Screw you thesis!

Last time we met my friend, PhD student and working academic ‘Dave’ he was walking through the Valley of Shit. Dave emerged from the deathly valley soon after I published that post, but he has now hit the last phase of PhD study, which I call “PhD detachment”. Dave, somewhat more colourfully, calls this phase “Screw you thesis!”.  He tells us why in this post, but caution – there’s some strong language!

Them: “Do you hate it yet?”

Me: “Huh?”

Them: “Do you hate it yet… your thesis? You know you are ready when you begin to hate it.”

Me: “Uh… well, uh…no. Not yet.”

Them: “You will.”

I’ve had this conversation a few times over the past few months and it was really starting to bug me. I never knew how to deal with it so I usually just smiled, nodded and said something like “I guess I will… eventually”, but that always felt false to me because on the available evidence, I didn’t really have any reason to hate my thesis.

Generally, my PhD has gone pretty smoothly and other than the normal low-level bullshit that you have to deal with in any large project, it had progressed steadily.

Sure, I had my moments of doubt about the quality of my work and the worthiness of my contribution, but from what I can gather, this is all pretty normal stuff. After all, it’s not until the examiners have given it the Big Red Tick do you know with any certainty how good it is.

I couldn’t see why anyone would hate their project. That seemed counter-productive to me. Don’t worry about how you feel about it, just get on and finish it. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to waste energy on emotions about a project.

That is, until this morning when, all of a sudden, I hated it.

Not just hated it, but HATED it. The kind of burning hatred that consumed me with the heat of a thousand suns. I was pissed off and this realisation hit me, like many other realisations, in the shower.

You see, this morning I looked down in the shower and noticed that I was sharing the shower with two rubber ducks, a small rubber chicken, a tugboat, a plastic shark and my two year old son. When did all these things get in the shower with me? How long had they been there? Have I always had children’s toys in the shower, or is this a new thing? And what’s with the chicken? All the others at least have something to do with water, but a chicken? That’s just odd.

Come to think of it, what was the conversation about over the breakfast table this morning? What plans did I make with my wife? What did I agree to do later this week? What are the plans for today? I mean, I know what my plans are; I’ll be writing. But what will the rest of my family be doing?

Will they be going out in the sunshine? If so, with who and to do what? Was I invited? Even if I was, I would have said no, but the point is, I can’t remember if I was invited or not. AND if I wasn’t invited was that because I always say no anyway or has it become normal that my family make plans without me? When did THAT start?

This was starting to turn into a pretty heavy shower.

And that’s when I realised that I hate my thesis. Well, not my thesis exactly, but the all-consuming nature of it. I hate the fact that I can’t think about anything else. I hate the fact that my son is growing up fast and I can’t find the time to enjoy it with him.

I hate the fact that everything in my life is on auto-pilot and I don’t want to change anything. Change would mean I’d have to put energy into thinking about how I would have to re-enter the world again, for a little while, until I can put that part of my life back on auto-pilot again. I hate the fact that I haven’t had a good night’s rest in months. I hate the fact that I’ve lost nearly all of my friends as their patience for me finishing runs out. I hate the fact that I have come to hate my thesis.


But really, is that right? Maybe this hate thing is not hate at all, but resistance to change. Maybe I’ve mis-diagnosed hatred as resistance? Is that possible?

I’m reminded of some work done by William Bridges on organisational change.  He argues that there are three stages of transition that people go through when they are faced with change: Endings; The Neutral Zone; and New Beginnings.

Briefly, when people are faced with change, something comes to an end. For people to transition successfully, Bridge suggests, they need to recognise that they will lose something, or indeed, they will lose part of their current identity.

When people accept this loss, they move into the Neutral Zone where they spend time examining the way they do things. What different behaviours and attitudes might better suit the new (changed) state? This examination can take longer than the change itself.

Finally, once the first two transition stages have been navigated, people begin to work towards New Beginnings. However, while this appears to be a neat little theory, people often find the psychological transition stages difficult and so they resist going through them.

Maybe that is what is happening with me and my thesis?

I’m nearly at the end of my project. I’ll be done in December. Come 2013, I’ll be doing something else. Something different. Something NOT my thesis. So I guess there is a sense of loss there.

I’ll no longer have to spend my weekends worrying about such things as methodologies, or qualitative codes. I won’t have to feel guilty because I didn’t hit my minimum words-per-day target. And, I suppose, I’ll no longer have the excuse of having to work on my thesis to get out of various social obligations.

I guess that also means that I’ll have to re-think the way I plan my time and focus my attention. I am already doing that to some degree – even though it’s only September, I’m already thinking about my teaching and research obligations in 2013 in light of the fact that the thesis will be done – it will no longer compete for time. How will that look, exactly? What routines will I have to change?

And finally, what does all this mean for me and my family once I’m finished? How do I begin to act as a Post-Doc father? I’ve never had to do that before. Where do I begin? What do I do?

As my project winds up, I realise that the deadline is approaching faster than I’d like it to. The change is coming, but I haven’t completed the transition and so I’m feeling a little edgy about that; I’m resisting and it’s manifesting as a strong emotion: hate. As the wonderful Leela James sings: “Whoever said it was ‘teasy, they lied; it ain’t easy…” but at least now I know what it is that I’m up against.

So, Screw You Thesis.

The change is coming and there’s nothing I can now do about that. But how I respond, well that’s up to me and I’m done with the hating bit. I see you for what you are now Thesis. I understand that once you are finished, I can get about living differently; a better life.

So I’m going to embrace you as I race to the finish. I’m going to look forward to this new life I am about to begin. I’m going to stop hating you and use you as a springboard into the future. The next time someone asks me “do I hate it yet”, I’m going to say: “I did. Briefly. But I’m over than now and am looking forward to finishing.”

Are you looking forward to finishing? Or resisting change? We’d love to hear how you are feeling about The End of your thesis journey in the comments.

Related Posts

The Valley of Shit

PhD Detachment

41 thoughts on “Screw you thesis!

  1. Rod Pitcher says:

    I’m like you, nearing the end. I plan to submit my thesis for examination towards the end of next month. I’ve never hated my thesis, but sometimes I wish that I’d never started, so I suppose that’s a form of hatred, or maybe boredom. Now that the end is near I just want to finish the work and get rid of my thesis. Hopefully some time early next year I’ll be able to call myself ‘Doctor’, then I’ll decide if it was all worthwhile. At the moment I’m too tired of the thesis and the work involved to think about anything else.

  2. davidnblock says:

    Maybe your thesis is not a springboard. Maybe – if you do it right – you’ll never be finished. Maybe – if you’re fully engaged – you’re never detached enough to weep about its worth; you know only its value at one moment or another compared to everything else in your life at that precise moment, with the moment’s agenda, with the moment’s priorities. That will be painful, of course.

    Maybe its not like candy and flowers you bring to your committee so they’ll invite you in for a hookup so you can go back to your buds and crow about how you nailed that APA stylesheet.

    Maybe, if you do it right, you don’t go through stages of organizational change but rather stages of grief until you accept your own death – that “to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing” stuff. Maybe it’s more like keeping a vigil, or proving you can guard the keep so the rest of us can get some sleep.

    Maybe your thesis is not a union card, or a pathway to a job, or a guarantee of benefits, or a nifty prank to amuse the Blessed Sodality like doing The Nasty with the sheep of their choice rather than yours. Maybe it’s not a coffee table book. Maybe it’s not an amulet to carry. Maybe it’s a hoplon. Maybe it’s a prayer shawl.

    Maybe you should hate it, passionately, if you did it right, for all the times it did you wrong, for how it left your lungs from those cigarettes and your poor pancreas from all those Milky Way’s, and for all the times it did you so very right you didn’t think you could wander back into the bedroom so perfectly spent. Maybe you can’t say you love another, but you want to.

    Maybe you should be engaged not in what your thesis is doing to you, but in what you are doing to you. Maybe alienating a bunch of your cortex is good for a laugh in the faculty lounge, but a pitiable sight when you leave it in that Tupperware in the fridge.

    Maybe, if you do it right, you’ll miss it if you put it up on the top of the bookshelf and never look through the kaleidoscope.

    Maybe then, Doctor, you’ll have something to teach us.

  3. hararhyenas says:

    Don’t bury that thesis. You’ll probably revisit it and draw on bits (or even entire chapters) for those precious units of academic currency: publications. And maybe you’ll rewrite a couple of chapters and publish a monograph. Love it like a lemon tree and use the lemons.

  4. Lynne Kelly says:

    Having just completed my PhD thesis and got the Big Red Tick (with minor adjustments to do), there is a stage for gentle adjustment. Between submission and the examiners’ reports there’s a can’t-do-a-bloody-thing period. It’s not over, but there’s no work to be done. I found it hard to adjust and not feel guilty when I did something just for pleasure.

    The doubt about the worth of the research didn’t leave until the experts, with no vested interest, had given it the Tick. I’m in a strange stage now trying to decide the next step as the final details are put in place.

    Hate my thesis? At times, yes, because I let self-doubt rule. But the obsessive nature of the research? That I loved and will just keep doing – only now with the qualification and external validation which has almost dissolved that smothering self-doubt.

  5. ailsa says:

    I have a similar experience, but it was never hate. I just grew tired of her, it happened suddenly; I had been enthralled for so long. I love/d my supervisor, I love my topic, my findings inspire me. And then I found I wanted more. I want spring, I want summer…I look back at the many seasons that change with barely any awareness, the gardening that requires roundup, the meals burned….so much of my adult life has been so absorbed with this project, and now i want it back. And so we have come to a parting. She’s off making new friends (markers) or at least I hope that’s what she’s doing. And I’m reconnecting with family, friends, trashy novels…but i am still kind of stuck. Ive forgotten what to do without opening the word doc…Ive tortured myself looking at her…Ive written of this betwixt and between surreal space as a recovering addict, or maybe as someone recovering from a very meaningful but desired separation.

  6. Jess says:

    Love it! I felt exactly the same about 6 months before I submitted. I felt like I was sculpting a pile of dog poo. That is how much I hated it. Then, same as Dave, I got over that and just powered through to get done. It really does seem like something you just have to go through, and maybe that helps you deal with similar feelings later on in a research career?

  7. Kerri Beauchesne says:

    I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my thesis all along. I swing back and forth between thinking it’s genius and thinking it’s (to borrow Jess’s term) dog poo. Now I’m a day and a half away from defending and I’ve persuaded myself it’s dog poo again. I’m just ready to be done. But I’m also not sure what my next step should be, so I’m anxious about the next few years (whatever they’ll end up looking like). And there’s a bunch of guilt, not just for the fact that I’ve been in grad school most of my son’s life, but also for the mere fact that I’m contemplating a PhD. How could I be so selfish as to even think of spending the REST of his childhood doing yet more graduate work? So yeah. Not feeling the love right now. 🙁

  8. postdocintraining says:

    I just finished. I wasn’t happy about the writing part (I called my thesis document “THE BEAST” or “MONSTER”) but I never hated my thesis. In fact, even when I was in pieces, I always loved my research topic. I would have walked away if I had hated my thesis. I did hate (and do) my supervisor though 🙁

    • Victoria says:

      Couldn’t you just change supervisors? I didn’t have a good relationship to mine, so I changed to someone I could work with in a more productive way.

  9. pikir kool says:

    too much exposure of something would have that effect – a mild growing hatred. did my thesis bit by bit though. so i’m spared the calamity 🙂 the key to enjoying your thesis writing is moderation.

  10. rita gale says:

    Well…I WAS looking forward to starting in a few years time….but then u scared the shit outta me. : p

    Sent from my HTC

  11. Sonja says:

    Interesting that we all seem to need to go through a process of externalising the thesis. After having been so co-dependent it’s great to pull away a little and think of it as ‘not me’. That’s right ‘I am not my thesis’! This way I can think about showing it compassion rather than hatred and I can devote energy to it in the same way as I devote energy to helping my kids grow and my mum die… It’s just another entity over which I have little control, however I can be ‘present’ to it and help it be the best that it can be… that’s all ; )

  12. J says:

    That unfortunately does sound like the situation I am in. Yet, I am not due for submission till June 2013, at the earliest. For me, part of the “hatred” towards the thesis comes from financial/scholarship constraints, attempting to perform a miracle of completing my research in 2.5 years. As a result, I’ve been working long hours on the research, which makes me feel like I haven’t quite experienced the “honeymoon” period of being a PhD student.

    Am I getting jaded with my thesis way too fast?

    • pikir kool says:

      completing your phd in 2.5 years is quite doable without the need to work like CRAZY 🙂 one of my professors achieved that when he did his doctorate in oxford. according to him, the secret lies in defining your research scope properly and managing a balanced life.

  13. berlinickerin says:

    I don’t hate my thesis. Actually I really like it at the moment and enjoy how it all comes together into something that I’m actually proud of.

    But I’m glad when it’s over and can get that thing called life outside of researching and writing back. Until I’ve found a new project and will throw myself back into it as I suck at the work-life-balance bit.

  14. Jo Métivier (@joannemetivier) says:

    This was a really good post until you started rationalising your emotions. Then it got boring. But yay you for being able to zoom so quickly from hatred to ‘a little edgy’, we should all take a leaf out of your book for making it look so effortless. Yeah, um, so I may be a few weeks off submitting a thesis that looks at the place of emotions in academia.

      • Jo Métivier (@joannemetivier) says:

        Boring wasn’t the right word and I regret using it. Rationalising is a very useful thing to do, as well as being something we all do constantly so that was probably the wrong word too. ‘Denying’ might have been a better one. Mainly this bit:

        “But really, is that right? Maybe this hate thing is not hate at all, but resistance to change. Maybe I’ve mis-diagnosed hatred as resistance? Is that possible?”

        The other day, after an email from my supervisor, I was in tears for most of the morning and that was followed by my most productive afternoon in ages. I think it’s great that ‘Dave’ had an upswing and realised that what he was feeling earlier might be about resistance to change. But does shifting to a different, perhaps more rational position in the afternoon have to negate feelings earlier in the day?

        Maybe what he was feeling wasn’t hatred. It could have been lots of different emotions. ‘Resistance to change’ doesn’t feel to me like the same emotion as anger/hatred/sadness/resentment or whatever, and neither does ‘Screw you, thesis’ but I’m not Dave, so maybe I’m wrong.

        I have to admit I couldn’t read the rest of the post very carefully yesterday because after that bit, I felt this huge wave of anxiety, which pretty much makes me shut down. Re-reading the second half of the post now, it seems blindingly obvious to me that what I identified (correctly or incorrectly) was Dave’s anxiety and adding it to my own huge pile – I am deep, deep in the Valley of Shit right now.

        I actually really admire someone who can use anxiety to say ‘Screw you thesis’ and turn it into excitement and drive for the finish. So, now that I’ve been able to rationalise what was going on when I made that comment :), I really AM going to try and take a leaf out of Dave’s book.

        Basically, acknowledging that we feel a full range of emotions (negative and positive) is generally a good thing, I think. It’s something we don’t do nearly enough of in academia, at least where I am. Maybe it’s different in Australia to the UK.

        What I like and appreciate about this blog in general is that it doesn’t perpetuate the myth that doing a PhD is anything other than a huge, draining, emotional, life-altering undertaking. So thanks for that and the next time I’m feeling like shit, I promise to try not to come and dump it over here 😉

        • Thesis Whisperer says:

          Hey, dump away! That’s what we are here for 🙂 I think you are quite right. Moving through feelings is part of the process, but it doesn’t mean that the past feelings are not valid. Sorry to hear you are struggling in the valley of shit at the moment. I can only say: it ends. Eventually.

  15. Ella Taylor-Smith (@EllaTasm) says:

    I’ve thought of this post a few times in the last week.
    Thursday, I nearly left the house for a meeting an hour early (just stepping out the door when I realised)
    Friday, when I was about to get out of the bath and couldn’t remember if I’d washed my face or not.
    Last night, when I took my husband to a Hallowe’en concert on the wrong night. It was actually a Christian concert and I’d put temporary skull tattoos on my forehead.
    I’m only at the end of my first year!

  16. Ros says:

    I hate mine. I’ve hated it more or less since the beginning (there were some really complicated issues going on then, both personally and academically). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve thought about giving up over the past four years. I still think about it now, halfway through the final chapter. I resent the time it takes. I resent the emotional, physical and spiritual toll it has taken. I resent the negative impact it’s had on relationships.

    What’s new for me at this stage is that I’m bored of it. I used to be fascinated by the subject and feel that I was genuinely breaking some new ground. Now, I only have to read two sentences and my eyes will be glazing over. Housework has never been so appealing. Any excuse not to work on the thesis. Which means that progress has slowed dramatically. Which makes me even more resentful that I haven’t finished yet. And so on.

    Now, back to work.

  17. Futurus Essay says:

    Words cannot express how much I identify with this post. I’ve got about nine months until the end of my candidature, and it’s crunch-time. The words are flowing out of me, but it’s gotten to the point where I just don’t care any more; I’ll make whatever changes my supervisor suggests, even if I disagree with them… I need to get it DONE so I can move on with my life and not walk around on autopilot.

  18. Leah says:

    I am at a similar stage in my PhD studies. I am hoping to finish in January. I don’t hate my thesis as such as I still think it is an interesting topic, and I have some great results. I just hate doing it. I seem to have lost all motivation for it- I just no longer seem to care. I hate coming into my office every day and sitting and I am thinking about it 24/7, I can’t wait to do something else, something different. I now don’t care if it’s any good, I just want it to be ENOUGH. I still have an awful lot left to do and have that feeling of climbing a never ending mountain.

  19. Holly says:

    I, like Ros, hate my thesis and have done since about 2nd year. My Valley of Shit was around 1.5 years and sometimes I think I still haven’t really emerged. I have lost my hair due to stress-induced alopecia and run out of funding and put on 13 kilos and lost my self-esteem as I see all my friends earning money, getting married, having kids, looking great as they spend money on themselves (and have gorgeous hair). I am supposed to finish this year but can’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel yet.

  20. Anonymous says:

    My advisor wants me to defend in two weeks! TWO WEEKS! He has me on the schedule! That means everyone knows. I mean everyone! My classmates, the Assistant Dean, The Dean and even the Provost! If I change the date, they will know I was not ready. How can I defend in TWO WEEKS when I have not even started chapter 5 yet! Why am I reading this blog when I have a chapter to write in less than TWO WEEKS! How did one and half years of reading and writing come down to TWO WEEKS!!!!!!

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  22. Anita Hamilton says:

    I loved this post – I arrived at “I hate my thesis” this week for the first time. I’ve disliked it before, but this time it was truly hate.

    I reflected on this (yep – the shower IS the best place for self-reflection) and realised that I am struggling with conflicting emotions that range from “I have all the data, now just write it!” to “This really is not much of a contribution at all” back to “They will see right through me” then over to “I am tired… I cannot think of words to write” (I can here though!) and then it dawns on me that what I hate about my thesis right now is that it is defeating me when I should be conquering IT!

  23. Zeyana Abdullah says:

    This post just propelled me to keep going with my research project, currently doing my MBA in strategic management in Kenya…I like how you think, hating it wont solve anything, I just have to embrace it and embrace all the change that it will bring along with it. Thank you, from all the way across the continent, in a little town called Malindi.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I may be about to finish my thesis, but as I exit the arena I don’t feel like a champion, procrastination is the undefeated vice that I will have to face again and again and again in my life. I just hope next time it doesn’t get to the point of self loathing.

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