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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.

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Well, isn’t this some nice deja vu. Another month has flown by and, although I have made some progress towards getting my PhD, the pessimist in me says it’s small compared to the huge amounts of time I feel I have spent procrastinating. How true that is, I don’t know, but I certainly feel I haven’t accomplished as much as I could or should have.

This is me, the one my supervisors say is ‘brilliant’ and should have gotten her PhD two years ago.

The other day I signed up to PhinisheD.org, an international forum for postgrads who are in the writing-up stages of their research. Taking a cyber-stroll through the various threads and posts, it’s surprising how much other thesis writers’ struggles resemble my own – everything from inspirationlessness to blankness to states of complete chaos. Moreover, I’ve come to appreciate there are many with much bigger problems than me – mad supervisors, evil examiners, and complete cluelessness in the field of self-organisation…no, wait, I have that too.

When I think about everything that’s happened in my PhD in the last 2-and-a-bit years, it blows my mind. There have been times when I’ve felt like I’ve hit rock bottom. But believe me, there really always are people who are worse off. To borrow a quote from Jennifer Aniston, there’s rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then me.

Today is Monday. It’s past 10am and it’s still unusually quiet. There’s a couple interns at their desks and a postdoc down the hall. And me. Typing away incessantly and producing these words that I’m not even sure make sense to anyone. If I have helped anyone, even the slightest bit, with anything I have ever posted about, then that’s an accomplishment for me.

I just wonder if I have helped myself, at all! Because I still feel as confused as ever before.

I just keep reminding myself the end is near and I’m getting there. We are all getting there. And one day, not so far down the line, we will find ourselves saying, “Well, here I am. It’s done.”

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.

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.

Everything is shaken up today. Like one of James Bond’s ubiquitous vodka martinis.

First up: My preferred internal has provisionally agreed to examine my thesis. This is great. Here’s the downside: He can’t make July. Or August. Instead, he has offered June, September, or October. June is cutting it a bit fine for me, and September and October seem so far down the line I’m afraid I could lose all motivation by then.

Is this news good or bad?

One of the primary reasons why Chekhov set himself apart from other 19th century Russian literary artists is the fact that his characters (especially the ones in his plays) are neither good nor bad. You watch the plays, read and reread the scripts, try to work out if Ivanov is a hero or a villain. The truth is he is neither. Chekhov set out to show his audiences that humans – and life itself – are neither all good nor all bad. They are, instead, impossibly complex, sometimes tending towards goodness and sometimes towards evil.

If life is, like Ivanov, impossibly complex, then try my examiners!

Next: If my supervisors and I agree to take on my preferred internal, we would need to decide whether we will take him on for the sooner viva, in June, or the later one, in September. What we decide will then have a knock-on effect on my thesis submission date, which, if we take the June option, would mean I might even have to submit in April. That’s really cutting it fine. But let’s say I do manage to submit early. Then, there’s the issues of finding and agreeing with a new external, whom we haven’t even decided on yet, and chance being that this person can make a June viva. What if they can’t? Then we’re stuck till September for my internal to be available again. And then what? What if my external (whoever that is) isn’t available in September? Then what?

Sometimes I look at all the postdocs and lecturers and tenured professors around the department and am struck with awe at how they ever managed to get two examiners together at the same time in the same place to conduct their vivas. It’s a one in a million chance and they managed it. People with PhDs all over Europe manage it every year.

Maybe I’m just not as smart as them?

Maybe I’m going to fail the whole thing?

Then what?

It’s quiet in the office today. There’s an intern typing calmly away on her Mac. Some postdocs are passing to and fro in the corridor outside, going about their business. There’s the muffled laughter of undergrads on their way to lectures outside. Life is idyllic, just like any other day. I, too, am calm. I am quiet and typing the last lines of this post at my desk. Yet inside I’m in turmoil. I’m trying to reconcile the impossible chaos of my immediate future in academia with the equally impossible chaos of…I don’t know. Lovelust maybe, or more likely wanderlust. Just the increasingly strong impulse to be…free.

Now that he’s spoken, I’m reminded that I am, actually, trying to finish my PhD, and that I should probably get on with it.

So what’s happened in the fortnight since I returned to the office?

I had resolved to begin drafting out chapters and collecting my last bit of data immediately, but for a few different reasons, I haven’t been moving as quickly as I’d hoped. Firstly, I confess there’s been some procrastination. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by all the different things that need my attention that I can’t decide which one I should start with and how I should go about finishing. So all of them stay unattended to, and I wallow in the misery of feeling inefficient and incapable.

Secondly, I’ve realised it’s meaningless to start collecting data immediately, because since university students comprise my target population, I’d be wasting my time in searching for them when the semester has only just started. Undergraduates are milling around everywhere at the moment, like headless chickens, trying to find lecture theatres, working out timetabling abbreviations (“What does ‘TBA’ mean? What does ‘TBA’ mean??” one was screeching yesterday) and getting frustrated upon finding out they actually need to reach into their pocket, extract their student card, and swipe it on the card reader before the automatic door will open for them. What a drag. So I’m waiting till next week before I start my hopefully-not-much-longer-than-6-weeks surveying.

Another reason I can’t seem to move faster with my work is this feeling of not being ready. Chatting with a resident postdoc yesterday, I suddenly realised how unaccustomed I am to talking about my ‘thesis’, my ‘examiners’, my ‘viva’, and my ‘career’. These are things that happen towards the tail end of PhDs. I’ve become so used to being at the beginning and in the middle of my PhD, I can’t get my head around the end of it. What’s it like to actually have a fully written, edited, proofed and bound thesis? What’s it like to come face to face with your examiners? And have a viva? And, God forbid, what about my career? I’ve been a full time student since the age of four – I don’t know a thing about careers! I guess this is what causes many a PhD student nearing completion to dilly-dally and drag their feet, feeling comfortable with the way things are and needing a little more time to consider what they want to do next.

But we just don’t live in a world like that any more. We don’t have time to dilly-dally. While we’re dilly-dallying, other PhD go-getters, who aren’t necessarily smarter than us, but just more ambitious, are already out there, throwing themselves into competitive jobs, publishing, presenting, networking, globetrotting and getting promoted.

What a drag.

And then there’s this talk of postdocs. I always thought I’d take up a lectureship at the end of my PhD, and live happily ever after. Now I’m not so sure. I like research, and there are continuations of my PhD research that I’d like to do after I finish. And with all respect to lecturers, at least the ones I’ve seen, they work long hours for average pay and spend so much time managing ‘unskilled’ research methods courses they hardly have a moment to do research or even teach on specialist courses. I’m not sure I want that – I don’t want to have done all this research I’m really interested in, only to spend the next 3 to 6 years of my life teaching undergrads what a variable is. I respect that someone’s got to do it. I just don’t want it to be me.

Oh, woe to us on the brink of thesis submission. There is just so much confusion.

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The Final Countdown

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