The process

This is the second guest post by Maia Sauren, a student at RMIT who has recently  submitted her thesis.  In this post Maia reflects on the PhD process… Is it a ‘journey’ or a series of emotional states through which you need to pass?

The first half

Step 1: Fear
You open Google Scholar and discover  humanity’s research output for the past fifty years has been centred around your topic. There are arguments in the literature about who did what when, and whether it was important. None of them make sense. Your supervisor’s casual conversations in the tea room about an event thirty years ago sends your spine rigid with how much you don’t know.
Solution: muck around on Facebook, develop an addiction to an online game.
Pros: distracting and soothing.
Cons: not a solution.

Step 2: Hate 
It sucks your life. It doesn’t let you out at night. You feel guilty every time you leave your desk. You joke about being in an abusive relationship, and stop laughing halfway through the sentence.
Solution: work like a maniac. Come into the lab at 10pm on a Saturday to follow up on experiments, read every book and journal paper in the research area even if you don’t understand half the words.
Pros: get a lot more done than you think.
Cons: life? What life?

Step 3: Sulking
What the hell does this thing think it is, making you feel so crap about yourself!
Solution: punish it by playing in the sunshine.
Pros: hooray!
Cons: still feeling guilty, aren’t you?

Step 4: Rage and defeat
This is such a waste of my time. I don’t wanna do this any more!
Solution: quit. You take leave of absence, or maybe you just stop showing up. Maybe you get back to your job, or shag strangers in foreign countries – whatever.
Pros: I remember this person! – this used to be me!
Cons: none, actually. Get some perspective and live a bit.

Not everyone comes back after quitting. That’s ok. 

The second half

Step 5: back on the horse
You’re energised, and you’re resigned to another year or three of toil. You open your (messy, pathetic looking) old documents. Who wrote this rubbish?
Solution: read voraciously.
Pros: start noticing  that about half the references in your list are from the same eight research groups, and the rest of the links in any new search point to each other. Your bowels unclench a little. Your experiments clunk along.
Cons: find yourself getting sucked into the old shame-guilt-avoidance cycle.

Step 6: The light is not an oncoming train
You come out of your existential crisis to remember that you have power and choice in all your relationships, including this one. Start feeling the itch of impatience to finish.
Solution: Whiteboard a time map that designates your Ph.D. as a subset of your life, not the other way around.
Pros:  time with friends!
Cons: what do people talk about at parties again?

Step 7: Despair
You whinge about how much work you have to all and sundry. You wake at 3am and wonder whether the shame of quitting outweighs the joy, and whether it’s too late because you’ve passed the halfway mark and it’d be a waste after investing all this time. There’s still a mountain to go.
Solution: start looking for alternative ways to end the misery. Get a study group going, talk to that change management friend about mind sets, research work methods – anything to make this stop.
Pros: feels powerful. Very powerful.
Cons: get used to this impatience. Oh, and have you got anything done on your thesis between reading motivational blogs?

Step 8: Grit your teeth
This. Too. Shall. Pass. You have the odd vivid hallucination about being called ‘doctor’ and almost pass out with elation.
Solution: Just keep writing.
Pros: so close!
Cons: so close!

Step 9: Rip the band-aid off
It’s time to be rid of this. Write until it hurts, then just keep writing. You develop a bizarre clarity about the context of your work, you see the patterns, it all makes sense. Your best friend’s divorce? Who cares! You don’t know how to finish this paragraph, why are these people even talking to you!
Solution: get all the help your life has – friends, family, supervisors – and ask for exactly what you need. Surprisingly, they, too, are falling over themselves to do what it takes to have this over with.
Pros:  I am invincible! Bring me more coffee!
Cons: sleep is for quitters.

The End

Step 10: collapse
You have no idea who you are; you barely know where you live. You eat and drink because first principles of being human say you should, not because you have any kind of drive to.
Solution: get the hell away from your computer.
Pros: there’s sunlight outside, the birds are singing, and everyone says how pleased you must be to have submitted.
Cons: you stare blankly.

In Summary: Sometimes you’ll find yourself going through many of these steps in one day. I ‘quit’ several times before getting to the next stage – that’s normal too, apparently. Meanwhile, relationships and friends come and go, scholarships begin and end, you move house, your friends leave the country. Life goes on.

Related Posts

The nowhere / everywhere place

PhD paralysis

41 thoughts on “The process

  1. Chester says:

    Why is it that PhD’s attract unstable, melodramatic sociopaths?

    The best thing about doing a 3 year PhD has been loads of free time to do whatever I want whenever I want. It’s the easiest job going. Damn, the only thing that keeps me up at night in sweats of fear is the thought that it’s going to end soon and I’ll be thrust into the mean and dreary world of ‘real work’.

    p.s. 🙂

    (I thought such a mean-spirited post could do with a smiley face – it seems to make anything acceptable.)

      • maia says:

        Actually, I do have a vast bag of tricks for staying if not happy, then at least this side of hateful. I’ll do a post about it next.

  2. Dr Magnus Johnson says:

    It’s over 10 years since I graduated but I can still identify with your thoughts – especially the last! Now as a supervisor I see myself visiting the sins of my own supervisor on my students, i.e. the sink or swim approach, but I respect anyone that gets themselves through the process. Good post.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much for this! It’s all so familiar, esp. ‘write until it hurts’ – I’m still nursing the stomach ulcer that stage 9 gave me!!!

  4. Carla says:

    The first half describes me to a “T”! I experience all of that on a DAILY basis! I am sitting here right now avoiding the draft of my methodology section that I was supposed to turn in a few days ago. If I dont turn it in I will have to complete my entire dissertation block one over, I dont want to repeat, but I dont feel like doing it either! UGH!!! I can not wait to be on the other side of this thing! It is sucking up so much of my life/time….

    • maia says:

      I went through the first half a good few times before ‘graduating’ to the next bit. Sometimes I found myself partway through the second before backsliding to somewhere around Step 4. I’m told this is normal. Not sure if this helps, but at least it’s a common experience.

    • M-H says:

      “It is sucking up so much of my life/time….”

      Maybe that’s the issue: this *is* your life at the moment. It’s an investment you are making for your own future. So instead of thinking that is stopping you living your life, maybe you could try and see how it is giving you your future life. And if you can’t get to the point, maybe you should ask yourself just why you are putting yourself through this.

      Just a thought.

      • Carla says:

        I totally understand what you are saying. Someone actually said that to me the other day, this “IS” my life right now. And I definitely feel conflicted about that because it is taking me away from things (and people) that are very important to me. But I also have the attitude that I am too far along to quit and waste all the money I have paid in, so I might as well finish. May not be the best attitude for dissertation work, but it keeps me hanging on until this is over.

  5. ovenmits22 says:

    This feels like my life so much. Sometimes I wonder how I got here??? I spend so much time alone, procrastinating, checking Facbook (I know, I know), I do my tax and see the hideously low amount of money I have earned this year with no real chance this will change for several years, my supervisor has been very rude to me lately…. but recently I have started to knuckle down and get on to taming this beast. Life is short and I just need to do this and move on.

  6. spanishwalker says:

    I am not writing my PhD, but my Master Thesis. Well, actually I am in the “first step”. I have been checking what people wrote about my topic, and I see that almost everything has been already written.

    We will see. Maybe it is still too early since I do not have even supervisor yet….

  7. SamIa says:

    Oh yeah , did I write that ? Are you in my head ? Why am I reading this when I could be writing ? Yep , you are in my head :)))

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