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Yep.

I have already blogged about the similarities (according to a woman I once met at a conference) between PhDs and childbirth, though having munched my way through such a massive meal for no apparent reason, I see now the resemblance is uncanny. All these months, I’ve been eating fairly normally – lost a little weight, even – and now suddenly I seem to have an appetite that will not be satisfied. Graduation cravings, maybe?

More than that, though, as I was eating, I came to realise how much a PhD is a two-sided coin. I started this thing thinking it was all good – higher research makes you smarter, more analytical, more open-minded, and it helps you get a good paying job. A PhD, for those of us wanting to work in academia at least, is essentially a work visa to anywhere in the world.

These are all good things.

And yet, in bittersweet contradiction, PhDs make you stupid. I was reading the label on the back of a package of cookies yesterday, and at first misread the allergy warning as saying ‘Contains EEG [electroencephalography, a method of measuring electrical activity in the brain via electrodes attached to the scalp]’. “What?” I thought, and looked again. Then I realised it said ‘Contains EGG’. My immediate reaction? “That’s not how you write ‘EEG’!” It took a full minute or so before it dawned on me the damn word was egg.

My research isn’t even remotely related to EEG.

Then there’s the mad train of thought I had with my tacos. They put the mincemeat at the bottom of the shell, then add the lettuce, tomato, and cheese on top, putting each layer on top of the one under it, building upwards vertically. It looks better that way, yet when you take a bite out of the top, it contains only the salad fillings, because the meat is at the bottom. In order to get a quantity of all fillings in one mouthful, you then have to turn your head sideways and take a bite out of the side, which, as I found, leads to the nasty affliction known as taco rash on one side of the mouth, particularly after you bite in this way through five consecutive tacos. To solve this problem I set about creating a magnum opus (yes, this comes closer to being a magnum opus than my PhD thesis) – the ergonomically constructed taco. This involved setting the taco shell down sideways, spreading the mincemeat evenly across the whole bottom side, then layering each of the salad fillings evenly over it to create a homogeneously distributed filling mass.

Seriously, this is the kind of stuff I waste my (dubious) intelligence on.

Yesterday I had five tacos for dinner. Plus some cookies from the cookie packet warning me that they contain EEG brain waves. I am supposed to be a clever, sensible scientist with my wits about me. But that just isn’t the case. I have rarely come across a researcher or academic who did not, at some point, exhibit some noteworthy eccentricity or other. Because that is the nature of academia – it teaches sensibility, researches sensibility, yet it is seldom graced by sensible people.

Here’s to embracing the insanity…

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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.”

I came across a strangely delightful quote from Scott Fitzgerald today:

To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.
Poor, tragic Scott. I wonder if writing novels is as mentally exhausting as writing a thesis?
There are interesting parallels between the literary process and thesis-writing. The most obvious (to me) is that both cause irreversible madness. But more than that, when you think about how long it takes to write, and the lengths you have to go to just to get to a stage where you can write, you see the process is the same.
 
Sure, I will write the (almost) final draft of my thesis in three months, but to get to the stage where I can do that, I spent six months trying to work out what a PhD is all about, three months collecting and analysing data for my first study, nine months writing up my first study and running my second study, and another six months running my third study and coming back to trying to work out what a PhD is all about. I spent the best part of 2 years swimming in a mental sea of data – words, numbers, statistics, software packages, charts, tables and diagrams. I just swam around, trying to interpret it, and trying to make my interpretations actually make sense, and maybe even an original contribution to knowledge. Then there’s the fact that I conceived of the original idea for this whole project in the space of about 20 minutes.
 
If only I’d known what I was getting myself into.
 
No matter what sort of writers we are – artistic, academic, or a bizarre blend of both – there is a lot that goes into our work besides just writing the words. There’s a lot of thinking and a lot of data collection, and a lot of interpretation and reinterpretation and a lot of madness.
 
Struggling thesis writers, novelists, madmen and women – unite! We shall conquer these great seas of chaos and emerge brighter, stronger, more learned, at the helm of this mighty ship.
 

I’ve just spent the morning reading a whole pile of writing. Writing in papers, writing in journals, writing in my drafts and writing in other people’s drafts. There’s so much writing, I don’t know what to do with myself.

I can’t believe I have to produce 80,000 words of writing in my thesis. And that they actually have to make sense. And, preferably, a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

In my own limited experience of writing in academia – spanning not more than 5 or 6 years (yes, that’s a relatively short time in the academic bubble…I don’t know whether that makes me feel old or young) – I have always spent shocking amounts of time struggling uncomfortably through less than perfect drafts of papers only to find that I could not tolerate the imperfection any more, leading me to review my writing, figure out what was so imperfect about it, and then scrap the whole thing to start from scratch. It has, most usually, been this completely rewritten draft that I save for editing and submitting rather than any of the pages upon pages of imperfect material I wrote in the first place.

The trouble with this is that when I set out to write something perfectly the first time, it is impossible. The imperfections I suffer from most are waffling on about things that don’t matter, not coming to the point, and being unable to articulate my point in a way that conveys my intended meaning satisfactorily. I also tend to write long-winded sentences to convey what are essentially simple points, such that when I reread them I cannot even grasp my own meaning. This frustrates me enough to toss it all away and start afresh. At this point I realise it has happened again – I have written a whole imperfect draft only to trash it and write a new, more perfect one. Sure, the more perfect one is acceptable and can be moulded into something vaguely worth submitting, but it takes a whole lot of time and effort to get there, even though the time and effort spent on the end product itself is often only a fraction of the total time and effort I spend trying to get to that point.

So, what is my point?

I suppose my point is that I’ve come to a point where there is not much left to do in my PhD other than write my thesis. And that I am utterly terrified of doing this because the sheer magnitude of the task seems to make it impossible to accomplish, especially to the level of perfection I stubbornly insist on. I am petrified that I will fail to be discursive rather than descriptive, and that I will forget to include literature that is essential – or, even worse, that I will fail to even know of the existence of some important citation or other. It makes me shudder to think that 6 whole chapters of writing – paragraph upon paragraph upon paragraph – are waiting for me to draft, read, denounce, redraft, edit, tweak, trash and draft again. I’m scared that I will not be able to finish on time, that May will come and I still won’t have anything to show my supervisors – not even a working draft. I will be disowned by my supervisors and evicted from my office, and left cold and penniless on the streets, never to see the holy light of academia ever again, and will die a recluse under some university cafeteria table, muttering statistical formulae and critical theory gibberish to myself.

If you’re newly starting a PhD, be warned: Yes, the process is rewarding (occasionally, eventually), but there are also many times – long periods, in fact – when the road ahead of you looks never-ending, and it can be difficult to keep going because you will often be unsure how to do so.

It’s fine…I’m going to get out of this ditch – I just don’t know how long it’s going to take.

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

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