Dear Thesis Whisperer, I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome

This piece was written by Ben from the Literature Review HQ. Ben describes his blog as a “Literature review how to – from beginning to end”. In this post Ben reflects on his own PhD journey now he has some distance from it. You can find a permanent link to the Lit Review HQ on the right side bar of the Whisperer under ‘Blogs like us’.

Those were the days. We used to get up late, sit quietly together into the night when everyone else was sleeping. We didn’t care what was going on in the world. We didn’t have any responsibilities – except to each other of course.

We spent almost every waking moment together, and when we didn’t, you were always in my thoughts. Yes, we had some hard times, but they made the good times all the sweeter. When I think of the time we shared, when I think of the blood sweat and tears we shed together and when I think of all the time we spent alone, in our own company.

I’ll be dammed if I don’t miss you.

It’s hard to believe that I could write something like this. I submitted my thesis ten months ago. I passed my Viva eight months ago and I graduated one week ago. I’m in the thick of the thesis aftermath and while in reality, I didn’t finish that long ago, it feels like a lifetime has passed.

I think this is the reason I’m having some conflicting emotions right now. On the one hand, I remember, vividly, how the writing process was nothing short of hell on earth. On the other hand, I’ve got some strange feelings stirring. A brief pang of nostalgia here, a sense of longing there and then the troubling realisation that I actually miss writing my thesis.

Stockholm Syndrome- “…a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them.”- Wikipedia

What is wrong with me? Seriously!? I remember wanting to quit. Sometimes the only thing that kept me going was the shame of quitting. What would I say to my friends and family? Sometimes I just went through the writing motions because I was so broken and lost, I didn’t know what else to do. How can I miss this? How can I miss anything about the process when these memories are still so raw?

Well the reality is that I don’t want to go back and rewrite my thesis, it was traumatic. However, I was afforded certain luxuries while writing up that make me look back on it with rose tinted glasses.

Focussing on one task

One priority, one task. If anything else came up or conflicted with thesis writing it was thrown to the side. Sure I did other things (I started my blog for one) but if there was any chance that they would affect my writing I was in no doubt as to what would happen to them. The great thing is people understood. “Sorry, I can’t, I’m writing my thesis,” was always met with sympathy and understanding. I really struggle now to find this level of clarity of focus. I have many more responsibilities, each competing for my time. It takes quite a lot of effort to decide which ones should come first. Many people rely on me and expect certain things. It’s not as easy any more to turn round and say that I’m too busy. Focusing on writing the thesis was incredibly simple.

Real freedom

Now there is a caveat to this but it’s true. I had real freedom as long as I was doing my thesis. However, as long as I was writing, I could be anywhere. I loved changing my scenery when I was writing. I wrote up in cafes all around the city. I wrote up in my apartment, at my parents house. I even wrote a good chunk of my thesis in the north of Spain. Once I made sure that I had all of my work available to me on my laptop, I could go anywhere. Doing this now is far more tricky. My responsibilities to students and to lab based experiments mean that I don’t have the same freedom.

My timetable, not yours

I worked whenever I wanted. If I wanted to get up early, I got up early. If I wanted to work late, I worked late. I did my writing exactly when I wanted to do it. I had the occasional supervisory meeting but apart from that I had more time flexibility than I’d ever had in my life. I loved it. Now I’m at peoples beckon call. If they whistle, I run. If they say be there at this time, I’m there five minutes early.

So is life that terrible now?

Well no, far from it in fact. Life is good; for one thing, I have my weekends and evenings back! It’s just that now I have a different perspective on the process of writing my thesis. I genuinely appreciate some of the things I was allowed to do.

So what have I learned, what can you take away?

I know more now about how I like to work, so I try and incorporate as much of this into my routine as possible. I like focussing on one task at once so I try to distribute my duties so that I can do this. I like the freedom of being able to work anywhere. I always make sure that I have access to all of my work files at home (dangerous?).

This means if I finish experiments early and I don’t have any student appointments, I can work from home – or wherever. I recently wrote a conference abstract while flying over France. Timetabling is not so easy but I think I’m relatively lucky working in academia because this is less of an issue than most places. However, having work files on my home laptop means that when I get the opportunity, I can work to my own timetable.

I would not presume to tell anyone going through the writing process at the moment to enjoy it, although it is certainly possible. However, have a think about the way that you work when you are writing. If there are benefits to it, then make the most of them. Writing up is all about the little pleasures and the little victories so try and have as many as possible.

Related Posts

PhD detachment

“The Process”

15 thoughts on “Dear Thesis Whisperer, I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome

  1. I enjoyed this post and really get it. Part of my issue post-PhD was the uncertainty of what was going to happen job-wise and life-wise. The thesis was so all-consuming and I felt as if I’d been cut off from the ‘comfort’ of knowing what I was doing and thrust into the discomfort of deep uncertainty.

  2. Dear Ben,

    I’m just getting into the writing process and starting to find my rhythm. I am actually enjoying it so far, it is nice to be in one place, settled and having one central task. While it is not always fun, overall there is a sense of contentment I didn’t have while still too busy in the field. I’m sure the stress will come, but thankyou for giving me permission to enjoy it! I was starting to think I might be nuts.. :) Sarah in Sumba

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  4. A great read having experience the same emotions during my Masters, although not to the same extent I guess. I’m a newbee to the world of Ph.D and thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Damn. If you miss it and you found it traumatic… That doesn’t sound promising for me as I’ve never wanted to quit, always loved my thesis. Yikes. Oh well. I guess, the thing to do is – find a new project to throw myself into once this one is finished.

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  7. Thanks Ben :) I’ve mentioned you briefly in a post I’ve just written on trying to make my PhD more fun (and like a video game) – wp.me/p1Wneu-2f. The freedom afforded during the PhD process really allows time to learn how you work best, and test things.

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