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.”