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As a psychologist who thinks she almost has her PhD, I’m conscious that I’m being a little conceited when I say I can redefine chaos theory. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.

I can redefine chaos theory.

Right now, less than 6 months away from the (scheduled) end of my PhD, I am up to my neck in data, analyses and literature that need reading, re-reading, interpreting and writing, up to my eyeballs in anxiety about how I’m actually going to put my thesis together and have a fighting chance of passing my viva in July, and just about buried under my incredulity at being asked to teach a workshop series for 11 weeks next semester to a group of rowdy undergraduates. On top of all that, I also increasingly need to think about my life after my PhD (assuming I actually finish my PhD at some point, which still seems impossible at times) and keep up with a host of irritating errands that seem to keep popping up…like eating and sleeping. And showering. I seem to need to keep showering. According to my mum, these bizarre errands form part of something known as ‘everyday life’.


Anyway, what I’m trying to illustrate here is that apart from the chaos of all of the above, I very often feel at a loss with regards to my work because my mind is in a state of chaos as well. This is especially annoying when my supervisors, whom I otherwise adore, tell me with apparent admiration that I am such an organised person. Actually, I have been told I am organised by quite a few people since I started grad school – at least two of my lab colleagues, a professor in another department whose research methods seminars I took for a semester, two of my three supervisors, the Dean of my department, and that bloke from Queensland who processed my passport renewal application at the Aussie high commission in London a couple years ago.

I’m telling you, people, I may seem the picture of organisation on the outside, but my mind is like a minefield littered haphazardly with all manner of academic and non-academic junk such that the phenomenological Me wandering through it in a vain attempt to understand myself and the significance of my work (if it has any significance at all) has frequently to jump, hop, swerve and somersault through the mess in order to navigate it, and even so does not make much progress in comprehending it.

I mean, a mind that can even produce a sentence like the one just above has got to be in for trouble when it comes to writing a thesis – a long, complex document that desperately requires a clear, logical, flowing structure and narrative.

More chaos to be added to my week:

Tuesday: A day trip to Wales to present a paper at a conference. I SWEAR I’m not doing any more of these until I have submitted my thesis!!!

Wednesday: Spending all day running my final analyses and probably getting confused and frustrated.

Thursday: More work on analyses.

Friday: Writing up the analyses and sending off the data files, output, and notes to my supervisor in advance of our meeting next week.

The weekend: Resolving to work on my thesis, but more likely finding something otherwise educational to do by way of active procrastination and convincing myself I’m still being productive…like reading some more of The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels, as I did this weekend.

Well, bring on the chaos! Let’s finish this thing!

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, 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.

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!

 These titles are, if you need explanation, derived from the home countries of the external examiners my supervisors and I are considering.

Yesterday I met with my supervisor to talk about externals again. Since our first choice declined because of other commitments at the time my viva is scheduled, we talked about two other possibilities that are on the cards. The first, a colleague of the Danish gentleman who had been our first choice, seemed to fit my thesis better, while the second, a professor based in Portugal, was decidedly a last resort (though not necessarily because Quero Formar** sounds more like the Latin motto of some well-to-do white middle class college in West London).

We agreed that my supervisor would approach the Dane the next day. But sitting around in my overheated office, frustrated at the headache that had been pounding away in my head all day, I suddenly wondered if we weren’t perhaps looking for my external in the wrong places. When you’re doing a PhD in psychology you reasonably expect that your external will also be a psychologist of some sort. But what if someone else’s expertise fits better with your thesis than any psychologist you’ve been able to find? That’s when I thought of…well, the woman I’m thinking of now.

She isn’t a psychologist.

Actually, she isn’t technically even a scientist, though the boundaries between scientific disciplines, and between science and art, are usually more blurred than we’d like to think.

The thing is, sometimes PhD theses are at the intersection of so many different obscure lines of enquiry across art and science that it is almost impossible to locate an external who is as well-versed in your uber-obscure area of expertise as you are. I mean, if I could have the ideal external for my thesis, it would be myself. Failing that, though, if there’s someone out there who is interested in, and published widely on, the topic I’m focusing on, though from a perspective other than psychology, I’ve begun to wonder whether that person is better qualified to examine me than a psychologist who, although vaguely knowledgeable about my area by virtue of the fact that they are a psychologist, would probably have to go to considerable lengths to do background reading before they could confidently question me at my viva.

This is all so confusing. I’m not sure I even have an academic identity any more. What am I? A psychologist? By virtue of the fact that my first degree is in psychology, or because I do research in a psychology department, or because I am supervised by psychologists? Does it matter that my research includes as much sociology, philosophy, economics and political science as it does psychological theory? Are non-psychologists, and indeed non-scientists, if there are such things, qualified to grant, or recommend the granting of, psychology PhDs?

I just don’t understand.

And in further news, I’ve just found out my other supervisor, whom we really need to consult on all matters relating to external examiners, is overseas tending to some urgent family issue and may not be back for a week. I’m glad I asked my supervisors to begin the examiner search 8 months in advance, but I’m beginning to think with all the unavoidable, unforeseen delays we might end up being only just in time.

I just really, really want to graduate. And though I know I’ll do everything I can to meet my responsibilities, the uncertainty surrounding factors out of my control often worries me and gets me down.

I want to graduate! And I will irrationally translate this into any language known to man until I do!

*Dutch for “I want to graduate” …at least according to Google Translate.

**And the Portugese.

In my little world today, far from the eyes of supervisors, reviewers, my family and friends, and just about everyone else in the world, I’m in the midst of an equally frustrating and exciting storm in which I am once more searching for external examiners.

I feel a bit silly, because although this is something very important to me now, I know that in another few years I’ll look back on these times and think how pathetic I was! As much as I try to stop worrying about my viva, I can’t help it. I’m a worrier. I worry about everything, especially my viva, and the closer my viva comes in my diary, the more I am worrying about it. If I stop worrying for a while, I start to worry that I’m taking it too easy when there’s something important I should be worrying about. I’m worried that I won’t be able to find a good external. I’m worried that even if I do find a good external, that they’ll say no or they won’t be available at the time I need them. I’m worried that even if they say yes and they’re available, they’ll turn up to my viva and eat me alive like a savage rabid thesis-gobbling monster.

I guess today’s just going to be one of those worrying days.

My viva is on the horizon.

I had a really nice meeting with my supervisors yesterday, who were both in really nice spirits. We had a nice discussion about who might end up examining my thesis, and I am over the moon that we were able to identify two really nice potential examiners who are also really nicely qualified for the job.

It was just all really nice.

Equally nice was the insider information one of my supervisors had about some of the other potential externals on my list, who, according to her, are a bit nuts. And it was nice that I was able to cross them neatly off my list before any of us made the mistake of inviting them to examine me.

I can do without going to my viva with a pair of nutcases.

I just feel really nice today, in that I now have two really nice, really adorable target examiners for whom to write this thesis. These are:

Potential External Examiner (undeservedly abbreviated to PEE):

An apparently (according to my supervisor) lovely, jolly, middle-aged bloke from Scandinavia who is not only the current president of a relevant learned society in my field, but also suitably published in my topic area.

Potential Internal Examiner (aptly abbreviated to PIE):

A very gentle, very sweet, old professor whose work is kind of in my area, though not entirely, though still with a lot of potential for overlap. When he’s talking it just makes you want to cuddle a teddy bear and fall asleep.

Oh, life is nice today. I can only hope my PhD will turn out to be just as nice.

Here’s to sailing out to those horizons and conquering them.


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June 2017
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The Final Countdown

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