Category Archives: Getting through the PhD

Submitted: now what?

Submitting my thesis was not the relief I thought it would be.

After receiving feedback and comments from two of my PhD supervisors on my draft thesis, I worked for a few more weeks on updating and editing the manuscript. Until finally, on the 28 June 2013, I walked into the Faculty secretariat and handed over eight pristine printed and bound copies of my thesis – several years’ work condensed into a box. And it was a seriously underwhelming experience.

The secretariat of the Faculty was almost apologetic at the lack of pomp and ceremony. “Ok, that’s it, thanks”, I was told. And that was it indeed. No taking it back now. The waves of relief I expected, the rush of joy: none of that hit me.

Since then I’ve found myself with plenty of work to do to keep me busy, but not quite so busy as in the last months of the thesis finalisation (I am not working weekends, hurray!). All the items on my to-do list that had been dropping in priority were suddenly again near the top. I found myself carrying out research again, finding out new things, preparing papers for conferences, developing ideas for publications. It’s actually quite nice and exciting. But I have a niggle in the back of my mind. I feel like all of this is just me killing time until the Big Days. Those Big Days are the two defences I have to do.

My internal defence is scheduled for the 26 August. In Belgium, the PhD defence system involves two steps. The first step is an “internal” or “private” defence with the members of the PhD jury. In my case, I have seven professors on my jury. If the majority of these professors agree that my PhD is sufficiently good then I can go on to defend my PhD publicly. The world and its mother can attend the public defence if they so wish – and the public is invited to pose questions also!

The jury can make one of three decisions:

–> the PhD fails – that’s the end of the road;

–> the PhD needs some (usually considerable) corrections: the researcher needs to make the corrections, resubmit and go through the internal defence again;

–> the PhD is good enough to pass and can go to public defence.

Needless to say I am crossing fingers for option number three. But it’s still a strange time now. I am waiting for the procedure to continue, but everything is out of my control. After several years working on one project, it’s an odd feeling to think about it being judged (probably harshly) by people I hardly know.

T-minus circa six weeks and counting to Big Day number one.


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Made it!

On 10 May, I handed a full draft of my thesis to my PhD committee… And then I enjoyed a weekend off for the first time in ages!


Not quite passed the finish line yet, as the doctoral committee have three weeks to read my thesis. The committee members (three professors) will then give me their comments on the text. I will have about three weeks after that to update the text, change parts etc. according to their comments (which will hopefully not be too many with nothing too drastic requiring change!).

The next steps for me include proofreading, checking formatting, taking care of the references and all that jazz while the committee are reading, before updating the text after I receive their comments. Nearly there, but it was such a relief to have handed in the full text already!

Getting close to the finish line…


Filed under Academia and research, Getting through the PhD

When all the world is partying…

In those final months and weeks of writing-up, there’s a cloud of guilt every time I do something other than writing… The world can party on St. Patrick’s day, but I’ll be here tapping away at my laptop.

There are two breaks from my laptop and my various draft chapter versions I foresee over the next 8 weeks (besides when I’m sleeping): the Easter weekend when I visit family, and Earth Hour on 23 March when I’ll turn off the lights and the computer. Beyond that, I cannot manage to pull myself away from work: whether that is actually writing, re-reading chapter drafts, thinking about what needs to be written next, panicking when I discover there’s a vital piece of information that I’m missing, or feeling guilty for watching rugby games when I should be writing (thank goodness the Six Nations is over, and not only because both Ireland and France sucked this year and it’s something we’d rather forget…). 

I don’t mean to make the whole PhD process sound like hell, it’s just a bit testing at times. But the light at the end of the tunnel is there! And in some masochistic way, there is a real pleasure to be found in seeing the pages mount up, and the number of corrections reducing… Plus there is a massive community of people out there who are going through the same, or have gone through the same. If they can do it, so can you. I often take heart from seeing comments on twitter from fellow researchers on a weekend when they are also knuckling down to their own to-do list.

Working on Sundays is not forever, just for the moment.

P.S. Happy St. Patrick’s day

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Filed under downtime, Getting through the PhD, Health, Uncategorized, Work/life balance

Welcoming 2013

This is not another blog post about New Year’s resolutions and how to stick to them, I promise….

My new year is off to an excellent start. Today is day one of getting back to the grindstone after ten days of madness en famille, but I’m spending it sitting at my desk at home with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, another blanket over my lap, a cup of piping hot tea beside me and a box of tissues to hand at all times. Unsurprisingly, I am in no mood for making new year’s resolutions. And in even less of a mood to keep them. And just thinking about my history with resolutions, I want to say that I blame reality and the world and society for any resolutions I’ve ever made that I’ve not kept!

Calvin and Hobbes: "Reality continues to ruin my life"

Calvin and Hobbes: “Reality continues to ruin my life”


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Developing a career plan

Career planning is a distraction from everyday task lists, but it cannot be ignored as the PhD comes to a close…

This week, instead of doing my PhD, I have been thinking about what I want to do after my PhD. Somewhat futile, since the thinking about the after has delayed the after actually coming about… Yet, all PhD researchers that have an end in sight inevitably get distracted with thoughts of the future, and this may be no harm. In fact, it may be a smart move, considering the story in the Guardian newspaper from August that many recent PhD graduates really struggle to find a job, and that doesn’t mean for those of us who may want to stay in academia with its famous lack of opportunities and lack of job security.

But even if a future in academia is not on the cards, it is worth reflecting on the sort of skills that have been developed during the PhD process, and how/whether they can be applied to other sectors. I’ve started asking myself some questions:

– What do I enjoy doing?

– What am I good at?

– What are the skills I’ve developed over the last number of years?

– What are the skills/what is the knowledge I would still like to learn? (How and why?)

– What is my expertise?

– Who/what organisations/companies/institutions are looking for that type of expertise?

– Where would I like to be in ten years’ time (or even five years’ time)? And how will I get there?

I have  a few people on my radar who have the sort of jobs that I would like. My mission over the last week was to figure out what skills do they have that I may be lacking, what experiences have they built up that I may still need to add to my CV, what path did they take to get into their current role and was it the best/most efficient pathway? Can I follow their footsteps?

It’s a very useful way of really identifying a few of the next, short-term steps that I need to take to get to where I want to go. And even better, with the world of “Linkedin”, it’s actually quite easy to spy on other people’s career paths! (Is that a bit cheeky?)

I’ll keep you posted, and in five years will let you know if I’m happy with where I’ve ended up!

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Chapter drafts and dust balls

I just don’t know how people do it… Cleanliness as the first casualty of overwork

There are many examples of people who work on their PhDs, have a part-time job, and a family and social life, and I am just baffled about how they do it. I don’t have children and the work I do on the side of my PhD is usually part of a strategy to advance my post-PhD career (publications, teaching, event organisation, module development, research projects etc.). But even at that I struggle with overwork, lack of sleep and grumpiness around my husband (who, incidentally, also works super long hours)!

Recently my husband and I were looking forward to friends coming to visit and stay with us from Switzerland. But we were both so busy with work and so tired in the evenings that we simply didn’t get around to cleaning the apartment. That was until the very evening before these friends were due to arrive. Then with a last-minute deadline gusto we set about doing laundry, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, and cleaning on the one and only evening that we could take off. The whole experience was horrible! It took four hours to get through the work, and we had lots of stupid arguments about vacuuming and dusting and scrubbing the shower!

That sort of angst is not worth it.

As a follow up, we have decided that it is perhaps best for our relationship and for our work-life balance that something gives. And in the end, it is the cleaning that is the first to go. We can’t reduce our workloads at present, we can’t ignore our sleep requirements, so we’re going to ignore the dust balls that go floating through our living room. Or at least, pass the responsibility onto someone else. Practical decision: let’s find a cleaning service.

It kind of grains against my sensibilities that we have proven too busy to take proper care of our home. But, sometimes pragmatism must win out over pride. Drafting chapters, and not sweeping dust balls, is number one on my to do list!

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When the writing doesn’t flow

How do you overcome the writing block?

Some days writing is easy. You sit down, you retrace where you left off, you start writing and you enter ‘the flow’. Other days you wonder if ‘the flow’ really exists. Is this ‘flow’ a myth? Have I actually ever experienced it? Is it an elusive writer’s fantasy? You can get so bogged down in the ‘I can’t write’ frame of mind that the way out seems blocked.

But, as with any down time, there is always an up time. The silver lining, so to speak. It’s just a case of keeping the chin up, being confident you can get over this block and not getting overwhelmed!

I’ve come across a few strategies that can help, depending on who you are and how you work. Some people suggest that setting aside two hours everyday at your best (most productive) time of the day for writing is essential. Two hours every morning? Two hours at night? Whenever. Others suggest that blocking yourself off from the world for longer periods of time is more effective – you are living with your piece of writing and it’s all there is in your life! A friend of mine recently completed her thesis. I saw her yesterday for the first time in six months. She moved back in with her parents in the countryside for those six months, cut herself off from distractions and just wrote the damn thing! Anyway, everyone has different ways of working, but if you don’t know yours it’s good to test a few options.

For those days when writing two sentences seems like dragging blood out of a stone there are some simpler tactics. I like to write something, anything, to get my brain into the creative mood. Emails don’t count – they are usually about responding to requests or writing requests and are not the most creative things in the world. In fact, they are a distraction. But anything else: a short outline of what I’m going to write in this chapter, an introductory paragraph, even a blog post to get me started. All of this helps go from ‘ah, I can’t write’ to ‘I can put some sentences together’. It’s a start!

And then, it’s important to take breaks. Not just to drink coffee (which, let’s face it, may be tasty but isn’t healthy), but also just to change scene, let your brain settle, get some fresh air. Sometimes even taking a day off if you struggle several days in a row is the best thing in the world to do. You don’t want to accumulate a habit of unproductive days, so just take a break, take a day in the park and come back to it again fresh and rested.

So, now that I’ve gotten my fingers typing and my brain constructing sentences by writing this post, here’s hoping I can get into ‘the flow’ today!

P.S. if you like more structured, targeted PhD thesis writing advice, check out the book “Authoring a PhD” by Patrick Dunleavy.

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Filed under Academia and research, Getting through the PhD, Thesis advice, Writing