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Wow!

I’ve all but completed my last round of data collection. Actually, I’d all but completed it yesterday, and today I have just been sitting at my desk, shuffling papers, checking emails, reading the news, pretending I’m working when really I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

Actually, that’s wrong. I know what I’m supposed to be doing, I just can’t resist the magnetism of procrastination and so I let my next important goal – writing my thesis – slide while I look busy but essentially bum around doing nothing.

Well, maybe that’s wrong too. I have done a few productive things today. For example:

  • I did a preliminary check of my data. My sample size isn’t as large as I’d hoped it would be – actually just over a quarter of the size I had on a similar project last year – but I’ll take what I can get. I also had a look at the institutional and geographical distribution of the data to get an idea of what the comparison groups are going to be like.
  • Then, I ran an errand for my supervisor. It was a minor errand, but someone had to do it!
  • I also dealt with a series of emails that urgently needed dealing with, mainly because they were from people making enquiries about my data collection, specifically, regarding circulating my study information, which I really need them to do or else I can’t get my data.

Despite doing all these things though, all in all it has been an unproductive day because I just haven’t got as much done as I usually do. It’s my own fault, but it bothers me profoundly and I feel bad for it. I can’t stand it.

This always happens to me when I’ve been working on a long, repetitive part of my project for weeks or months on end – when I finally complete it, I have a dazed period when I come to the office and spend the days wondering what I’m supposed to do next. My mind is blank, and paradoxically in a state of mad, whirling chaos. I can’t go forward because I don’t know which way I’m facing.

And it takes a little while to figure out where to go next – even if you already have a plan. Believe me, when you’re doing a PhD, if you’ve got the slightest bit of brains, you always have a plan. You have a plan for the day, a plan for the week, a plan for the quarter, and a plan for the entire project. You have a Plan B, and a Plan C. And when you’re doing a PhD, believe me, it’s true, your plans are always changing, altering, mutating, going in circles, and falling through altogether. External commitments, emergencies, absurdities come along and throw your plans in the trash. Everything is in a constant process of metamorphosis. So as soon as you get to the end of one confusing period of work, you have to stop a while and get your head together before the next one begins.

Take this for instance: I’ve just finished my prolonged campaign to collect data for my last study, and next, I know, I need to write the remaining chapters of my thesis, edit the existing ones, and get a working draft together for my supervisors. And yet, in an absurd contradiction, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

Really. Not the slightest.

Here’s another rant about food in the world of PhD students.

Actually, it’s more about the apparent lack of food.

Having worked 8 to 10 hours a day in a shared PhD office for the last 2.5 years, I’ve increasingly noticed the strange feeding habits of some of the colleagues I work alongside, and in all honesty, if I followed their example, I’m sure I’d die. In the space of the 6 to 8 hours some people spend in this place, they seem to survive on just a couple small snacks, and sometimes on nothing at all.

We have one colleague, for example, who shows up at about 10am and is in the office all day, until about 5 or 6pm, and habitually eats nothing throughout the whole time.

Seriously.

Then there are the ‘grazers’. Grazers are people who seem to float around the lab working in an unstructured fashion and just eat little bits and pieces at odd times. We’ve had so many of these in the last couple of years – one who used to show up at around 11am, immediately have a coffee, and then eat a sandwich at around 4pm (a bizarrely-timed meal I call lunner), another who would show up any time between 9 and 10am and immediately have a huge sub for breakfast, followed by sips of coke for the rest of the day, and yet another who would spend the entire day testing in the lab, walking back and forth to meet participants, and having long chats to postdocs in the hallways, surviving the whole time on coffee. Then of course, there are the ones who eat nothing except small pre-packaged salads for lunch, even if they are at work for the whole day.

I just don’t understand how you can do research when you haven’t eaten anything all day.

I’m sure most people around this place would be less grumpy and more productive if they actually had a proper lunch break in the middle of the day, and actually ate something nutritious and filling during it. In fact, I hypothesise this would exponentially enable more research to be done, and more PhDs to be successfully completed sooner.

In the meantime, I’ll just try to smooth my incredulity at grad students on Victoria’s Secret angel diets and have some lunch.

Yesterday I did absolutely no work on my PhD.

At all.

I mean, usually I’ll at least make the effort to open one of my draft documents and stare at it for a while, willing myself to write something, even if it’s just a sentence or two, or I’ll read some papers from my literature folder and will myself to come up with some amazing new research idea. But yesterday I did nothing at all. I spent the morning bumming around on the internet, wandering aimlessly from one site to another, just looking at different things out of curiosity. Then I had lunch. After lunch I was exhausted from doing so much nothing all morning, so I napped for about 4 hours. Then I spent a couple hours reading a humorous self-help book (I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me!, by Stuart Smalley, but really by Al Franken – a brilliant collection of pick-me-up diary entries). Then I had dinner. After dinner, I watched Ellen, Jay Leno, and Conan. Then I went to bed.

And all through the day I couldn’t believe how exhausted I felt by having done nothing. It’s like I’ve been without inspiration for my PhD for so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have that get-up-and-go attitude towards my work. Right now I’m in a place that’s eerily quiet, except for my own inner voice telling me that hope seems to be fading, and misty that I cannot even see what’s around me.

And the one thing that’s constantly in my mind, day and night, is that I want to, have to, submit in May; that there is so much work still to be done; and that I have absolutely no idea how to do it.

Yes, this is me, the one who used to work 85-hour weeks on my PhD, enthusiastically planning studies, writing up papers, and dreaming about the next conference in my diary. Well, OK, I still work 85-hour weeks, but most of those hours are spent worrying about my PhD rather than actually doing anything productive.

Where O where did that energetic young lass go!? I feel like I’m a decade older than I am. I guess PhDs age you, like wine. I’m just not sure the result is as sought-after. Hmm…

Yes. Today I blog from the quiet, misty depths of complete, unadultered inspirationlessness.

I have an ideal ‘me’ in my mind I’d like to be. In those inspirational Hollywood films where a protagonist struggles and struggles, and then finally finds a way to succeed. In those time-lapse montages they have, of the protagonist working away, diligently, with intense concentration, we get lost in the soundtrack of slow, yet fast-forwarded progress. In Misery, the trapped Paul Sheldon sits at his typewriter, tapping away tirelessly at the keys, churning out page after page of work, stretching, grimacing, straining his neck, churning out more pages. Eventually, he finishes the book.

Mine is still hopelessly at its beginning.

I guess I’m blogging about this because I feel better blogging than not doing anything at all. At least this gives me half a chance to reflect on how I feel and what I think, and maybe, how I could find a way to get out of this annoying ditch.

I really just want to get out!

Here are some of the strategies I’ve tried:

  • Constructing those tables that list every section and subsection of a given thesis chapter, their main argument, the lesser points within that argument, and the evidence to be cited there in;
  • Just free writing without any planning;
  • Writing in a casual style as if I were explaining the material to an interested lay person;
  • Typing on the computer;
  • Writing with pen and paper, old school;
  • Writing at my desk;
  • Writing on the balcony with a sea view;
  • Writing in my journal randomly, alternating at will between my PhD, life, and my PhD again.

Annoyingly, none of the above has worked lastingly, and I just don’t feel I have produced as much work to as high a standard as I could or should have. I feel I’ve been mucking around, without a clear goal in mind, except that I want to finish my PhD, and that I haven’t really been doing much to achieve that.

Just like the grass always looks greener on the neighbour’s side of the fence, I guess everyone else’s PhD looks better from here compared to mine. And as much as I know it’s a misconception, it really does seem like everyone else has better ideas, is doing better research, has published more papers, is writing more words, paragraphs, and chapters, and is just generally more worthwhile than I am as a researcher.

So there.

Now, I know that’s not true. I know, and believe, that we – all PhD students – are about as good as each other. That’s why there are generally fewer classification systems for doctorates than there are for, say, undergraduate or Masters degrees: Because it’s generally accepted that whoever is smart enough to start a PhD in the first place, be fired with enthusiasm for it, keep working on it diligently even after that enthusiasm fades, endure the late nights, early mornings, all-nighters, cracked knuckles, sprained spines, throbbing eyeballs, splitting migraines, and aching wrists that come with the job, take the criticism, defy the marking-undergraduate-papers-induced insanity, write the thesis, and somehow make it to the viva alive, will get their PhD, and there isn’t really much point in classifying different levels of PhDs.

So where am I going with all of this?

Well, I have no idea. That’s what I love about blogging – it’s perfectly acceptable to have no idea what you’re trying to say. Unlike writing your thesis. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

From the quiet misty depths of inspirationlessness, signing off now.

Peace.

Nothing’s going on.

That’s what it feels like when I look at my life – that I’m leading a sort of routine, normal existence, working on my work every day, running rudimentary errands, seeing people, writing bits of my thesis. I’m busy, yet when I think about my life as a whole, it feels like whatever I’m doing isn’t really worthwhile in the long run. It feels like it’s going to end up being insignificant to the big wide world, and some day, I’ll quietly disappear and my work will disappear quietly with me.

As far as the world is concerned, nothing’s going on.

It’s been a rough year since June 2011. A close friend died, I had family issues, then an uncle died, I had issues with my supervisors, then an exhausting winter collecting data and getting my first paper published, then the discouraging restlessness of February, snow, and solitary meditation about all that’s wrong with the world, and last week my great godfather died. And all the while life has continued, as if nothing’s happening, and I’ve been functioning perfectly and keeping up appearances for everyone around me, to keep everyone happy and not let them down, and feeling this deep, relentless sadness inside that’s a battle I choose to fight on my own.

I’m not a people person in any sense of the phrase and I made the conscious decision to fight this battle on my own.

Totally on my own. I don’t want help or treatment or drugs or friends feeling sorry for me. You’re a psychologist for crying out loud.

Looking at one of the friends I love most in the world, and where she is now, I sometimes wonder if I’m headed in the same direction. The black dog breeds, and its offspring go out into the world and attach themselves to other people, make a home with them, and keep them company. There are so many people who suffer this right now, so many wounds to tend and hearts to heal, I wonder when I’ll have time to get to all of them. I won’t, I know.

Right now I feel like I’m at a crossroads between sadness and hope. There’s no way you can choose one path and move away from the other. A part of you walks along each.

And when you look at me from outside, as an outsider, there I am, as busy as ever, enthusiastically tending to my all-important PhD, perky and helpful and cracking jokes to passers by. You’d never guess I’ve experienced all this. And I like it that way. I like keeping my despair to myself and making people believe that nothing is happening. Everything’s fine.

Nothing’s going on. Everything’s fine.

Friend of WikiLeaks

June 2017
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The Final Countdown

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