationless, and mad in my life. I’ve come to a standstill in this PhD. I’m standing, thoughtless and speechless, months away from submission, and I have no idea what to do or think about anything related to anything.

It’s just…ok, I’m going to stop typing now.

Having grown up in suburban Melbourne, I was never socialised into the North American Thanksgiving culture, although I learned a lot about it subconsciously from watching countless feel-good Hollywood movies in which families would feast on roast turkey and pumpkin pie and the snow would be falling outside.

As much as Thanksgiving has become a commercialised holiday for many people – just like Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and all the others – I think the spirit of the celebration is a worthwhile principle and that we should all take time to acknowledge the good things we are blessed with.

When I was little I was very shy at school and refused to speak to people when they said hello. The process of just making polite conversation petrified me and filled me with dread. Over the years, and especially since I started university, I’ve become a lot more talkative because I am often in situations where I have to talk to people in order to do my job – like conferences, seminars, lectures, meetings and lab tours.

I get to my office each morning earlier than anyone else. If I can make it, I’m usually at my desk by 8am – often earlier. There are no academics around in the early morning, no postdocs, no teaching staff. The early morning is a time when the university is populated by ‘invisible’ people. People like cleaners, security staff, maintenance personnel. People who don’t really exist because none of the ‘real’ inhabitants of the university see them during regular working hours.

When I walk onto the campus in the morning I say good morning to the security guard at reception. I say good morning to the cleaner guy in the baseball cap who mops the entrance. I say good morning to the fire marshall who walks around testing the fire alarms, and to the cleaner women who push wheelie bins through my building, and to the guy who changes the bin liners in my office. I say good morning to all the invisible people I see.

This morning I said good morning to the security guard at reception. Usually, he says good morning back and asks me how I am. Then he opens the automatic gate for me to walk through, to save me having to fish out my swipecard. This morning he did these things too. But he said something else. He said he appreciated that I took time to say good morning each day and acknowledge him and that it was a nice change from the staff who trudge past without even looking. Then he walked away.

I just stood there for a minute, speechless.

It’s amazing what experiences you can have at odd times, when you’re least expecting it, at times when it’s quiet and other people are not there and the people who are there feel more at ease to tell you what’s on their minds. Invisible people, who are never seen by so many of us.

I have been amazed at this encounter all morning and it has caused me to think a lot. I am amazed that the simple gesture of saying good morning to this man each day has caused him to make such an interesting, thought-provoking comment to me.

I am thankful that I have been able to be nice to staff at my university who are never seen by the majority.

I am thankful that I have had a great opportunity to access education to the highest levels and to have been supported by the kindness and generosity of my family.

I am thankful for my friends in Melbourne and elsewhere across the world for their good humour and companionship.

I am thankful that I am in good health and that I am on track to finishing my PhD.

I am thankful to people who read my blog for hearing what I have to say and I hope some of it might strike them as useful, interesting, or maybe even funny.

…What are you thankful for?

Esperanto’s my last resort!

The external examiner saga continues. My supervisor finally arrived back from an emergency trip overseas, and, upon looking up the background information I’d sent her last week, declared the external I’d suggested to be “The One”.

Yes. The One.

She’s not a psychologist, not even a scientist, and yet, she’s The One.

It’s all getting a bit dramatic now.

Anyway, my other supervisor has now sent a formal invitation to the professor and we’re waiting for a response. She only sent it yesterday afternoon but I’ve found it’s constantly been popping in and out of my mind, wondering whether she’s read it yet, what she might think when she reads it, how she’s going to respond. It feels hard to concentrate on what I should actually be doing, which is finishing off yesterday’s lecture slides, going to a meeting with a colleague I’m supposed to be lecturing for, and getting a move on with my data collection.

I’m afraid it’s going to be a huge hit to my academic ego to get another examiner rejection, so I’m really hoping this professor will accept. The again, if she declines, I’ll be launched into another bout of rampant searching and mental chaos until my supervisors and I can decide on an alternative. And that’s even though we already have alternatives!

 

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The Final Countdown

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