I Couldn’t Wait To Write My Thesis And Now I Wish I Was Doing Literally Anything Else

Catchy title, eh?

I haven’t written a blog post for ages, so what better time than now, when I’m in the angst and terror of writing up my thesis?

Searching through my draft posts to see if there was something I could conjure up from those, I stumbled upon one from March 2015 entitled “I Can’t Wait To Write My Thesis”. HAH! Not only is that hilarious in itself, it also contained the line “love the idea of sitting and writing everyday – currently my idea of bliss. Sure this will change.” Yes, it damn well will change, Past Me, you moron.

Actually… it’s not changed that much. I still like the idea of sitting down and writing every day. It just doesn’t really happen. I write a bit, I change it, I write a bit more, I change that. I create some data tables, edit some figures. Then I get sidetracked and discover yet another gorgeous font I may or may not use. Usually at this point I leave the house and get annoyed at how lovely being outdoors is, regardless of weather, and return not feeling energised and enthused, as planned, but grumpy and bitter.

So I’ve got <*puts fingers in ears* LA-LA-LA, I can’t hear you!> months until my thesis is due in. Time is really tight. But, I think I’m finally getting to the point where at the end of a day, progress has been made, and I haven’t just written stuff and unwritten it again, or found something wrong with my code or analysis and spent the day fixing that instead.

It’s a really really weird time. I don’t go into work much; I write better from home. It’s lonely. I get absurdly happy when I’m outside the house, and if I manage to make it into a pub I almost weep with delight. It’s nice being on my own time, but there’s so much pressure to be working constantly, as there always is throughout PhDs. But I’ve settled into a kind of manic calm acceptance.

I won’t lie, I’ll be very happy when this is handed in. Or, most likely, I’ll be apathetic, as I’ve heard several people say it’s oddly underwhelming once you finally finish. Of course, handing in isn’t the finish, there’s the viva terror and then however many months of corrections.

So, um… I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is, except to serve as something else to do instead of writing my thesis. And to share the weirdness of these final stages of PhD. I’d be interested to know how everyone else feels at this stage – pop me a line in the comments or tweet me @michelleareeve. Thanks to making it to the end of my thesis-fuelled drivel!

If you liked this post, you should probably be writing your thesis, too. Go on, go!


Fears of Failure

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post, and though that’s mainly due to being snowed under with work in a mad dash to get things done before Christmas, it’s also partly because I’ve been going through a couple of emotional PhD rough patches. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts during these difficult times, in the hope that some of you can relate and we won’t feel so alone. Bear in mind that I am talking about myself and my thoughts a lot in this post, but I know that my fellow PhD students, wherever you may be, will likely have felt or be feeling some of this too. 

I’m in my final year now, and although that comes with some relief (“the end is in sight!”), it obviously comes with a lot of pressure, too. This added pressure seems to make all these little niggles that I usually have anyway become more pressing, and more crippling, meaning I become less productive in my work, and there’s added pressure because time slips by, and… you can see how the cycle goes.

The main thing is that I feel increasingly like I’ve entered this PhD by accident, like I shouldn’t be here. It’s a classic case of imposter syndrome, which I know tons of graduate students get (and many other students and people of all kinds, I’m sure). I know I was a good student at undergrad level, I worked hard and somehow managed to achieve impressive amounts of work in short time frames. Our research projects at undergrad were short, and I work well to tight deadlines. I can happily pull several all-nighters and work silly hours for limited periods of time to get lots done. With the PhD, it doesn’t really work like that. You can self-impose deadlines, but I am just the worst at sticking to them.

Because I’m at the same university where I did my undergrad research, and I’m working in the same group, my supervisors already knew me and in my head, that’s extra pressure. I look back on the old me, saw how much I achieved, and think my supervisors must be so disappointed in me now. Although I have been assured that this isn’t the case, it still doesn’t stop me thinking it. As the end of the PhD draws nearer, and I come to realise that I won’t be producing a ground-breaking thesis (and really, who does?), it’s all the more reason to think I’m a failure.

And that’s just the thing. When I’m in my low periods, I’m constantly thinking that I’ll never get this PhD done – I’m a failure, so why even bother trying? It’s a nasty cycle of mental self-torture which just eats away at my confidence. Pulling myself out of that is hard. And when I do manage to surface, I then struggle with motivation, for some tasks at least. I have a perception that certain tasks are going to be difficult (for example, writing and debugging certain bits of code to analyse my data), and I try to put them off – I’m scared I will fail, that I won’t be able to do it, so I procrastinate by doing other, easier tasks. It’s still productive, but I know really I should just jump right in to the task I’m putting off; it’s inevitably never as bad as I make it out to be.

I also have a real problem with accepting when things are ‘good enough’ and not ‘perfect in every way’, which is how I would ideally like things. Sometimes this plays to my skills and things I enjoy (I LOVE editing written work – but that’s for another post!) but mostly it’s quite crippling. I know that this is a common problem with scientists and researchers, but that doesn’t make it any less hard to let go of that piece of work, or that data collection that is ever-so-slightly flawed. Science isn’t perfect, it’s meant to be improved upon, and that’s something I often forget.

By sharing some of my thoughts I get when I’m at my lowest points in my PhD, I hope that I’ve made some of you feel less alone. These feelings are very common in graduate students, but nobody talks about them. There’s a pressure to put on a brave face, especially as (academic) jobs are so competitive – you don’t want any weaknesses to show. This article tells one student’s story (admittedly much more extreme than my own), and discusses the rife mental health problems in PhD students – and so much of it is because people feel they can’t speak up.

I guess this post is just my way of unloading my own feelings, and a plea that others do the same – if we were all open about how crappy PhDs can sometimes be, I’m convinced that the overall PhD experience would be improved. Because really, it’s pretty good – flexible hours, freedom to work on stuff that interests you, chances to network and improve transferable skills for future careers, opportunities to travel. It’s pretty peachy. But sometimes it’s hard to appreciate all this when you’re locked away in a mental battle with yourself. I thought by this time in my PhD I would be super-slick, confident, totally independent – but I’m not. Everyone, at some stage during their PhD, will feel those little seeds of doubt begin to grow, and I hope that by sharing our difficulties, we can pull up those weeds before they take over.

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SEB Conference: A review

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I spent last week in Prague at a brilliant biology conference: Society for Experimental Biology‘s annual main meeting. As I’m now back in PhD-land, I thought I’d try stave away the post-conference blues with a review of the conference, the people, and the city!

This is my second attendance at an SEB meeting, the first being in Salzburg  in 2012, when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree. On that occasion I gave a talk – I was terrified! My talk was unfortunately scheduled for the day after the infamous Wine Trail – one of SEB’s many fun (and free!) social evenings. I fear I may have tried to quell my nerves with slightly far too much wine… but nevertheless, the talk went well. Even back then with no other conference experience to compare it to, I was pleasantly surprised at the friendliness and understanding of the meeting’s attendees. My experiences at this year’s meeting can only reinforce that view – from PhD students to Professors, everyone seems to empathise with one another’s position, and act accordingly. There seems to be an unwritten rule that nobody unnecessarily grills PhD students, for example – because after all, we’re still learning!

There was a lovely Twitter community of attendees using the meeting’s official hashtag #SEBAMM, both to chat to each other and to inform those who weren’t able to make the meeting. It was my first time live-tweeting at conference and I have to say, I really enjoyed it!

I’ll start off by discussing the social side of SEB, and Prague, before moving onto the most important part… the Science!

The Socials

SEB is a VERY social conference. There were (optional) socials every night apart from one, and throughout the day there are endless refreshment breaks as another opportunity to network. Included in the conference fee is lunch every day (which was amazing), as much tea & coffee as you could ever want, and some of the socials, too (some required a small ticket price, but very reasonably priced for what you get). There’s the Pre-Conference Networking event on the first night (one free drink & dinner), the Wine Trail (totally free, with MUCH wine to “sample” & dinner), the Women In Science dinner, and the Conference Dinner on the final night, which is a nice sit-down three-course meal, with THREE HOURS of free alcohol. And at the SEB conference dinner, you dance. It’s a predictably good night that doesn’t disappoint!

The City

Prague is a beautiful city! It was my first time there, and I booked my flights so that I had half a day on either end of the conference to look around the city. I highly recommend it – food & drink is super cheap (~£10 for two courses and beer) and very pretty! And very warm – almost too warm. On the day I left we walked up to the castle in 35 °C heat! I wish I’d had longer to visit places but I’ll definitely go back for a holiday.

The Sessions

I opted in for the Careers Day on the day before the main conference began, run by the wonderful Sarah Blackford (SEB’s Head of Education & Public Affairs; see her twitter & blog). This was a really good session for general networking and meeting other early-career scientists, and we discussed how to get the most out of your research (e.g. by becoming members of learned societies, volunteer work, industry awareness etc.). We also did much brainstorming (tweet by friend & colleague Dr Zoë Self)…

The second part of the day featured two parallel sessions: one on preparing CVs, and one on publishing. I chose the publishing session, run by Mary Williams (Features Editor of The Plant Cell) and Bennet Young (Assistant Editor of the Journal of Experimental Botany). For someone like myself who has yet to publish a paper, there were loads of good insights into what goes on behind the scenes at a journal once you submit a manuscript, and ways to figure out which journal(s) may be a good fit for your work.

Then the main conference began! SEB has a wide variety of biological sessions, ranging from genetics, cell biology, neurobiology and plant biology. Of course, I was particularly interested in the animal biology talks – particularly biomechanics. We were treated to two whole days of biomechanics talks, which is actually a reduction on previous years. There were some cracking talks, ranging from grizzly bear locomotion (Katie Shine), muscle efficiency in budgies (Alex Evans) and measuring Pac-Man frog tongue forces (Dr Thomas Kleinteich).

On the Thursday, I was excited to see a whole day of arthropod talks in the programme! There were some amazing high-speed videos, including one of a jumping praying mantis presented by Dr Gregory Sutton (who gave a brilliant talk!). It got some BBC coverage too! There were some really cool talks: arachnid foot pad adhesion (Jonas Wolff), gear mechanisms in flies (by Jonathan Page) and cool stuff on strength of fangs and claws in spiders (Dr. Osnat Younes-Metzler).

How best to round off a great day of arthropod research? With a poster session, of course! This was the second of two poster sessions, and the one where I presented my poster. Some lovely helpful people came to talk to me, after my plea the day before at the Pecha Kucha (a one-slide, one-minute advert for your poster – a fab idea!) asking for anyone with experience in analysing large datasets to come chat to me. They didn’t disappoint! Got some great comments and suggestions and new contacts for the future.

I'm not good at serious photos.

I’m not good at serious photos.

Then, finally, the last day of the conference. The session of particular interest to me was on movement ecology, with some great new methods on tracking animals and visualising the data. In the afternoon, our head-of-lab Prof. Alan Wilson gave a talk about cheetah tracking, so all attending lab members were out in force for support!

So, all in all, SEB is a wonderful conference that caters for scientists in the very earliest stages of their careers, all the way to top Profs and academics. It’s sociable, friendly, and has some cracking science. I definitely came away having learnt some new things, made some new friends and contacts, and with a fresh enthusiasm for analysing my PhD data. A successful week all round! If you’re searching for a biology conference to attend next year, I can highly recommend SEB 2016, which will be in the lovely UK seaside town of Brighton! Hope to see you there!

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