Dr. Crazy Mama

My dissertation defense was on Tuesday … and … I passed!

(It’s taken me a few days to sit down and blog about it, because my parents are visiting and Family Time is fun but exhausting.)

It was not surprising to pass—it’s extremely unusual in any PhD program for someone to fail after being allowed to defend—but I am so very happy and relieved to feel like I deserved it.  That was my greatest fear over the last year: that I would be passed out of kindness or pity or just to get me out of there.  I am comfortable that that’s not what happened.

Defenses in my department are a short (30-minute) public talk, followed by an hour or two of private questioning by the committee.  My extreme social anxiety doesn’t transfer into prepared public speaking situations; as long as I’ve practiced (which I definitely did here), it only takes a few sentences for me to get comfortable.  So that part went quite well.

The questions from my committee were generally relevant and reasonable.  It was all big-picture knowledge stuff, plus some questions about possible follow-up work.  No one asked me to justify any of my methodology or even any of my conclusions.  I had to write on the board a few times, but didn’t need to pull up any plots or refer to anything specific in my written dissertation.

My answers were awkward and clunky at times.  Someone once told me that the point of a PhD defense is to find out the limits of your knowledge (and decide if it’s enough)—and so to expect people to keep asking questions until they ran into those limits.  I think not all of the clunky answers were my fault, though.  Some of my committee members were just not very good at articulating what they were looking for, and it took a few rounds of clarification to get there.

There was only one point when I felt really nervous, and that was when they sent me out of the room after an hour of questions, to decide if they were done or if they needed to ask me more.  I began the wait feeling confident, but after about five minutes started to worry that it was taking too long, even though rationally I knew that it wasn’t.  (And it wasn’t: they called me in after about ten minutes to congratulate me and sign the passing paperwork.)

I passed with no revisions, meaning that I don’t have to rewrite anything or add components to my dissertation.  Each committee member pointed out a few typos and suggested a clarifying sentence here or there in my introduction, but that’s all.  This is fairly common in my department, nothing extraordinary, but it still feels good.

Officially, I will receive my PhD in mid-August, when my university confers degrees that were completed during the summer semester.  I do still have to fix those typos and formally submit my dissertation to the university.  (Submissions are electronic these days, with much less stringent margin and formatting requirements than they used to require for paper copies.)  I’m also waiting to hear back from the referee on my latest paper, and I won’t feel mentally totally done until I’ve taken care of revisions on that.

To be honest, it still feels pretty unreal.  Did this actually happen?  Am I actually (almost) done?  My brain doesn’t quite know what to do with it, I think.  But it does feel good.

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The final countdown… to my PhD defense

After many years—so many it seemed like they would never end—and an enormous amount of stress, I am almost done.  In one week, I will be defending my dissertation, the final significant hurdle to being granted my PhD.

After working myself to my absolute limit to get the writing done, I now have a brief period to breathe.  My dissertation has been sent around to my committee.  I just need to prepare my slides for the formal talk part, and practice the talk, and remind myself of a couple of little details that I think might come up in questioning.

I waver between serene confidence and absolute terror—so, completely normal for someone at this stage.  In the last few months alone, I have had multiple panicky crises about whether I would ever get the research and the writing finished, but having reached this point, there is no real doubt that I will pass the defense.  My work is solid; my advisor had some extremely complimentary things to say about my last research chapter.  But the question remains: how hard will the committee make it, and how foolish will I feel by the end?

Wish me luck, readers!  I will let you know when it is over.

Dissertation status: my caffeine intake is up

June turns into July, and—as hesitant as I am to say this—I am making progress.  A little.  With extra tea.*

I submitted a paper a few weeks ago, and it came back rather rapidly with comments from the reviewer.  I have mixed feelings about this review: it’s not nearly as foolish as the referee report on my first paper,** but this referee clearly has An Idea that he*** wants us to explore, and the quantity of work required will be non-trivial.

A second paper exists in complete draft form and has been through an iteration of feedback with my advisor.  It’s back with him for more, and then we’ll send it out to co-authors for comments.  Still plenty of work left, but I’ve at least produced something concrete.

I’m currently working on the data visualization for a third paper, which is the first step in my writing-up process.  Once all the figures are made, I’ll write text describing what each one shows, and then write about what we did to get those data, and there’s half the first draft done.  This paper was originally going to be two papers, but they’ve merged into one large-ish paper as the results have come together.

And then there’s a final paper that’s kind of a stretch goal, and that one has had some data analysis issues and is otherwise just kind of waiting while I work on the rest.

I can see the end.  I don’t necessarily feel that I can make it to that end, and I feel stupid a lot, and anxious and generally incompetent, but the fact that I can actually believe there is an end is huge, and I will take what I can get.

 

*Three cups a day.  In the past I have found that this much tea eventually upsets my stomach, so I will have to cut back at some point.  In the meantime, I am enjoying the rare experience of feeling awake and semi-human during daylight hours.

**Fun fact: that post attracts spam comments more than any other.  I have no idea why.

***For subfield-specific reasons, the reviewer is almost certainly a he.

Shh, I’m writing

Self-congratulation time: I’m getting some writing done!  Writing for my dissertation, that is.  I’m writing up the second of three or four papers that will come together to make my thesis.  This one so far has an introduction, a methods section, a results section, and a couple of paragraphs (plus a bunch of notes) of discussion.  (Unlike some people, I don’t write the introduction last.  I like to get the first draft of the intro down once I have an outline of how the “story” of the paper is going to go.)

It’s hard mental work, but I’ve been coping with it better than usual.  I’ve been working really really really hard to turn off the part of my brain that says, “This writing sucks.  This project sucks.  This paper is terrible.”  That’s the biggest thing that holds me back, I think: the writing anxiety.

So what’s helping?

•  Approaching the first draft as a “vomit draft.”  (I stole that term from author Catherine Ryan Howard.)  The idea is that you dump all your thoughts onto the page, and in the true spirit of a terrible first draft, don’t do any editing as you go.  Turn off the little voice in your head that says what you’re writing is bad.  Just get words on the page, is my mantra here.  You can’t fix what isn’t there.  No one’s going to see this draft but me.

•  Pomodoro-style time management.  I’m using the free online Tomato Timer to force myself to work for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a short break.  Sometimes I’m actively writing during those 25 minutes, sometimes I’m reading or looking up numbers or references, but it’s always related to writing.  Technically you get a 5-minute break at the end of each, but I sometimes cheat and rest slightly longer depending on how worn out I’m feeling.

•  Treating paper-writing as a marathon, not a sprint.  Academia teaches—and even valorizes—putting tasks off to the last minute.  I often jokingly point out that the freshman-comp essays on which I scored the highest were the ones that I wrote the night before.  My research advisor, a widely respected tenured professor, almost always writes stuff a few hours before the deadline.  (I know this based on when he sends me proposal drafts.)  So getting out of that habit is hard.  But it takes away anxiety to say, I’ll do a chunk today, and then another chunk tomorrow.

•  Downplaying the importance of the paper in my mind.  I’ve written countless “research papers” for classes and internships over the years, so why do I find writing up my own research to be so hard?  It’s because academic culture has deified first-author research papers as The Ultimate Achievement On Which You Will Be Judged, and that freaks me out!  But freaking out means writing doesn’t get done, so I’ve started telling myself that this is just another class paper.  Just another school assignment.  You can do this.

•  Managing my depression and anxiety.  Of course.  All of the above techniques don’t work when your brain decides that it’s simply too overwhelmed to do anything today.  When you hide in the office and stare at your screen and think, I should write something, anything, but you can’t muster the willpower to lift your fingers.  I’ve been having some swings lately but the last week or so has been OK, and I’m hoping to keep it that way for a while.  I don’t work in the evenings.  I take those Pomodoro breaks.  I celebrate each small achievement.  (My husband gets a lot of “I wrote a paragraph!” messages throughout the day.)

In many ways, much of this is similar to the “write for 15 minutes a day” approach I tried last year.  That proved to have some flaws, though: it didn’t push me to do any of the other hard work of writing (e.g., reading references, making plots, making tables) and thus I found myself not having anything to say in my 15 minutes.  My current approach is more holistic, I think.

I’ll keep you updated on how this goes.  The current goal is still to have a readable (i.e., non-vomit) draft of this paper in to my advisor my the end of the month, and I feel on track for that.

What works for you when it comes to sustainable writing?

Dissertation status: slow

…said every PhD student ever.

I’ve come a long way since I first blogged about my grad school angst last year.  The Paper From Hell made it completely out the door and published, and I finally produced some results worth presenting on topics related to my thesis.  Currently I have:

  • One paper in polished draft form that is ready for more revisions after a second round of comments from my advisor.
  • One paper at the “figures + title” stage, where the results are basically done and now it’s a matter of filling in the text.
  • Data for two more papers midway through analysis.  The first of these two is going to be relatively quick and easy to write up; the second will involve a lot of “huh, what does this mean?”
  • More data that could be analyzed for another paper.

Which kind of sounds like a lot, now that I write it out, doesn’t it?  I certainly hope my thesis committee thinks so, when they meet in a few weeks.  It’s never that simple, though.

The almost-done paper is pretty cool, if I do say so myself, but the partway-done one is much more quotidian.  So of course I have a bunch of emotions about that:  Is the second paper good enough?  Will people be disappointed in me after the first one?  (Why do I care about that?!)  Plus, I only have a year left.  How am I going to finish all that in a year?!?!???

Oh, and only the very last bullet point, the one that’s farthest from being done, closely relates to what I said I was going to do for my dissertation.  I think my advisor’s not super thrilled about that, but he’d rather I be publishing the other stuff than not publishing at all.

All I can do is keep putting in the effort, day after day, and try to stay focused.  I’m trying really hard not to hit the freak-out point—that’s not good for my productivity!—and just take it one task at a time.

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging

• Sorting family photos and making gift calendars out of the best pictures of Little Boy.  His grandparents love these, and I love that they make my “what to get people for Christmas” decision-making that much shorter.

• Doing the rest of my Christmas shopping.  I have actually managed to complete this task with two whole weeks left ’til Christmas.  It helped that my family came to visit for Thanksgiving and we did most of the gift exchange on that side then.

• Thinking about getting back into knitting.  Not actually doing it, just thinking about it.

• Crossword puzzles.

• Preparing food for Little Boy’s lunches.  I made peas and beans and pumpkin and pears this weekend and thought we were all set for the week.  Mix and match with yogurt and applesauce and crackers and raisin bread and the nightly lunch-making would be easy-peasy.  But no—Little Boy decided that this was the week he was going to completely refuse to eat anything from a spoon, and so I had to scramble to find additional finger foods to pack for daycare.

• Reading Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  I’m only halfway through the first chapter, but my reaction so far is SO MUCH YES.

• Watching TV because I actually want to, not because I can’t think of anything better to do.

• Mentally gearing up for my vaguely semi-annual thesis committee meeting, which was today.  It went… well, it was an almost-indescribable combination of “look at these super-cool results” and “I feel totally incapable of finishing this thesis.”  It was not terrible.

Deep down in the PhD blues

I was trying to explain to someone today the feeling of impossibility that surrounds finishing this PhD.

It’s the feeling that no matter how much work I do, it will never be enough to check off all the boxes.  It’s the feeling that there will never be enough time—except it’s not that, exactly.  Everybody imagines that I must have so little time, as a parent, and that’s totally true, but time isn’t the limiting factor when it comes to research.  The limiting factor is my ability to cope.

I can’t pull an all-nighter writing when I don’t know what to write.  I can’t push hard for a week, because that will just leave me with another infinite pile of work inviting an infinite cycle of things I don’t want to do.

Grad school taught me not to set goals.  I lost the ability to achieve self-imposed deadlines.  My department’s deadlines have always been nonsense, unreal, the sort of thing to which people pay lip service but privately ignore.

I’ve seen the master plan with its step-by-step checklist fall apart too many times.  I don’t know which direction to think.  I don’t believe I can do it.  And that’s a hard place to be.

Sorry folks—my mind hasn’t been on a happy level of late.  Trying to cope.  Trying to face the fear.

SUBMITTED!

I did it.  I just sent the Paper From Hell off to a journal for peer review and, hopefully, publication.

It was a struggle to the very end.  After all of the fiddly little formatting details were complete, I had to convince my obnoxiously stupid collaborator to stop stalling and just let me know if she had any objections (she didn’t).  Then the internet connection on my office computer stopped working.  Goodness only knows what the IT staff in our department are doing to the network this time.

But in spite of all of that, and the many years of crap that came before it, the paper is submitted.  There were times when I thought this day would never come, but it finally, finally did.

This day also turns out to be National Donut Day, so I think I’m going to celebrate by eating donuts (yes, plural).  And drinking wine.  I hope we have some wine.

Reflections on Writing 101

For the past four weeks, I’ve been taking part in Writing 101, a free mini-course offered by WordPress.  Every weekday, I got an email with a topic prompt and suggestions for stretching my writing style.  All participants had access to a forum where we could share posts, explore others’ writing, and request and give feedback.

(If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, you can keep an eye out here for upcoming repeats of the course.  In the meantime, all of the daily prompts are archived here for use whenever you like.)

I was a little hesitant about signing up for this.  Would it take too much of my time or add an unnecessary level of stress?  Would participating in a WordPress course be like adding a flashing red “n00b blogger” sign to the top of my page?  Now that the course is drawing to a close, I can say that the answer to the last question is, “Probably not much more than anything else I do.”

Fortunately, the other worries, the ones about time and stress, turned out to be unfounded.  Of course, I skipped a lot (more than half) of the assignments.  Some days were too busy, some of my personal topics were too pressing, and some of the prompts required writing fiction, which isn’t the right genre for this blog.  But that’s the beauty of an open course: nobody’s keeping track of what you get done.  It’s all about what you get out of it.

What did I get out of it?  Good reads, new blogs to follow, a bit of thoughtful feedback, and a bit of writing inspiration.  However, the #1 benefit for me was the push to make a commitment to free writing.  Not on my blog, but on my PhD thesis.  Here’s what my office whiteboard has to say about that:

crazygradmama_day12_cropped

Pushing myself to just write something is proving to be a good plan of attack against the toddler in my head whining, “I don’t wanna write I don’t wanna write!”  There are days when my output is mostly meandering junk, or when I seem to be repeating thoughts that I’ve already covered – but words on the page are a step beyond words in my head, so it’s progress.  Some of that progress is real and measurable and awesome: I just sent a complete version of the Paper From Hell out to collaborators for feedback.

Here’s to reading and writing and moving forward!

A major commitment

Part of the Writing 101 assignment for today is to “commit to a writing practice.”  Specifically, they recommend taking at least 15 minutes every day for free writing.  No editing as you go, no stopping to re-read what you’ve written, just writing what comes to mind.  If you want to polish it up for a wider audience, you do that later.

This sounds like a really good idea.  When forced to do academic writing, I have found that the most important step is to just get something – anything – out on the page.  Large chunks of that rough draft will be crossed out and completely rewritten, but it’s somehow easier to write out a new paragraph when I have the old one physically in front of me.

At the moment, I’m not really interested in adopting a daily habit of pure free writing.  When it comes to just getting thoughts out of my head and into words, blogging has helped a lot, but I want to keep blogging as a fun hobby for now.  If I don’t have anything to say on a particular day, I don’t want to force it.

However, I do have something very big and very overwhelming that needs to be written: my PhD thesis.  What if I were to commit to 15 minutes of thesis writing every day, following the rules of free writing?  (Wait, isn’t there a book about this?)

No second-guessing my sentences, or worrying that a phrase is too cliché.

No pausing to look up citations.  No falling down the rabbit hole of reference after reference.

No messing about with formatting.

I could do all that later, once I’ve broken down the start-writing barrier.  Sources will have to be checked, graphs made, sections rearranged, and chances are that very few of my free-written words will make it into the final thesis.  But I have to start somewhere.

It’s a scary thing, making that kind of commitment.  I think I could maybe do 15 minutes a day – just sit down right when I arrive at the office and write – but officially declaring it a goal opens me to the possibility of failure.  If I don’t try, I can’t fail.  If I don’t try, I don’t have to face the guilt and stress and anxiety that comes with attempting to succeed.

But if I don’t try, I’ll never finish.  Maybe I’ll never finish anyway – although I’m leaning towards not quitting the program before graduating, I’m still undecided – but this is as good a time as any to try something new.

And so, as extraordinarily anxiety-inducing as it is, I make this commitment to myself before the entirety of the internet:

I will spend 15 minutes every weekday writing my thesis.  Just writing, no stopping to edit or thinking too hard about my words before they get to the page. 

To make this practical and feasible, I will allow myself exemptions on days with unusual circumstances.  If I have to stay home and take my son to the doctor, for instance, it’s OK that writing doesn’t get done.  Or if it’s the day before a major deadline and I’m feeling so stressed that I can’t concentrate on anything but the deadline – that’s OK too.  The key for me is to be consistent, not perfect.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Crap, that means I have to go do this today.  Ugh.  Wish me luck!