Two Years

I have mixed feels about today. Two years ago was my viva. It was bittersweet in a lot of ways. I was very glad when it was over, but at the same time, the whole experience really shook me.

I was jet lagged, hadn’t slept in 4 days, had a panic attack, and then got on a plane and flew 8 hours home only to go directly to a friend’s party. Needless to say, I slept the next week solid.

But what I didn’t know – and couldn’t know – at the time was what came after. What being ‘post-viva’ was like. It wasn’t as exciting as I thought. It was a lot of time explaining to people not in academia what a viva was, what it meant, what came after. It was a lot of months being very stressed about my job, and even more stressed (or disenchanted) about my corrections. I didn’t enjoy most of 2015 and most of the reasons are linked to my viva and finishing my PhD.

Afterwards is hard. It feels like something has been stolen from you, as much as it feels something has been given. Your brain doesn’t quite know what to do with itself ‘afterwards’. You mean I don’t have to read articles for 12 hours today? You mean I don’t have to write 5000 words before 9am when my advisor expects them? You mean I don’t have a class to prep for?

There feels like this vacuum.  And for a while afterwards, that vacuum was filled with corrections and final submission (and lots and lots of emailing for permissions). It was filled with a stressful job (but unlike PhD stress). And it was filled with an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome, worse than I had ever experienced in 3.5 years of doing my PhD. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I felt like they had surely made a mistake. I felt completely and utterly unprepared to be a ‘Doctor’.

People congratulate you, though they really don’t understand what they are congratulating you for. People say to you ‘must be great to be done!’ People ask a lot of ‘what’s next?’ until you are sick and tired of hearing it and get more and more creative in your responses (my best one was ‘I think I’ll run away to a cabin in the woods and write romance novels’*).

It kind of feels like the Twilight Zone. It feels like you’ve strayed over into another world. It feels like the last few years (or more) haven’t really happened.

It kind of still feels like that, two years on. I graduated a year ago. I have a pretty piece of paper and a picture framed on my wall. I still don’t completely believe it’s happened. And maybe that’s normal. Maybe it’s okay too, because it means I’ll never stop thinking about it. I’ll never stop remembering what I went through, and how hard it was, and that the paper is there to remind me what I accomplished.

*Still a possibility

Advertisements

Honesty

Here is where I’m at.

I’ve launched a new website, and am in the process of launching a new blog. As well, I am working towards getting a subscription going, with free and paid offers. And, you know, also working my self-employed day job. That doesn’t leave a lot of time.

I’ve been considering, over the last month, how to keep this blog going. Most of what I wanted to write has been written, and although I could expand on issues presented in these posts, I think there’s enough here to be helpful to people starting, doing, or finishing a PhD. And there are no lack of other resources on the Internet. I’m not sure how much more help I can be.

That’s not to say I’m deleting this. It will remain, at least for the foreseeable future. And I will continue to respond to comments, so if you have anything you’d like to ask, please feel free. And if you’d like to share the resource with others, please feel free.

But I know myself, and I know attempting to keep this going will result in something getting ignored (either this blog, or something else more vital to a paycheque). That’s being honest with myself. And being honest with yourself is an important skill. We always know we *want* to do better, but we can’t always do so. We can’t always get everything done. That’s okay. That’s human. But trying, missing, and then feeling bad about it is a vicious cycle. It is better to make time for what you know is important and what you know you can accomplish, than to try to overwhelm yourself.

So this is me, not overwhelming myself, and being honest. I’ve really enjoyed working on this resource for other PhD students. It’s helped me a lot, and I hope it’s helped some of you! Take care of yourselves, don’t feel too much guilt, and good luck.

 

In Conclusion…

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I did say I’d be gone for a while, though I wasn’t quite certain how long. I can’t say things have changed much, but I did want to get this post out before the end of the year, no matter what.

I’m feeling quite nostalgic today. It’s December 19th. 15 years ago today the Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres. That really was a turning point in my life, and it’s been a constant thread that’s woven in and out of it ever since. It may seem odd to have been so influenced by a movie, based on a fiction, but there it is. I’m sure someone can say the same of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

But today, of all days, I’m thinking of endings. Or, in terms of a PhD, conclusions. They’re hard things to write, conclusions. You’ve written all these words, managed to explain your complicated methodology, expounded at length about all the other authors you read who influenced you, created analysis chapters that your examiners will enjoy reading…and now you’ve come to it at last.

[Anyone want to count the Tolkien quotes in this post? I’ll give you a cookie if you spot them all.]

Conclusions are pesky things. You feel like you’ve said all the important stuff, and now you still have to write a few more thousand words. It kind of feels a bit like an insult. After all your months and months of hard work…you have to write everything you’ve already written, but in different words, and more condensed. Why? Didn’t your examiners get it the first time around? Why do you have to repeat yourself?

Conclusions are tiring things. They seem the hardest to write, after everything else. You aren’t introducing anything new. You aren’t explaining your intentions. You aren’t showing someone else’s work. So what are you doing?

You’re showing yours. That’s it. This is your chance to show your examiners and anyone else who reads your thesis one day, what you’ve done. Someone should be able to read only your conclusion chapter and get the point of your thesis.

And conclusions are especially frustrating things because, as Tolkien once said ‘all’s well that ends better’. And your conclusion must be that better ending. It must be uplifting and inspiring. It’s the last thing people will read and it’s your last chance for them to put your thesis down and say ‘that was good’. Even if the rest of your thesis has issues, or stumbles, you can make up for a lot in your conclusion (though not, I point out, everything).

You conclusion is a chance for you to summarise. There is a lot in your other chapters, and some of it can be lost in the reading. The conclusion is where you drive your point home. Where you say what you did, why it’s important, and where you can go from here. The conclusion is not an opportunity to waffle. It’s not where you should use more words than you need. The conclusion is where you need active voice. Be direct. Be clear. Be concise. Don’t let your reader get to your last page and wonder ‘I still can’t figure out why this is significant’.

But your conclusion is also where you need to admit that your amazing project…has issues. Every single project has issues. If you don’t admit them, it sounds like you didn’t acknowledge the limitations, or just chose to ignore them completely. Either looks bad. This isn’t where you expound on how bad your PhD is. It’s just where you acknowledge that there were limitations, you couldn’t do everything, if you had changed a variable you might have gotten other results, etc. Don’t go on for too long, but do explain this. Because if you don’t catch the limitations, your examiners will.

But, most importantly, your conclusion is where you say, in clear and no uncertain terms, what your contribution is. Why is this huge body of work important? Why have you spent 3/4/5 years of your life on it? Why should anyone be reading it?

A conclusion really doesn’t have to be long. A few thousand words is typical. You should have said everything that needed saying already, this is just where you summarise it and state the really important stuff again so that it stands out.

And then…then you have to figure out the conclusion to the conclusion. You can’t just…end. That last page, page and a half, is where you want to leave your readers wondering if you are some unknown genius that has discovered something that will change the future of the world. You probably haven’t, but you want to inspire your reader with the possibilities of your thesis. Of where it could go next and what the future of your field could hold for it.

So, have you thought of an ending?

 

Hello Readers

I do hope this post finds you well (though considering it’s the end of October, I know that actually means the new first years are realising what they’ve got themselves into, and everyone else is in a scramble for deadlines).

It’s been a crazy month for me, most of which has been in the last 5 days, and it’s not looking up before month’s end. These happen, but why they always happen when you are already busy is beyond my understanding! But we soldier on, because we must.

However, it means that Real Life is now consuming my Online Life, and as such I am taking a (hopefully) short break from this blog. I still have posts left I want to write (at least a few off the top of my head), but right now I can only do so much, and this is an ‘extra’.

I do hope any new readers will look back over the posts and find lots of useful information. And please feel free to share this blog with any new PhD students you know (or prospective students).

Good luck to all between now and Christmas.

Amy

Analysis Chapters

This working for a living thing is really cutting into my time for other things. On the flip side, it is really nice to be making money again.

We have now gone through all the sections of the thesis but the last two. These are the analysis chapters and the conclusion. One could suggest these are the most important parts of your thesis and the ones your examiners will read with the greatest care. In the analysis section, you show the work you have done. You prove your thesis statement. This part might be long or short. It might contain a great deal of data and charts, or none at all. Your type of analysis will depend on your type of thesis. But all theses contain this section. This is not where you talk about what others have done. This is not where you talk about what you are going to do. This is not where you discuss your methods. This is where you show the research needed to prove your hypothesis is correct (or incorrect). This may be your own field research, statistics, or even research gathered from other sources. But it demonstrates what your thesis is and what problem it solves.

I’ve recently been doing research on business plans. I’ve never had much of a head for business and never written a business plan, but I thought I should have a go at one for my new company. The analysis part of your thesis is like the main section of your business plan: where you say what the business is and why its needed and what it will do for your customers. Ostensibly, this is the integral part of a business plan. Everything else supports this. Just as the rest of the thesis supports the analysis.

It will also be either the first thing you write, or one of the last. This will depend on how your research formulates itself. Sometimes starting with this part makes the rest of the thesis just flow onto the page. And sometimes, particularly if you are still not entirely certain how your data proves your hypothesis, starting with everything else may just lead you – step by step – to your final conclusions. In order to write your analysis chapter you have to understand your data. You have to know what it means and how it relates to your thesis and what it says. You have to know your conclusions.

This makes the analysis section of the thesis very scary. A lot of people procrastinate this part, because they don’t believe they have enough data to prove their case. This is unlikely, but sometimes the data can be overwhelming and you don’t know where to start.

I’ve been there. This is the part of the thesis I wrote absolutely last (other than the conclusion). Before I started it, I still wasn’t certain what format this section would take, how many chapters I needed, or – exactly – what I needed to say. I stewed for a long time, going over the data again and again, trying out different directions, before I realised that the hypothesis I had asked was wrong. Or rather, it wasn’t wrong, I had just asked the question the wrong way. Flipping the question suddenly lined up all of the data and away I wrote!

It might not be that easy for you. It might be even easier. The idea is to have a clear thesis statement, that you set out to prove through data gathering. The data either proves the thesis to be true, or not. Either outcome is valid, particularly in the sciences. But in Humanities, sometimes we get a little carried away with things, and we go off on tangents, and ultimately we realise we have a bunch of data that isn’t useful. You don’t have to use all your data, but having it all can confuse you. Sometimes, weeding out what data is actually useful will take you the longest, but once you have it you will be hard pressed not to shout ‘Eureka!’ and dance about the room.

And from there, it is a case of writing it all up. The analysis chapters don’t have to be formal or grandiose. They are about showing your data and explaining why it answers your thesis question and why that’s important. Be straightforward. Be clear. Don’t use 10,000 words when you only need 5,000. Here is where you need to learn to be concise. Flowery language or more words than necessary are not going to impress your examiners. They want to read this chapter (these chapters) and implicitly understand your entire thesis. If they can’t do that, you have not written these chapters correctly.

So take your time here. Be clear on what you are saying. Discuss it with others. Get others to read it. Focus on saying only what you need to say to prove your thesis. The flowery stuff can be saved for other chapters, like the lit review! [I’m joking, flowery language is inappropriate in any section of the thesis.] By the time your reader gets to this part of the thesis, they want it short and sweet.

 

Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving Monday up here in the North (you know, Canada). We celebrated yesterday, so today was like most Mondays, wherein I did a lot of work and exercised. And it was actually very satisfying to work on a day most people are off. Look at all the things I got done while other people were relaxing and eating turkey!

But one of the things I did not get done was a blog post. So you will have one later in the week (I hope), all about analysis chapters and how to show your data (the important part of the thesis, let’s be honest).

The Bulk of the Thesis

Here’s my thing. I’ve mentored, I’ve supervised, I’ve taught, I’ve marked, and I’ve edited. I’m quite happy to see the teaching and marking part of my life go away. Neither are things I enjoy. But I hope to keep doing the mentoring or supervising in some way in the future. But the editing is the sort of thing I’ve done because someone asked me to do it, or needed me to do it. I never really thought of it as a career or even stable work. But here I am, again, doing editing. And you know what? I’m rather happy about that fact. I kind of like going through a document and making it better (though never perfect; there’s no such thing).

I bring this up because today I have started proofreading the bulk of a thesis. Or the ‘body’. The main part. The part that excludes the appendices, and references, and introductory sections, or even the conclusion. The main part of the thesis is where you show all the work you’ve done, discuss it in great detail, and demonstrate the entire point of your argument.

This might be anywhere from 20,000 words to 70,000, depending on what your subject and department are. Whatever the length of your thesis, however, the main part is going to form the majority of your words. And every one of them counts. You may have 70,000 words to play with, but superfluous ones (see what I did there) aren’t going to be appreciated by your examiners. You need to make sure that what you’re writing has a point. That it is clear and concise. If you can say it in 30,000 words, don’t take 50,000 just because you can. Most universities give maximums for theses, instead of minimums. That means that you can write any amount you need to for your thesis, but can’t go over a certain number. A lot of people find this very hard. It’s easier to write to a minimum, but much harder to know you only have a certain number of words to get your point across. So be concise (this paragraph is a bad example).

The bulk of your thesis could be 2 chapters or 7. The number is less important than what they constitute. You have to get a long list of things across in this part of your thesis. Your methodology (for most, unless you are amongst the fewer that put this in their introduction), your literature review(s), your data presentation, your analysis, and conclusions or recommendations (you will usually provide some manner of conclusions in your analysis chapter, then in more depth in your final conclusion chapter).

That is a lot to get into a thesis, and that’s leaving aside the introduction and conclusion chapters. But whatever number of chapters you have, and however many words you have for this part of the thesis, this part is often the hardest to write. Conclusions generally ‘write themselves’, because by the time you get to that chapter, you’ve been working on this for years, and analysed and thought about all your data for months. And the introduction is an intro to what you’ve already written in the rest of the thesis. An executive summary, basically. But the bulk of the thesis? That’s the important part. That’s the part your examiners really pay attention to. So that is the part you spend the most time on.

But don’t panic. Like any piece of writing, don’t ever set out to write ‘the bulk of the thesis’. Set out to write a 500 word section. Or a three-page sub-section. You will have your thesis outline already. You will know roughly what needs to get into each chapter, and then each section. Write them one at a time, in whatever order works best for you. And you will be very surprised that you end up at 50,000 words. Or 70,000. [Or a 100,000…oops.]

One small step at a time. You know your work. You know your research. You know what you need to say.

Guest Post – Doing a PhD with a chronic illness: a bridge over troubled water

I am a PhD student. I am many other things, too. For example, I have MS (I prefer to say ‘have’ rather than ‘suffer from’). MS is short for multiple sclerosis: a chronic, auto-immune and neuro-degenerative disease. This means that my body attacks itself – my central nervous system, to be precise. Your nerves control pretty much all of your body: your muscles (and sphincter muscles), sensations (numbness and tingling), speech, concentration, and so on. Because of that, potentially, everything is ‘under threat’. And then there’s the physical and mental fatigue, which is difficult in itself. Having said that, not everyone who has MS will have the same symptoms (or all of them); MS is said to have a thousand faces. No doctor can predict how your individual case will develop, and while nowadays there are treatments that may help slow down the progress (if you’re willing to accept the risks and side effects), there is no cure. You simply have to live with it.

Now, I’m not going to use this space to provide a description of MS (there are many websites, such as this one, which do this very well). Nor am I going to give general advice on how to deal with doing a PhD and having MS at the same time. Instead, I’d like to share part of my personal story of living with a chronic illness and how this has affected the way I view my PhD. By doing so, I hope my story will speak to other people who are dealing with similar issues. You are not alone.

There were two good things about my diagnosis: a) I had an explanation for my physical and mental symptoms, and b) it was made when I was already one year into my PhD. I’m not sure I would have had enough self-confidence to undertake such a ‘daunting’ project if I hadn’t already started it – and what a terrible mistake that would have been. Having done one year of research, giving up wasn’t an option. However, the first few months after my diagnosis were a period of huge doubt, fear and uncertainty for me. I simply couldn’t get my head around anything other than myself and my condition. My ever-so-supportive supervisor advised me to take a few months’ suspension, which, after some deliberation, I did. This break from my PhD happened to coincide with the summer months, so I ended up spending some of the time exploring the Greek islands, some of it finishing another project that needed my attention, and some having regular psychotherapy.

In hindsight, taking the suspension was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It gave me the time I needed to find myself again and see my PhD from a different angle. Yes, I feel vulnerable and yes, my fatigue makes sustained working and travelling (to conferences, for example) difficult. Some days are good and some days aren’t so good. But I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve come to realise that the years I’m spending on my PhD will be probably be some of the best in my life: doing something I love, being my own boss and having flexible working hours. Doesn’t that sound like a dream job (well, except for the lack of money, of course)? I’m looking forward to everything that’s still to come: completing my thesis and sharing my findings. What I’m not looking forward to as much is what happens after my PhD: will I be able to find a job (okay, I could end the sentence there!) with my condition? When will I tell my prospective employer? (This article sums it up quite nicely.) Will I be able to make enough money to earn a living with fewer working hours? So many questions costing me so much energy – which I don’t have in excess! But then I remember the wise words of my therapist: ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. Also, I’m trying not to compare myself with other PhD students (comparing ourselves with others is something many of us tend to do in general as well). Constantly asking myself why I’m not as far along in my research as other people who started at the same time as me isn’t going to help me. It’s just one more item to tick off on the ‘things-that-cost-me-a-lot-of-energy-and-aren’t-worth-it’ list.

I still have doubts, fears and uncertainties today, but I’ve come to see my PhD as an ally, not as a burden. My thesis and I are forming a partnership; sometimes we get along well and, at the best of times, we even stimulate and encourage each other. Sometimes we go through more difficult times and one of us needs more attention than the other – occasionally at the expense of the other. But, in general, we try to accommodate each other’s different needs: if a deadline is looming and I’m having a bad day, the PhD comes first and life is more difficult; but my PhD won’t sack me if I have a period when strenuous work is impossible. In many instances, my PhD is a bridge over troubled water, so to speak – the thing I can hold on to when I worry about the future. It will always be there and it won’t leave me unless I decide that’s what I want. It gives my life sense and continuity: the things I need the most. That’s how my PhD is helping me, and I feel thankful for that.

 

Note

I have decided to write this blog anonymously. My condition is not a secret, but it is something personal – something that I do not (yet?) feel comfortable sharing with the ‘worldwide’ web. Besides, while MS is part of who I am, it is not everything I am.

Support Systems

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

It’s been a bad month. Your research/field work isn’t going well. You have started to wonder if you’re on the wrong track. Maybe you worry your research question is the wrong one. Or that your methodology doesn’t support it. You feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you need to get done before your next advisor/supervision meeting. You feel stressed and anxious. You aren’t sleeping well. You routinely procrastinate or overwork (or both). You cancel plans with friends because ‘you don’t have time’, but you still aren’t making progress.

But hey, you tell yourself that it’s all part of doing a PhD. That everyone goes through this. Or you tell yourself that it’s just one more reason you aren’t cut out for this. That you should just quit. It’ll be better for everyone.

You know something is wrong, but you can’t quite figure out exactly what that is. But you’re embarrassed to talk to your coworkers, or feel that you’ve complained too much to your friends already. Or you worry what your parents will say if you admit to them that you think this is just too hard.

First, forget about other people. Their opinions in this are not what your focus should be. This is about you. This is a time you get to be completely and utterly selfish. If something feels wrong, it feels wrong to you. And to change things means making it feel right to you.

If your family won’t support you, turn to your friends. If your friends don’t understand you (and refuse to try), I’d suggest some new friends. If your coworkers won’t listen to you, go to your advisor. If your advisor won’t listen to you, try your university’s counselling services. And if they don’t have time for you, go to a health care professional and tell them you need to speak to a professional. Someone WILL listen to you.

Being overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and feeling like it’s all too much are not just ‘part of the PhD’. And they do not mean you aren’t good enough to do a PhD. They are part of it because almost everyone experiences this, but they don’t need to. It’s not a requirement to get your doctorate, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This isn’t about ‘if you bleed enough, you’ll get your degree’. People can do a PhD without having breakdowns. Without feeling like they aren’t worthy. But I will say that those people are fewer by the year.

If you’re in the majority that are struggling, it’s okay; you are by no means alone. But you need to have a support system around you to deal with these struggles when they happen. It’s best to have this system in place when you start your doctorate.

Get your family on board. Make sure they support you from the get-go. Make sure they know how hard this is going to be; that you are going to miss family parties, that you are going to miss seeing your family when you have a deadline, that you aren’t always going to call every Monday, etc. Whatever you normally do with your family, both those you live with and those you don’t, make sure they know that there will be times that that ‘normal’ won’t work for you. Don’t apologise for this, but make them aware. Most families won’t go ‘but we come first’; but if they are suddenly confronted with you having to miss your mother’s 60th birthday party because your advisor set you a deadline in two day’s time, they might not understand. So warn them ahead of time.

Get your friends on board. Your close friends, the rest of them aren’t really going to be very useful. They are going to be the sort of people who check in in two years’ time and go ‘aren’t you done that thing yet?’ But your close friends have likely already seen you at your worst. They have been through the trenches with you. They can go through them again. And you want people who are not PhD students. You want people who have other interests and other hobbies, so when you talk to them you can have a break. But you want friends that can be shoulders to cry on, comfort on the bad days, reason and sanity when you feel you are losing both. They don’t have to understand the details, they just have to be willing to be there for you.

When you start your PhD, learn whether your advisor will be a support person. Some advisors are great at this. Some of them suck at it. Figure it out early on, by talking to other students, by talking to your advisor, etc. whether they can be there for you or not. If they cannot, you know to look elsewhere when the going gets tough.

Find coworkers. Colleagues. Other PhD students. In or outside your department. These people will understand you perfectly. Sometimes, they may not be able to be there for you, if they are having a hard time themselves. So find several people that fall under this category, to ensure that there will be someone who can listen/help/advise when you need it.

Discover who at your university does counselling services. Every university offers this in some way, whether formal or informal. Know where to go before you ever have to go. And never, ever, be ashamed to use these services. They are there for a reason. Sometimes, talking to a stranger is easier than talking to a friend.

A PhD is exhausting. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s not easy for anyone. And, at least for everyone I know, there are times when doing your PhD is all the energy you have. There isn’t any left. These are the times you need other people. You need someone to help, someone to give you energy.

If you are having a day, a week, a month (a year) where it is all too much, for whatever reason, go to your support network. Go to your family, your best friend, your advisor, a coworker, your university. Know that there are people who will listen and there are people who will help.

Dedication

This post could also be called ‘perseverance’. In terms of life, the both are often interchangeable, though their definitions are not. You need to be dedicated to do a PhD, but you need the perseverance to complete it.

But it can apply to any task in which you set out to accomplish, particularly one that has some level of difficulty.

I thought I was dedicated to my PhD. I thought that would be enough. That alone is not enough. You need it, yes, but being dedicated does not mean you don’t wake up some days and go ‘I can’t’ or that you lose incentive. Perseverance is the drive to keep going despite these occurrences. And it took me a while to find it.

It took me 800km across Spain, in fact. Which, in terms of perseverance, was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. And it was all that kept me going. The drive to just keep walking no matter how difficult or hard it was. When that carried me to the end, I knew I had it in me to finish the PhD, no matter how hard it seemed or how many days I thought ‘I can’t’.

I thought I had lost that perseverance, somewhere in the last year. Life hasn’t been particularly difficult, though I have not – I feel – lost my dedication to my craft. But I have not felt that I needed to persevere at any point. I’ve been content to be patient. And so, like any habit you don’t use very often, you start to wonder if perhaps you can still do it.

I can, apparently. Which is good to know!

Just for a few days, I tried my hand at something I knew would be difficult, but that I was determined to do. I knew determination alone might not be enough, and it wasn’t. I had to persevere despite being tired, despite pain, despite it being hard. I had to overcome that in order to do it. And I did. These small reminders of past struggles are no bad thing. They renew your belief in yourself.

So for all of you out there that are struggling. That are determined to do a PhD, but aren’t sure that determination is enough: it probably won’t be. But perseverance will, and you will find that, somehow and in some way. Just keep walking.