PhD Detachment

I co-supervise a student, who surprised us at lunchtime last week by saying:

“I just don’t care anymore. What ever changes you suggest, I’ll do. I want this thing out of my life”

Whenever I hear this sentiment I am relieved because I know the student has reached an important stage in the PhD process: Detachment. I thought it would be good to talk about PhD Detachment because earlier this week @soilduck asked me on Twitter:

“What are some strategies people have used to get through last 6 months of #phd? Emotionally etc … I just realised I have t-minus 6 months (exactly) until my thesis is due… Was thinking of practical things to help people regardless of situation?

I asked on Twitter for suggestions for such a post and many people chimed in with advice. Some took up the theme of general craziness of end times; @julianhopkins quipped “last 6 months? Am in it… do people survive it?”; @fiona_rachel confessed “I’ve got 4 months left and I’m listening to a lot of country music. Is this normal?” to which @JanetFulton replied “I’ve got about 8 weeks to go and I’m reading The Bobbsey Twins so country music sounds pretty normal to me”.

Others had very practical suggestions about managing your life through this period, such as @julialeventon who warned people not to try anything new, like moving house or learning a language. She also suggested “a regular day off where you don’t turn on your computer” (which sounded like a great idea to me). @danya suggested that you “Resist the temptation to get more articles and rerun analysis”; counselling that you need to learn to “accept less than perfect and move on” and our regular supervision correspondant @sarahthesheepu wisely advised: “don’t panic, write, most importantly read all the regulations”.

The most surprising contribution of this sort was from @sharmanedit who told me she had continued with volunteer work. She claimed that doing work for others reminded her not to get too insular. This seems like a neat solution to the almost inevitable selfishness which can manifest under thesis pressure.

Many mentioned the importance of food and beverages in the writing process, such as @peatyg who found herself: “eating lots of ice-cream, which I never liked b4” (a problem to which I could relate). Along with wise words about a clearly articulated time line, @tassie_gal suggested: “coffee – lots of. Chocolate – double the amount you think you need”; advice which was taken a step further by @TheEndeavour who suggested “guarana tablets over coffee for those looking for extra study energy” (She did add that you should always check dosage guidelines!). The best one was, from @kiriwhan: “At a rate of 0.75L of Pepsi Max per 1000 words, I’m going to need 60L to finish my thesis…” which I thought combined the time line and food advice nicely.

Amongst all this practical advice @boredpostdoc said: “I probably could have applied for an extension, but by that point I just wanted out”, which echoes our student’s sentiments – and my own. I remember there was a point where I stopped caring whether what I was doing a good job or not and just wanted out. I felt like I was in a bad marriage with this alien thing, which was no longer bringing me any joy, which is why I could relate to this very funny Open Letter, which reads like a break up note written by a student to their thesis:

“I am tired of people asking about you: they always ask about you, how you’re doing, how far I’ve gone with you. To be honest, I want to see this through to the end, I want to go all the way with you, but then I want to put this relationship behind me.” (I encourage you to read the whole thing, it’s worth it).

Clearly this detachment thing is a bonafide #phdemotion. This made me wonder, why is ‘detachment’ so necessary to completion?

In western knowledge cultures (a fancy way of saying the world of scholarship which you live in, right now) we tend to promote an attitude of attachment – to ideas, our writing, our thoughts. In fact the whole of academia is built on ownership of ideas – hence all the fretting over issues like plagiarism.

Ownership is very important to the process of making a thesis, which is why some of those who have very dominating supervisors can find the process a struggle. I believe a sense of ownership is necessary; it helps us fight the battles we face with supervisors, with spouses, with university guidelines and all the rest of (what feels like) an uncaring world who just get in the way of  finishing the damn thesis.

But I wonder if perhaps, at a certain point, this sense of ownership just gets in the way and it is better to strive for a state of detachment. I mean Detachment in the Buddhist sense, which doesn’t have the same kind of negative connotations as it usually does in English.

Now I am only an interested dabbler in Buddhism, but as I understand it the problem with attachment is that it leads to craving, and craving can lead to pain. For example, when we cling too tightly to people in relationships, it can lead us to craving their presence. A fear of losing the person can lead us to act in ways that are harmful to others, as well as ourselves (you only have to go through one bad break up to feel the truth of this insight).

Many of us do a thesis for the status and recognition it is meant to bring – and the employment opportunities we hope it will enable. But this craving can provoke a fear of failure – which can be crippling. The fear of failing can lead us into the valley of perfectionism (which is the enemy of done).

The best way to detach yourself from this fear is to understand the examination process as one which will make the thesis better, not a pass/fail proposition.

However aiming for detachment is no guarantee that we will reach it. I’m wondering if anyone has any thoughts on this. Have you experienced this state of Detachment before? Is it a desirable place to be or not? Maybe those those of you who are Buddhist might have some suggestions on how we can achieve this kind of inner peace?

More posts by Inger:

PhD Paralysis

PhD Rage

46 thoughts on “PhD Detachment

  1. Macgirvler says:

    Thanks for that. I was beginning to think my ‘callous disregard’ for my thesis (a.k.a not giving a s#$t any more) was just me. I have to admit, this attitude is the best I’ve ever adopted with respect to productivity. I’ve got 7 weeks until my enrolment runs out to finish, which equates to writing 65% of my thesis. Originally I panicked. I can churn out words without a problem, but good words? That’s another matter. But as my supervisor said, don’t get it right, get it written. Which is an excellent motto to combine with “i no longer give a s#$t’, in terms of productivity. Ironically, everyone one is happy when they read things thus far, and I’m not writing a total dog’s breakfast. Not caring has certainly freed me up. I think I might end up with something readable.
    So thanks for that confirmation. I now feel much more relaxed about my ‘secret’ approach to completion.

    • ingermewburn says:

      You’ve made me think now. Maybe it’s like playing piano for an audience. If you over think it your fingers get tied in knots. But if you pretend it’s just you and the piano it goes fine… there’s another post in that I suspect… Good luck with the last bit!

  2. Liz Tynan says:

    Excellent as usual, Inger. I am about to post a link to this article on the new JCU Facebook page and hopefully you will find JCU grad students joining the discussion. Liz

  3. pelf says:

    I’m not “there” yet but what I did for my Master’s degree was, first to find a companion/fellow student who was at the same (writing) stage as I was, and then to write our theses together. I was lucky in the sense that my boyfriend was also at the same stage. So for four-straight-months, we spent most of our time in the library together, writing our own theses.

    We could discuss ideas whenever we needed to, and we could find more references/books at the library whenever we wanted to.

    P/S: Both my boyfriend and I did not have the benefit of fellow students (co-workers/colleagues) from the same Supervisor, so we depended on each other for support, which I found was very important.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I’m impressed that both you and your boyfriend managed to go through this stage without having a break up! Kudos 🙂 I agree with the advice on a PhD buddy too.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Detachment is a wonderful thing when done correctly. One of my favorite buddhist monk story is that they will build something intricate and then destroy it. The building, the creating, that is what is important. The attachment to it is what causes us to suffer. The problem I see with the emotion you describe here is that it is not detachment so much as rejection. Detachment is when we create the thesis and then let it go. I think it is a fine line, but we must be weary of believing our resentment is actually detachment. True detachment is probably something wonderful for a thesis, but it is more similar to continuing to do volunteer work than being willing to accept any changes just to get over having to do anything more. I guess my recommendation would be to continue doing exercise and either continue doing yoga/breathing or start. Not only is it great for the mind and body, but it can also teach true detachment.

    • ingermewburn says:

      You make an excellent point – there is indeed a difference between rejection and detachment. I think I oscillated between the two on reflection. Thanks for writing in and clarifying that 🙂

  5. Greg says:

    Having just been awarded a PhD, I read with interest your views on ‘the last six months’. The tweet at the start of your story; “I just don’t care anymore. What ever changes you suggest, I’ll do. I want this thing out of my life” absolutely summarised my own feelings at that time. It was an absolutely dreadful feeling but I dealt with it by banishing the six-month trigger from my mind. How? I had always been detached from my thesis because I treated it like a job of work in the sense that, while I wanted to do the very best I could, I could not change my daily working routine in any way. In reality, of course, I could have changed my routine to anything I wanted but the idea of change, just because the thesis was coming to a close, seemed to reinforce the negativity that can be associated with the impending end. I’ll never forget the feeling of desperation as I pursued the goal of getting rid of my thesis and I can safely admit now to having had a deep and frequent desire to just walk away from it.

    In my experience, writing a PhD thesis is a test of stamina, maybe even more than a test of knowledge and, when viewed from that angle, what you have to do is discover what it is about you yourself that prolongs your stamina. The point is that, by the time the last six months dawns, your academic ability is not in doubt; it’s your stamina that might be in doubt instead.

    So, to propagate my stamina, I stuck with my usual routine; starting work at 7am every day, drank gallons of tea/coffee, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and made sure I called my Mother every day. One final point is that I always made time for my partner by spending every evening away from my thesis. Normality, in whichever way you conceive it, must be maintained for stamina to be preserved.

    My advice, for what it’s worth, is that you should not change anything if the only reason for change is that you have reached your final six months. Whatever you did that got you to your last six months will carry you over the threshold. How do I know this? Well, when the examiners award you the degree at the end of your viva and you emerge out into the street near to tears because of tension/tiredness/ relief etc. you’ll ask yourself “how did I pass that?” The answer is simple; its because you carried on, and that is stamina.

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks Greg. I do agree that stamina is a large part of it. In fact the most common thing I hear from people who complete was that treating it like a job was the key to their success. I think it plugs in with what @Macgirvler was saying below. We don’t tend to conflate our job with ourselves. For the most part we transcend our jobs. If your thesis is your whole life it is easy to lose sight of this. Thanks for writing in and – congratulations Dr!

    • David Fernández says:

      This is a really good point. As I’m only five months from my graduation deadline, and I had started contemplating some major changes of routine, your comment definitely made me think twice about it. As you say, by now no one really doubts of my skills as an academic, to the extent that a large part of my thesis will be just a copy-paste (with some minor editing) of three published/almost published articles that I already wrote. Yet I feel that I need to make a special effort to find the motivation -the stamina- for completing this final stage of my Ph. D.

  6. Claudia says:

    Rebecca makes some good points here, particularly “we must be weary of believing our resentment is actually detachment.” In fact, for me, detachment/rejection of my dissertation is very demotivating. I don’t care anymore, and that is actually not helping me work on it to complete it, but rather, leading me in the direction of “what’s the point, quitting seems still (despite years of work invested) attractive.” I know it’s a flawed piece of work and I have no problem taking recommendations for improvement on board. Fights have to be picked wisely, and sometimes, it is not worth the fight. I do agree with Rebecca that keeping up with other interests or volunteering is a greater sign of detachment than “being willing to accept any changes just to get over having to do anything more.”

    I never pursued this for status or recognition. That seems absurd, given how academics are generally treated and how the job market is using academics as free agents—tenure jobs are down, adjuncting is the norm. I pursued this lunacy because I enjoy learning, I find it exciting (yes, I know it’s lame) researching stuff, spending time in archives, or libraries, reading pieces that relate to my research. I enjoy discovering new ideas. I enjoy hearing about the work others are doing, engaging in debates and discussions. It’s exciting to be surrounded by people who are also interested in learning. I don’t think I have much to gain from a PhD in geography as far as my status or recognition is concerned.

    A sense of urgency is probably what I need most to finish. That is slowly settling in, as the project I am paid through is coming to an end in the autumn. I have failed miserably at adhering to my own deadlines, and my supervisor has not set any for me, just said to submit chapters when they are complete. I can meet deadlines that are set by others, for articles, conferences, etc. But I can’t meet my own. Why is that? Is it because there is no consequence? I do think there is a consequence, the consequence that I am then disappointed in myself when I can’t meet my own deadline, which causes a raft of negative thinking. One would think I would try to avoid that…

    Thanks for the post!

    • ingermewburn says:

      Thanks for writing in Claudia. I too find it easier to stick to external deadlines than internal ones – which I why the uni giving me a timeframe for completion was very helpful. I tried to view it like a final essay for a class which was due by that day or I would be deducted marks. I have started to fake myself out by setting deadlines in my calendar earlier than they are due. I suspect many of us have tricks like this just to get it done. Good luck with the last bit!

  7. Karenmca says:

    Interesting comments. I totally agree that the main aim is just to get the thing completed.

    Kate Moss’s “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, translates for the doctoral candidate into,
    Nothing rates as good as finished feels.

    I reached the point, somewhere in that last six months, where I decided that I didn’t much mind if it was a brilliant, earth-shattering PhD – it just had to be a finished, good enough one. However, I have to say that I didn’t feel loathing, detachment, or any other negative feeling. I still loved my subject. (I still do.)

    Perhaps, for me, the fact that I had unfinished business in the shape of a previously uncompleted PhD a couple of decades ago, made me all the more determined to finish exactly on time this time. Which I did – the thesis was bound and handed in exactly five part-time years after commencing my doctoral studies.

    Also, though, I was working full-time – apart from a month’s sabbatical – and juggling family commitments and my husband’s ill-health, alongside completing the doctorate. I wouldn’t wish those six months on anyone, but on the positive side, I really didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself! Fortunately, everything came good in the end – I got the revisions approved, Hugh survived two knee-replacement ops, and we made it to the graduation ceremony with all guns blazing. Not to mention a memorable private celebration party, too!

    My advice would be:- have goals; establish milestones; keep a tally of words if it helps; keep in touch with anyone in the same position so you can egg each other on; and allow yourself to dream about the party you’re going to throw when you finally finish!

    • ingermewburn says:

      Great story Karen. Me and my office mate Andrew threw a big party at a local pub. We spent a lot of time talking about it in the office in that last six months… actually I enjoyed it more than any other party I have ever thrown – couldn’t get the smile off my face! I recommend it as last 6 months therapy 🙂

  8. Maria says:

    great post. I have the detatchment with my work at the moment. Some people don’t understand it and think it’s a bad thing, when they know I’ve loved (literally. Well not literally…but you know) my subject my whole life. It’s not as if I’m out of love with it now…but I know there’s only so much running in the fields with daisies I can do until I ‘shut up and get on with it’. A mix of metaphors there, but hopefully some of that made sense.

  9. Anne O says:

    I’m sure you’ve heard this before: at my dissertation proposal meeting one of my committee members stated “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” My dissertation bombed, the experiment didn’t work, I had to come up with a new design and re-approve it with my committee, and the whole thing took me a year longer than I planned. I’m now writing the rest of my first draft, defending in about 6 weeks and I’m driven simply by a need to finish. At first all my non-significant findings upset me, but now it just is what it is. I’ll write up what happened and that’s that.

    • ingermewburn says:

      As I understand it, there’s a lot of pressures in science to have a ‘successful’ experiment, despite the lip service that is paid to the idea that failure is an important part of the PhD process. There’s an interesting film from PBS on this topic which you might find interesting. Anyway – best of luck for the last bit!

      • The Sadistician says:

        As a statistician, this is one of the most frustrating misconceptions about research. “Statistically significant result” DOES NOT EQUAL success. Significance testing is just one more piece of evidence in support or refutation of a given theory. One significance test does not give us proof, hence the need for replication. Even with replication, we still don’t have proof, only the weight of evidence.

        A statistically non-significant result is STILL a result. In fact, the lack of statistical significance can be more important as it can tell us so much about what else we need to learn. For example, if we expected that X would cause a significant change in Y and it doesn’t (at the chosen significance level), then we have to look at what was missing from our theory (e.g. some confounding variable or an unexpected interaction).

        I really wish that more and more research articles and theses presented the non-significant results as well to demonstrate that there is nothing “wrong” in getting a non-significant result, rather it should be encouraged. As Isaac Asimov famously said “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (“I found it!”) but rather “hmm….that’s
        funny…” ” 🙂

  10. Jess says:

    Thanks, Inger! I really appreciate this post.

    This next six months, in particular I can see, blood, sweat and tears. Mainly the latter. Doing thesis by publication (which at the moment I feel was a very bad idea) and relying on getting things accepted to submit my thesis makes it very hard to ‘not care’. The enormous amount of pressure to be perfect with a short deadline is grating at my soul.

    Saying that, I do have a GIANT piece of paper pinned next to my desk which says ‘ALMOST THERE’. Kind of like the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with ‘Don’t Panic’ in friendly letters on its cover.

    That piece of paper, combined with the reallity and amusment of PhD comics, reminds me that it is all ok. I just have to keep going. I need to laugh more often, do some creative things, and remember to have fun. If I get wound up in being perfect (someone elses idea of perfect, as the review process often is) I will only loose my soul entirely.

    Many thanks for reminding me to be Zen and to enjoy life!

  11. Murray says:

    I would like to hear some more on the issue of resentment.

    This probably get closer to how I am feeling than detachment. My initial response to the post was that I was feeling disillusionment as opposed to detachment although I think this gets at some of the same issues as resentment.

    Resentment does suggest you are still willing to fight…I am not sure I have that in me so maybe disillusionment (= resentment + detachment?) is more apt for me.

    • Rebecca says:

      Hi Murray,

      I would say that resentment is actually when you not only have no will left to continue the fight, but when you insides literally churn every time you think of your thesis or anything (or anyone) related to it. This is going to sound counterintuitive, but if that is happening – take a break! Take a weekend and do not think about it. Then, when you come back to it, do not come back to the actual project, ask yourself why you started it in the first place. The disillusionment comes from forgetting why you are passionate about the topic at all. It happens to everyone. The thesis is important, but it is not the most important thing in your life, so if you want to care about it again in order to finish it, get away from it and come back to it by remembering yourself at the beginning, full of ideas and interest. Actively imagine yourself caring about it again. I promise it can make a difference if you do it genuinely. Good luck!

  12. Jason says:

    Hmmm.. still looking towards the final six months; feeling more edgy about it now than before I read this…

    (Goes to project plan, factors in some “forced leave” in the last six months, adjusts word-per-day calculations).

  13. beyond detachment says:

    I had that, and wrote half my thesis in 3 months. Then after 10 weeks of waiting my supervisor gave me the first chapter back and told me to rewrite. Which means I’ve gone from 60% done to zero. With 5 months to go.

    Can you go beyond detachment? I’m finding it takes me 12 hour days to get done what used to take less than a morning.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I can understand the knock to your confidence. Have you made contact with anyone at your uni who works with thesis writers? We have a study and learning centre who will work with people to get back on track. Perhaps you have a similar service you can lean on?

      • beyond detachment says:

        I’ve been a to a few workshops and things like that. Working in a different country to my supervisor makes everything really difficult, so I suppose it’s all pragmatism. I shouldn’t know what I’m doing if nobody has trained me to do anything in the first place! Either way in months its graduate or quit so we’ll see what happens.

  14. Lisa says:

    How strange about the country music! I too have been obsessively listening to “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton over and over…

  15. lindathestar says:

    I’m feeling all at sea, losing confidence, as though I’m going backwards, and re-read this post, and the #phdchat on the topic of the last six months because I wanted to remind myself that I was not alone in this feeling of chaos as I write up. Whatever writing up means – it’s all writing up, isn’t it, is ‘writing up’ different from writing a proposal lit review that will be part of the final thesis or any of the other non-data-analysis-and-discussion chapters? It has helped, and I have definitely got to the ‘I want it over’ stage. My thesis in polished, completed perfection hangs like a glittering ball, just out of reach, and I am jumping up to reach it, so far without success. My supervisor says it is a good sign that I want it over. Inger, thank you so very much for giving us this blog, and @thesiswhisperer. They have really sustained me.

  16. Robin Farley says:

    It’s amazing that I didn’t find this site sooner. Part of my coping mechanism while finishing my dissertation was endlessly (seemingly) cruising the internet. I successfully defended in July about 6 days before the absolute deadline. I realized at some point about a year from the deadline that I just had to get this thing done and while I might not have anything earth shattering to reveal, I did understand the problem better than anyone else on the planet. I’m currently basking in the afterglow and proud of myself for finishing.

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