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

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