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Probably about a decade or more ago now, I remember John Farnham went on a tour called ‘The Last Time’. I have never been a huge fan of his music, but I feel a strange, nostalgic, brotherly kind of bond with him now, because I’m up to my last chapter.

It’s a long, boring, theory chapter and needs a lot of work. It’s due at 5:30pm this Friday. I got off to a good start yesterday, but I have a lot of work to do on it if I want to get it done on time. I don’t fancy still being stuck with this next weekend. I’m running out of time and I need to get started on my editing as soon as I possibly can.

So, this is going to be a week of hell. It doesn’t help that tomorrow afternoon is going to be ‘wasted’ (at least for me) teaching undergrads, plus there’s the added nuisance of everyday life chores, like eating and sleeping and showering. I feel like I’m in a race against time and winning is against all odds.

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My supervisor is going to be here in just over 4 hours. Perhaps I should clarify – my second supervisor, with whom I am meeting this afternoon, is a retired emeritus professor and lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere, a good three hours’ commute away from London. Fortunately, after several distasteful altercations with our head of department, she got permission to claim for travel expenses to come to London once in a while and discuss stats with me. She wouldn’t hear of me being given a replacement supervisor. “I will supervise you no matter what,” she said. God bless.

Except that now that she lives three hours away (on a good day), however much she has much more time to spend on our own research, I feel guilty about calling her in to see me because of all the time and stress it involves. And now that I have called her in for our meeting today, the pressure is on to show her that it was worth it!

My second supervisor is a little different from my first, although ironically, the two have known each other for donkey’s years and are the best of friends. My second supervisor is very focused, likes to get down to business immediately, and hates it when you make a fuss about anything. Until recently, she seemed to be irritated even by simple social conventions like saying “How are you?”, at the start of a meeting. I always felt silly asking her this, even though I would ask out of genuine interest rather than just paying lip service to British politeness, because she would give me a cold reply like “OK.” and not even return the enquiry. Fortunately though, perhaps because we have had some very in-depth debates about stats and psychometric theory in which she really seemed to enjoy herself, she has warmed up a bit and now actually asks me how I am back.

Now that’s progress.

Anyway, the fact that she has warmed to me isn’t the point here. The point is that she has a very focused way of working in which she likes to examine things in detail in advance, have a think about it, and only then hold a meeting. I’ve known this for some time and have, since then, always emailed her my datafiles and notes in advance. Whilst this helps her understand my questions better, and allows her to come prepared, I’ve found I feel very stressed between emailing her my stuff and meeting her, simply because of my anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I imagine she’ll find in my work. I keep thinking, “I’m a psychologist. Psychologists have rigorous academic training in statistics and research methods from year 1 right up to PhD level. I’m supposed to be on the ball with everything stats related. And here I am still having to look up ANOVAs in a textbook! I’m hopeless! My supervisor is going to eat me alive! I’ll never amount to anything! My thesis is going to suck! I’m going to fail my viva! And end up homeless and penniless on the streets!”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

These irrational thoughts are still stuck in my head even now, as I write this. It’s maddening. I know I have put in a good effort to try my hand at the analysis, so as not to make my supervisor feel like I am dumping my work at her feet and saying “Here. Just tell me the answer.” She hates that. She hates dumb, needy students coming to her and begging her to just tell them the answer, or, worse, to actually do their work for them. But still, I feel like I’m not going to be able to live up to her standards, like I have not done enough work to impress her, and like I am going to be left feeling like an idiot – not just for not being smart enough, but for wasting her time.

I have 4 hours to get my head straightened. I have to review my analysis, make sure all my datafiles are saved on my flashdrive, reread my notes, pick up the keys to the meeting room, and get everything set up early. I concede these things will not actually do much to get my head straightened, but they will, hopefully, distract me from the madness that’s brewing inside.

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.

…and I feel like I’m miles behind on my work and that I will never, ever do everything I need to do to be ready to submit my thesis.

When I turn the calendar over to a new month it always makes me worry that I haven’t achieved enough in the past month and now time seems to be rushing on at an unreal speed – so fast, in fact, that I hardly have time to keep up with the time, let alone all the work I’m supposed to be doing.

There’s just no time left. I’m submitting in May. Every day brings us closer to submission. And I’m in a state of complete chaos – confusion, exhaustion, and a small, fast diminishing supply of motivation.

Everything’s everywhere. I don’t know what I’m doing any more!

We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds. -Chekhov

September 21st is annually observed as International Day of Peace, also known as World Peace Day. Many national and international peace organisations hold campaigns across the world to promote peace among people of all colours, creeds, and classes. Although these campaigns are held throughout the year, special attention is given today, as a way of highlighting peaceful resolution of political and other conflicts over and above war and resolutions made by force or coercion.

Whoever we are, we all have an opportunity to contribute to peace, whether it be personal peace with those around us, or social peace in our communities, nations, and internationally. More than ever, peace is an idea whose time has come.  

Some interesting resources about World Peace Day:

http://peaceoneday.org/

http://www.un.org/en/events/peaceday/

It’s that time of year again when I dig out my Summer To-Do List from under a messy pile of papers, notes, and binderbooks and reminisce about what might have been. I should have worked harder, done more, and gotten ahead faster. If I had, then I’d be in a much better position to submit my thesis in May, like my schedule says I should. But I haven’t done many of the things I had wanted to do, and I’ve instead opted to do things more trivial by way of procrastinating and avoiding what I really should have been doing. If only I’d done what I should have, then I wouldn’t still have those things to do in the autumn, and I could instead be doing other things.

So you can imagine my delight at discovering my ill-fated romance with listmaking is common to many a PhD student:

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Apart from having a whole folder of To-Do Lists for this summer, all of which turned out to be ultimately doomed, I’ve established most of the things on them will need to be rolled over to my Autumn To-Do List. I have a little more optimism for Autumn To-Do Lists because autumn is when I go back to London, where the weather is eternally overcast, chilly, rainy, foggy and miserable. I spend the days in my dreary office and the nights in my dreary quarters. Everything is dreary. So I have nothing to do but work.

But then there are things on my Summer To-Do List that are not just things I should have done and didn’t, but things I wanted to do but didn’t have time, things I could have done but couldn’t motivate myself to do, and things I didn’t want to do, but told myself that was ok because they weren’t as important as the things I should have been doing, which I also wasn’t doing, but for other reasons, like that I didn’t make time to do them.

This is getting terribly complicated.

So you can imagine my delight at discovering the complexity of never-ending, self-perpetuating To-Do Lists is a phenomenon experienced by others too:

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Well, today I’m trying to finish up data collection from a side project I’ve been working on since July which has been a little more taxing than I had originally thought (which is true about many things in PhDs, isn’t it?), and that will allow me to do stock-taking on my To-Do Lists tomorrow.

Yes. Taking stock and moving forward.

The one thing I have come to affirm over and over again in my PhD, more so now than before, is the fact that there is always so much to do, and so little time. It’s like a spring of eternal work, constantly spurting out some new project to manage, paper to write, class to teach, or rudimentary errand to run. Many a day I have arrived at the office bright and early with a great plan for the day, only to find an email or get a phone call requiring my attention be redirected to some urgent issue only remotely if at all relevant to my PhD. Then all the things in my work plan for the day have to be rolled over to the next day, and the next day to the next. Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

O, woe to us!

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The Final Countdown

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