You can survive



When I started my PhD journey a few years ago, I never imagined that I would finish on the operating table.

It’s now been a year since I defended my PhD. I’m proud to say I survived. I passed, too, but that hasn’t really sunk in yet. When I took on the challenge of doing my PhD in pure mathematics, I knew I had to find my internal superpowers in order to cross the finish line. I must admit I thought those superpowers were linked to academic and professional skills, but in retrospect I see that those skills were less important.

I felt a need to write this blogpost on the Thesis Whisperer because I want other PhD students to realize that life interferes with your PhD, sometimes more dramatically than you can imagine, but it’s possible to survive and pass the PhD. And I wanted to write about it so that, hopefully, something good can come out of my experiences.

No-one told me that a PhD is never done separately from everything else in life. I was somehow naive enough to imagine that the biggest challenges in my life as a PhD student would be passing my exams, or getting that article accepted for publication. I was, however, blessed with a supervisor with more wisdom and experience, and whenever hard things came up, she was always understanding and empathic.

I was not prepared to deal with the toughest exams and a dying grandparent at the same time. Neither did I know what to do when I was pregnant and banging my frustrated head against that wall of impossible mathematics.

And what was I supposed to do when I gave birth to a child with a tough start, requiring a lot more care and anxiety than I had romantically expeced? (I actually thought that it would be possible to breastfeed and do research simulatneously!) And what could I do when my first paper was due almost at the same time as my daughter’s operation? Somehow, in my simple and naive mind, I thought the first was enough pressure.

Fortunately, what I learned from these experiences, was that life interferes with the PhD all the time. Four years won’t go by without life treating you with pieces of chocolate. And remember, when it comes to chocolate, you never really know what you’re gonna get.

I guess that’s how I survived when I had to face the day of my defense. I still remember the silent morning on the subway, the cold and dark winter morning when I had to look myself in the mirror and constantly remind myself that it was all about standing on my feet. If I could just stand there, it would be over in a few hours. I had dreaded the day of the defense since I started my PhD, the horrible trial lecture topic and the even more horrible examination and critique from the opponents. This morning I was just numb. I didn’t feel anything.

The nightmare started the day before, actually. I was 10 weeks happily pregnant with my second child, and woke up to some slides that had to be proof-read. And a small bleeding. At first I thought it was nothing, and went to the office as if nothing had happened, but after a few visits to the bathroom, that creepy feeling hit my gut: something was wrong.

I remember crying all the way home from the doctor’s office with the bad news on repeat in my head. And a promise that I would be able to go through the defense. The treatment could wait another two days.

I don’t remember feeling much on the day of my defense. Maybe a small hint of courage (I never thought I had in me) when I splashed my face with water before the trial lecture. Maybe a sense of relief when they announced that I had passed. Mostly I remember feeling that I had to remind myself how to breathe, and that was the only thing I could do.

And I remember being forever thankful to everyone in the audience. To my daughter, my husband, my parents, my supervisor, my friends, my fellow students, my professors. I could never have done it without them.

The traditional dinner after the defense was perhaps not as filled with laughter, relief and touching speaches as it normally is. But it was nice, nontheless.

When the bill was paid and the guests had left the restaurant, I felt empty. It was over. Until my body decided it was time to give me another challenge. I got a small hint, ran to the bathroom, and realized I could possibly bleed to death if that continued.

The ambulance took me to the hospital, and I thought, will this day never end? I remember looking at a clock in the corridors of the hospital. Five minutes to midnight I was on the operating table.

The day ended. I survived.

And people tell me that I passed my PhD.

Author Bio: Karoline Moe is an enthusiastic mathematician and singing mother, working hard to lead a happy life. She holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Oslo and is currently working as a subject librarian in mathematics and researcher at the University of Oslo Library, University of Oslo.