Finishing up a PhD thesis

Since many of the first ArcTrainees are coming close to the end of the 3 year PhD period, I thought this post would be pretty ’aktuell’ (since we are in Germany). It is not a truly pleasant topic, and not everybody likes to talk about it. Still, I think it is important. Writing your thesis, finishing up is not easy. Really not easy. And you’ve heard it many times before, but only when you are finally here, on the finishing line, you really feel it.

Messy-messy desk of a PhD student

I am one of these ArcTrainees, and after already a few months of frustration, I feel like I am slowly finding my way to accomplish this one of the hardest things in my life so far- finishing the PhD thesis. And I feel like it’s time to talk about it. I know, we are all stressed, depressed, tired, sleepless, hopeless, insecure and unsure about our abilities to do anything at all. I just want to remind you and myself, that it’s temporary, that pretty much every PhD student has been there, and it all will be ok. I know, it sounds like a weak consolation, but I believe that knowing that you are not the only one who is feeling all these feelings right now makes it a little bit easier. And we have support of each other in this one. One more advantage of being in a graduate school!

We have been working on our theses for a while now. And all these questions … They are getting on the nerves, aren’t they?

– “How is your PhD going?” – a classical one

– “Is your manuscript finally accepted? I know, it’s been a couple of rounds of reviews already..”

– “I feel like I want to take a big vacation soon.. what about you?”

Sound familiar? I believe they do. And a lot of friends or family members are trying to help, to give advice, and you are just thinking: ”You cannot understand me! It’s not like anything else, it’s a PhD, it’s so special!!” Only those who are in the same situation seem to know what you are going through.

I think that the biggest mistake in this situation is to dwell in this mood of frustration. It can be very serious, can lead to an actual depression, which will be hard to fight. Therefore, it is important to get help from anywhere you can. First, from the dearest ones of course. And not to get angry with your so little understanding sister, or a friend who is ‘just a master student’. If we actually listen carefully to them, maybe we can get some good advice? I am always trying to remember that my family, my friends, they love me and worry about me.

Tasting maple syrup candy in MontrealBut sometimes it is not an option or it is not enough. If you feel like you are struggling, a counseling, a therapy, may be a next step. This does not mean you give up and go crazy – this means, you are overwhelmed and you need a little help to get up again. I think it is important to keep in mind, what stress is doing to our body. Stress is the killer – my doctor told me. There is no pill for it but your mind can do wonders. I believe there have been thousands of articles and scientific proofs, that when we are stressed, we get sick much more easily. So I’m directly leading to the next point – exercise! Of course. Endorphins bla bla bla. Actually, it’s not so much bla: how fresh do we feel after our favorite physical activity! Well, guess what, our brains feel fresh too! And happy. We exercise – we think better, feel better, look good. Only positive things! At the moment, I especially enjoy running, dancing and yoga (wow, this sounds like a hobby section in a CV).

Tasting maple syrup candy in Montreal

What else? Right, another obvious thing. As trivial as it sounds, life-work balance. Haha, yeah, we are PhDs, what do we know about life outside the lab or our desk? I truly believe, it’s not that bad. And I’m pretty sure we all more or less can handle both working well and relaxing well. Isn’t it nice – to have a movie night with your boyfriend, a dance party with your friends, a dinner with your parents? Sometimes it’s enough for a little thing – a piece of cheesecake, a sunny weather, a good book, a postcard from home – to create a better mood and get you through the day.

Maybe some of us think: “Just a couple of months of hard work and I’m done”. No breaks, no pause. I tried it actually, and I failed. For me it was just the wrong attitude. For some people, it could be the right one though. After all, every person is different. And something that works for me won’t work for others. We all have different schedules, I work better in the evening, some people are early birds. Some are thinking better under stress; others are getting paralyzed.

As Dale Carnegie was writing (in the book that I advise to read:” How to stop worrying and start living”): “Life is too short to be little”, meaning, do not let little worries win. Think rationally, what problems do you have, analyze them, and decide what you can do to deal with them, or accept the inevitable. Accepting the inevitable is actually one of the methods he is suggesting for conquering worry. He is saying, if you imagine the worst outcome of your problem/situation and accept it, here it is – your victory. For example, a person has done some mistake at work, which can turn out to be a crucial one. He is worrying day and night – what is going to happen? Will my boss be angry? Will this affect my career? Here, what will be the worst-case scenario? It is pretty obvious – he is going to be fired. Ok, this is what he has to think about, and accept that this CAN happen. Not necessarily will, but very likely can. When he accepts it, he can move on. He already imagined this worst situation and made peace with it. He cannot change it now, he can only go with the flow. When it happens – then he will think about next steps, like looking for a new job. Until then he has conquered the worry. Sounds too simple, isn’t it? How about giving it a try and see?

Sometimes all the problems and worries are so overwhelming and heavy and unbearable because they are acting all together, just like an army. And it feels like you are all alone and you are helpless against them. I am getting this feeling sometimes, it’s not nice at all. Yes, besides your thesis, other questions and worries come along with it: what’s next, where will I go, what will I do, should I stay in science? Plus, many many personal issues that are always there, in your head, are getting awake and crawling out like creepy creatures at night, and do not let you forget about them. I find that a good technique here is to address every worry one by one. To analyze them, like I analyze my data (nerd alert). Now, when I feel that all these creepy creatures which are my problems, worries and insecurities, are preparing to attack one more time, I am trying to think clearly, rationally and not to get emotions take the control. “Ok, future job problem – let’s think about you. First, it is good to postpone you until after I submit the thesis, because let’s face it, you’re just in my way. Second, I have a good education, some experience, I will find a decent job. Third, even if I decide not to stay in academia, there are plenty of opportunities”. And so on and so on.

Photo courtesy: Samira Samimi and Shawn Marshall

Chilling next to the Athabasca Glacier

There is a philosophy of mind, called Gestalt psychology. If I understood my mother correctly, part of it addresses the so-called “figure – background” concept, the ability to separate one from another and even to exchange them. In reality, it is important to remember the ‘bigger picture’: I am alive, my parents are healthy, I have food to eat, I have people who love me. And suddenly all the other things become so little, so minor, that you think: “Actually, I am a pretty happy person!”

In a nutshell, don’t worry – be happy! We have gone so far, let’s finish up what we’ve started!

And then celebrate.



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