Joyeux PhD

I think it’s about time I update my blog so that people visiting it don’t think I’m STILL trapped under my desk having a good old sobAt the end of my last post, I promised that the emotional rollercoaster experienced while finishing a PhD is just that – there are low points, but some really high ones too.

In the midst of the desk sobbing and not sleeping and tantrum-throwing, there were some piercing moments of, well, overwhelming gratitude. Not for the PhD work itself, no no no, but for everything else in life. Mostly, people. Though I didn’t actually socialise with many friends during those final couple of months, I was very aware of their support, and the fact that they would be at the pub waiting for me, pint in hand, when I finished.

Let me tell you about two such moments that I remember vividly.

One

The first was during my last visit to my home county of Norfolk before the dreaded hand-in day. I was very stressed. I did not want to do anything other than sit at my desk and stare at my thesis, and at the same time, I wanted to be doing ANYTHING else. So I begrudgingly (yes, I was a horrible person at this point) agreed to go for a meal with a big bunch of friends. Now, the majority of my friends have not done a PhD, nor have much experience of academia, if any. And that’s great. I love talking to them about their work, their lives, precisely because many of them are so different to mine. But being the lovely people they are, I knew that they would be bound to ask how my PhD was going in return, not knowing that is the dreaded question for a PhD student, particularly that close to the end. So I was really worried about seeing them, because I didn’t want to snap at them or cry, which were both very likely at that point as I really was on edge.

Then, a wise person suggested I simply message them all beforehand, telling them that I was okay, PhD was going okay but it was due very soon and I was very stressed, and I would really appreciate a few hours not talking about it. Simple, and effective! A few jokey messages passed where they faux-threatened to ask me about my thesis, and I sent a faux-faux-threat suggesting that physical violence was an option, then we met up and had some delicious food and nobody asked me about spiders. Perfect!

So when I left early to go home and work, while they went the the pub, I was sad, but felt both rejuvenated at having had a genuine few hours off, and incredibly grateful that they respected my wishes – which of course they would, because they’re friends. And on hearing that after I left they all asked my boyfriend how I was really doing, I was even more touched. Friends like that are the greatest, truly, and somehow the stress of my PhD made me realise that even more.

Two

When I wrote my thesis acknowledgements, I was super emotional. The physical act of listing all the people who had been of the biggest support to me was just so humbling. People, it turns out, are really really nice. Listing the people of Twitter who helped me with both technical spider queries, and more emotional support, gave me a newfound respect for my fellow humans. Sure, there are shitheads out there, but there are some truly nice selfless people, too. 

And then of course there are all the people close to you who are sort of obliged to be nice and supportive. Like the fact that I probably didn’t cook a dinner for the last 3 months of PhD (thank you, Josh). Or supportive greetings cards that arrived in the post unexpectedly (thank you, Mum). Again, so so grateful for these lovely people.

My thesis acknowledgements: Lovely Twitter people

My thesis acknowledgements: Lovely Twitter people

So also these are both personal examples, I hope they serve to highlight the madness of the rollercoaster that writing up your thesis, and that for every low point there is a high one, too. In the midst of all the angst and stress that finishing a PhD causes, it really does bring into focus the things in life that are most dear to you, for that very reason.

If you’re PhD-ing over this festive period, know that others have been there and it won’t be the case forever. And take some time out to be with the lovely people in your life who will be so so important at the end, no matter whether you’re struggling or if you breeze through.

Joyeux PhD, everyone.

New Achievement Unlocked: Desk Sobbing

This is something that happened to me a few weeks ago, so I thought I would share it. The last weeks of a PhD, as it turns out, are incredibly emotional. I expected stressful, difficult, tiring – all those things, but I did not expect the sudden drops into despair and misery, or that the guilt thing could get any worse than it was already…

A new PhD low has been achieved. This evening, I found a dark hidey spot under my desk, and I sobbed. I cried harder than I have in a long long time. What had happened? Simple really. I was asked if I wanted to go out to dinner in a few days. See, the tears make perfect sense, right?!

It was that Guilt bastard again, pouncing on me immediately after such a kind offer had been voiced. The presence of the Guilt means that you cannot win in such a situation. If you say yes to going out to a lovely dinner, you have the overpowering Guilt that you won’t be working on your thesis during those few hours. If you say no, that goes away, but you have other Guilt, punishing you for not spending time with family and friends.

It’s a ridiculously powerful, totally isolating feeling. I cannot imagine what my other half thought when he found me, red-faced, damp and snotty, curled up under my desk. It’s a wonder he didn’t just leg it. I just felt like I couldn’t win. And yeah, at the end of the day, it’s only a couple of hours out of your life, whatever choice you make. And it’s a pretty banal choice, at that. But when you’re in the last weeks of a PhD, how you spend your time becomes really, REALLY important to you. Well, insomuch that you must be at your desk AT ALL TIMES, or your old friend Guilt rears its ugly head again.

And this isn’t the only time I felt like this; it’s merely the most extreme. A couple of months ago: “Shall we go to Amsterdam for a long weekend?” – Total panic. Utter, complete stress, similar tears… And of course I went, and it was great, and it was a break I really needed. A few weeks ago: “We should really book our train tickets home if we’re going.” – Mind chaos. Should I go? Should I stay in London where I have my study set up nicely and all the books and papers I could want? And of course I went home, spent a much-needed weekend back in beautiful Norfolk, and discovered a much better working setup as a result of the tiny desk I had at home. I returned with a fresh mind, a full belly (thanks to Mum’s delicious homecooked dinners… and lunches… and snacks), and a laptop full of thesis words.

As it happens, I decided not to go to dinner, and on this occasion it was the right choice; I got lots of work done in those hours, and I caught up with said friends and family later instead. The trick is to balance things so that Guilt is at its weakest, though this is something I’ve only recently gotten the knack of.

The end of this PhD has just given me totally weird and extreme reactions to things. It makes sense; you’re tired, constantly stuck in your head working on your thesis even when you’re not physically ‘working’, you’re isolated, working at home. Put it that way, and it’s amazing we function at all. Things aren’t all bad, though. The crazy emotions come a’plenty in the opposite direction too. More on that later.

But I tell you what, crap as this situation was, I found a cracking hiding place – so good that Josh thought I’d actually left our tiny flat. I’ll be using that one again!


I feel the need to note that I am genuinely okay. Just a weird, emotional blip – albeit one of many, but a quite funny (in hindsight) one I wanted to share. But all’s good here now!

If you related to this post, you might also relate to Taming Monsters or The Fear. What upbeat post titles I have.

In The Zone

My last blog post was pretty gloomy, and led to lots of people asking if I was okay. That wasn’t the intention of that post – but thanks to all those lovely people who reached out!

Good news is that things are going much better. That bit of Fear really gave me a kick up the proverbial and made me just sit down and do stuff. So now I’m what I like to call ‘In The Zone’, which has many benefits, but also its problems.

For me, being In The Zone is being (reasonably) focused, able and willing to get up, sometimes go to the gym, get breakfast, sit down at my desk, and being prepared to stay sat there all day. And often most of the evening. And then doing the same thing the next day. And the next. And over the weekend. Even the Bank Holiday weekend (I’m not bitter about that at all.. nope).

And really, that’s probably what most people expect of a PhD student, that constant pressure to be constantly working which I’ve fought against for the last almost 4 years. I’ve tried hard to keep my evenings and weekends free, but now it’s crunch time, and stuff needs to get done, so something has to give.

Sacrificing my free time isn’t one of the problems I was talking about, though – I always knew that would need to happen at some point. The problem with this phase of working is getting too stuck in your own head. You’re in there, just you, all day. I work mostly from home these days, so apart from the other half getting home in the evenings, I rarely talk to an actual face-to-face human. So you’re trapped in your own mind, talking to yourself (sometimes out loud), focused on the task at hand, and just working. And this is great! You get lots done, you feel good at the end of the day, so good you often continue working.

But it’s very easy to stay up there, in your head, when it’s time to come out. Like when your other half gets home and tries to have a conversation, and you respond with mumbled, half-formed sentences (sorry, Josh). Or when you meet friends at the pub on the one occasion you let yourself free of your study-prison, and all you can do is stand there wide-eyed and smile manically at the many people and noises and colours of the world outside (sorry, friends). It can be really hard to dismount your own brain for a bit and engage with the world, especially if you know it’s only for a few hours until you have to work again. But it’s important to try. Last night I gave myself an evening off to recharge and went to the Science Museum Lates, which also served to remind me of all the cool science and sci-comm going on out there, and why I kept at this sodding PhD.

So although The Fear was pretty scary and really not welcome at the time, through writing about it here and getting lots of lovely people saying lovely supportive things (along with a long weekend in Amsterdam), it has been enough to push me into what is rightly the most productive part of my PhD. But if you find me wandering around in the outside world, muttering spidery-sounding words and cowering from the bright sunlight, please shoo me back to my study.