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I have, at best, 6 weeks left before I submit. Just like I thought my last year would be more peaceful than previous years (but then found out it’s actually about twice as chaotic), I thought my last couple of months would be peaceful,  but it turns out they’re the epitome of chaos. Although my thesis is, for all intents and purposes, written, it still has some holes in it that need to be filled. It’s going to take some serious editing.

I haven’t been keen to jump straight into editing after finishing the writing because I thought taking some time off away from the content would help me come back to it with ‘fresh eyes’. That’s what I’m doing now. Of course, so as not to let the time go to waste, I’ve been collating my reference list instead, and wishing horribly that I’d done that as I wrote, rather than now, because it’s turning out to be a massive job. Working 8 hours a day, I’m taking about a day per chapter. If I could work on it longer, I might get it done in half that time, but then I’d go mad and risk burnout.

Well, isn’t this nice.

I’m aiming to have my references collated by Monday. Then, the rest of the time up until the end of this month will be spent finishing up the hole-filling. I’ve promised to send my supervisors an edited draft by the end of March, and I’m worried I won’t make it. This is really, really daunting and I worry about it a lot. I worry I’ll either miss my submission deadline and have to extend it, or somehow force myself to submit on time but take the risk that I’m handing in substandard work, or a thesis that somehow doesn’t meet the expectations of my examiners.

One of the things I find most worrying is the possibility that somehow I’ve fluked my way through grad school all this time and that I’m not really as good as I’m made out to be, and, even worse, that my stupidity and incompetence are going to be revealed in all their laughing-stock glory at my viva in July. I can imagine my examiners sighing disappointedly when, after a gruelling 3-hour interrogation during which I stutter, freeze, and faint, they call me back into the room to announce their decision and say that although I’ve worked hard, my research just isn’t at PhD level and I’m not fit to be awarded the degree.

Yes, I’m aware I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome. But for all my awareness, I can’t seem to shake it off. I feel incompetent compared to my ‘peers’ and like nothing I do in my research is really of any value. When people show interest in my work I get the impression they’re only asking me questions in order to be polite or to humour me.

Today’s Friday.

The labs have been deathly quiet this morning. I haven’t seen anyone about. The offices, apart from this one I’m sitting in, are dark and deserted. The silence and the stillness make the perceived loneliness worse.

Two colleagues have just walked in.

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I think it’s psychosomatic.

Yesterday I felt elated at it being the first day of the new year, the year of 2013.

The year in which I will turn 23.

The year in which I will submit my thesis, have my viva, and gain my PhD.

The year in which I will start jobhunting in earnest, and hopefully land in a decent first post.

The year in which, after nearly 20 years in full time education, I will cease to be a student, at least officially.

Yesterday the rain that had been drizzling miserably over a cold and overcast London finally stopped. The sky was clear and the air clean and crisp.

Yesterday I felt hopeful that good things will happen this year.

Perhaps that feeling is yet to return.

But for the time being, today, I feel sick. I’ve spent the last 10 days or so, since Christmas, pushing myself to the limits of my sanity trying to rewrite Chapter 1 of my thesis. Surprisingly, the process proved less difficult than I had anticipated, and although I am only about 85% finished today (I had hoped it would be fully written by now), I have come into the campus to type up and send to my supervisors what I have written.

I am not at my desk in the office.

For some reason I feel estranged from it, and from the people I know will be there today. And if not today, then tomorrow, or Friday, or next week. They will have to come in eventually.

They’re not bad people. They just make me feel sick.

I’ve come to feel sensitive at the mention of names, places, things. Some of them remind me of the past, and some of them remind me of things inside my head. Things that may or may not exist, but that stay with me and make me feel sick anyway.

It feels like a kind of knot in my stomach that makes it impossible to eat, like my appetite has dwindled slowly to nothing. Throwing up doesn’t seem to be out of the question. I’m sitting in relative darkness in a deserted corner of a computer lab. I’m feeling sick, and also the constant, numbing pressure to stop procrastinating and type.

I’m probably going to be here until 4 or 5 this afternoon.

I can’t afford to procrastinate.

Other things have happened, too. A paper I had under review for the last 3 months came back with the request to revise and resubmit. Apparently the two reviewers were in almost direct disagreement; one was positive, the other suggested rejection. The comments were fair, I’m not taking it personally, but nevertheless the prospect of revisiting the same material to make revisions, and then going through another round of the holding-my-breath-for-the-decision process after resubmission, is daunting. It’s making me feel sick.

My viva is in July. Before, it felt like July 2013 was light years away. Now the calendar doesn’t say “2011” or “2012” any more. The neat little 2013 in my diary pages that I will work my way through as I write – I flick through them like one of those flipbook animations. The time is going to pass so quickly, I’m going to be confused, baffled, bamboozled. I’m not going to know where the days have gone.

I feel sick in my stomach, and half asleep in this dreary darkness of a deserted computer lab. The tap-tap-tapping of my fingers on the keyboard is the only sound I hear.

I’m going to start typing now.

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.

My lab colleagues, though I am sure they have problems of their own, wander into the office at half past ten to find, though I am sure they take it for granted, that the kitchen is clean and freshly disinfected, the printer cartridge has been replaced, the heating adjusted, and the door propped open so newcomers don’t have to punch the keycode in. All these things are done by a certain lab fairy, who gets in 3 hours earlier than them because she has to submit her thesis in May. Sometimes, she feels a little bitter towards them.

labfairy

“And I shall cast a spell on thee, and thy experiments shall fail!”

And however much I’ve lived and breathed psychology for the best part of a decade, there are days when my humanness gets the better of me, and I fall prey to feeling lonely and sorry for myself because nobody understands me, everything is failing, and it’s such a cruel, unfair world. These are my vices, my biases, the things that get me down. These are the things that make me worried, withdrawn, and grumpy on the inside of my stoic scientist exterior.

Despite the fact that I will, I hope, finish my PhD in relatively record time, it feels like I have been working in these labs forever. My exclusive love relationship with my research has become more of a love-hate relationship of late, and, today, this seems to have morphed into a hate-only affair.

It’s normal, though a little unhealthy, but I’m going to confess: Today I hate my thesis. I hate every aspect of it – its topic, its style, its content, its ideas. Not only do they make me feel nauseous, I find them inherently repulsive. Strangely, this maddening repulsion manifests in my behaviour as a bittersweet kind of screw-it attitude, which makes me laugh disturbingly when things go wrong, sometimes do things wrong on purpose, and, most of all, my colleagues look at me as if I’m a rabid flesh-eating alien.

crazy-student

“I swear, dude, I’m like, totally fine!”

In my (probably biased and naive) mind, this research will never amount to anything, and, in comparison to the research of many of my colleagues and postdocs in this place, is inferior, boring, and useless. It’s also profoundly bizarre – located at the crossroads of psychology and a mismatched spectrum of other social sciences, it sits awkwardly in the middle of the road, no doubt liable to be squashed to bits by oncoming traffic. Other people’s research seems so simple, so elegant, so…neat. Mine, on the other hand, struggles to fit into any box. It’s difficult even for me to describe it in a way that makes sense, let alone explain how it might be useful for anything. I think it might have something to do with the fact that my work is wholly non-experimental, which is unusual in my department, which houses a string of high-tech labs up and down the hall just outside, where most of my colleagues spend the days running bamboozling, wires-coming-out-of-their-ears experiments and having experimental meetings to talk about experimental stuff. Because of my epistemological stance and patched-together interdisciplinary locatedness, I am a bit of an outsider! I guess I can’t blame them for being indifferent towards me.

Life is inherently unfair. I don’t believe it has to be that way, and I believe that if we – all of us together – resolved to eradicate injustice and inequality, we could do it. But, at this point at least, this is only likely to happen in an ideal world. PhDs are no exception to unfairness. Other people will have sexier research, geekier equipment, more celebrated publications than you. Their achievements will outshine yours and will be trumpeted louder and farther afield. There won’t necessarily be a justifiable reason for any of this – it will just be. You will try your best to soldier on in the academic jungle, but there will be times when you just think, screw it.
You will run away and hide in a cave – or, more likely, under your bed or at a bar – and sulk for a while. It will seem like the end of the world and a return to academia will feel like an absolute no-go.

Then, I think, you will resolve to come out again, and find a way to go on.

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!

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.

I appreciate that the systems that exist for examining PhD theses differ from place to place. In the US, candidates go through (what seems to me, at least) a very strange system of ‘quals’, research, defense, and thesis submission, and that’s only what I’ve learnt implicitly from reading PhD Comics. Then in Australia the examination is by reading only, meaning candidates never have a face-to-face oral examination (what you’d call a ‘viva’) and their thesis is read and graded on its own merits. This has both pros and cons, because although you never have the stress (and terror and anxiety and nervous breakdowns and jelly-like knees) that comes with experiencing an oral examination, you might have an equally uncomfortable time trying to perfect your thesis to the finest detail because you won’t get a chance to clarify or discuss anything in a meeting.

In the UK, PhD theses are examined by both reading and questioning. After thesis submission, usually in about 4 to 6 weeks, the examiners read and write independent preliminary reports on the thesis, and a date for a viva is then arranged. On the day of the viva, the candidate, the internal examiner and external examiner, and, depending on the regulations of the university, sometimes also the supervisor(s) and the Chair of examiners attend the meeting and both of the examiners question the candidate about different aspects of the thesis. Depending on how the examiners jointly evaluate both the thesis and the candidate’s performance at the viva, they then make a recommendation for the outcome of the examination (for example, for the candidate to pass, to pass with corrections, to be awarded an MPhil, or to fail). The university then approves the recommendation.

Because the examination panel most usually consists of one internal and one external examiner, this sets the candidate and supervisors the delightful task of locating, researching and successfully engaging an appropriate external examiner, given that the external examiner traditionally takes the ‘lead’ in the viva and has a bit more leverage in the final recommendation.

Establishing an external examiner isn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped. Thinking in a straightforward way, you would simply find the person whose qualifications and theoretical expertise mostly closely matched your thesis and have them examine you, and the viva would be a straightforward, standardised procedure of observing whether you can explain and justify the points made in the thesis.

But of course, in the real world, it just doesn’t work like that. Finding examiners in the real world is an absurd, bordering-on-clinically-insane process involving intense background research, personality checks, cyberstalking, gossiping with former students, and attempting to approach them anonymously at conferences and other professional meetings to get an idea of their character. Yes, apparently many academics who are perfectly sane and normal in everyday life become savage, rabid thesis-gobbling monsters when put into a room opposite a cowering PhD candidate.

Cute.

So now that I’ve got a few names on my list of externals, I’m in the process of doing intense background research for each of them, which is a professional way of saying I am cyberstalking them in every conceivable corner of the Internet to gain some picture of their likes and dislikes, and what strikes their fancy.

I am not insane. Postgraduate forums across the web report countless horror stories of candidates being eaten alive by overly harsh examiners, often because they and their supervisors just chose the wrong person.

Really, I am not mad.

So far, I have found out that my first choice for external likes Bob Dylan, cosmology, and intelligent science fiction. I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do with this information, since my thesis has nothing to do with Bob Dylan, cosmology, or intelligent science fiction (unless the research itself could be classed as intelligent science fiction, though personally I don’t think it’s that intelligent). So, I’m just going to note it all down and tell my supervisors about it and see what we come up with.

And I won’t even get started on the absurdity of the internal examiner. They sound like someone you’d expect to see in a gynaecologist’s office.

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The Final Countdown

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