About michelleareeve

I'm a science communicator - did a PhD in spider locomotion and now work for the Institution of Environmental Sciences, and Pint of Science, and Errant Science: Clutter.

A long time coming

Crikey, it’s somehow been 8 months since my last post on There’s A Spider. So much for making it a regular blog… whoops!

Since I handed in my thesis at the end of October last year, a lot has gone on. I got a full-time (non-academic) job, I had my viva, and I’m still wading through my thesis amends because, frankly, it’s really hard doing it alongside a full-time job.

I also now run a new blog, Clutter, with ErrantScience. It’s about science and scientists and the stories we have to tell. I post there every month, and we also have guest posts once a month. So a lot of my ranting has been happening over there since we started up in March of this year.

I guess the biggest thing PhD-wise was my viva. I wrote about my viva there for my first post. I’m still not sure I’m over it. I know that my viva was not the worst there’s ever been, but I found it really tough. The fact that I’d got a job pretty much straight after handing in meant I wasn’t immersed in the subject every day, and viva prep is inherently quite tricky – it’s difficult to judge what your examiners will pick up on, no matter how much research you do on them.

It was 4ish hours long, I got asked some stuff I could respond to sensibly, and some stuff completely threw me. In short, it did absolutely nothing to help my crippling imposter syndrome, and the congratulations that lovely people sent my way once I announced that somehow I hadn’t failed only exacerbated that feeling. People still call me Doctor now – I have to correct them every time, that I won’t be a Doctor until my amends are handed in and approved, and saying that feels both honest and shameful at the same time – surely I should have succeeded by now?

My thesis amends, a big bunch of to-dos.

Mostly the last few months have been spent adjusting to a ‘normal’ life with job with normal working hours and doing normal life things like seeing friends and going on holiday (which I have spectacularly failed at this year), and fitting the work on my thesis around that, and also failing somewhat at doing that effectively. And then just as I had a lot of time set aside for thesis work, Life of course rears its ugly head in the form of a close relative getting seriously ill, meaning lots of travel to my hometown and generally not being in the mood to care or read or write about spiders (sorry, spiders).

And last weekend, with a free weekend to myself for the first time in months, with all the intention of finally spending a good chunk of time on my thesis, what happens but a mild head cold appears. Not serious, nothing more than a minor annoyance, but with it taking away all desire other than to slob on the sofa. This post (and all the housework I did) is my way of trying to lift the ever-present guilt of not working on my thesis.

Working through that guilt and the constant low-level anxiety is something I hope to describe and explore here over the coming months until this weighty thesis is gone from my life. I can’t promise regular posts, but I can promise honesty in describing this process, and I only hope that those in a similar PhD-Doctor-Limbo situation might find some comfort.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in seeing what I, and some of my fellow scientists have been ranting about, go read some of the posts on Clutter. Oh – and there’s lots of spider cartoons from the wonderful @MCeeP. Enjoy.

 

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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.