Wait, You’re Still Not a Dr?

This post is inspired by my friend and fellow science blogger, Soph Arthur from Soph Talks Science; earlier this week she wrote a blog post about handing in her PhD thesis (huge congrats, Soph!), and why she hasn’t made the jump to Dr Arthur yet. I thought her post was a brilliant way to explain the process of PhD examinations and awards – handing in the thesis is often seen as the final step before gaining your PhD, but there’s actually quite a lot more to go after that.

I handed my thesis in at the end of June, and had my viva at the end of August. The viva is an oral examination (usually face to face) that is designed to push you to your limits, to check that you did the work contained in your thesis, and to have some discussion around what you might have done differently and why. Mine had 2 examiners – 1 external (someone from outside my University), and 1 internal (someone that’s based at my University), and it last an hour and a half. At the end of those 90 minutes I was asked to leave the room, and 5/10 minutes later I was called back in to be told that I’d passed with minor corrections. That’s a pretty common result. At the University of Aberdeen ‘minor corrections’ means that you have 3 months to make the changes requested by the examiners, and only after that can you apply to graduate.

So it’s currently the beginning of October, and I’m STILL not a Dr.

I know. ANNOYING.

Post-viva, pre-corrections.

Anyway, that’s entirely my own fault. I completely avoided the thesis until last week; I just didn’t want to make the corrections, I didn’t want to read what I’d written for what felt like the millionth time, I just wanted to continue being super proud of myself for getting to this point and passing the viva. Unfortunately though, if I don’t make the corrections and get my ass into gear, then I will never be Dr Gardner.

After a very helpful catch up with my supervisors, I began tackling the corrections earlier this week, and I’m on track to finish them by the start of next week. I will finish them, and I will send my (hopefully final) thesis to my supervisors so they can have a quick look over it before I send it back to my examiners. Hopefully they will be happy with it, and I can then start getting excited for graduation – if I get things in order and turned around quickly I should be able to graduate on Friday 23rd November.

If I get my act together, that means I’ll be able to call myself Dr Gardner in about a month and a half. No pressure.

The Bit Between Thesis Submission and the Viva

My PhD viva is very, very soon. I submitted at the end of June, and my viva is at the end of August, that little interlude is  a pretty good outcome – 2 months. Some people wait much longer, and I’m grateful that my supervisors and examiners were able to organise a date that did not mean I was left hanging.

At this point (bear in mind that I’m writing this pre-viva), I think that the 2 month gap has been pretty perfect. It has allowed me to take a step back from my research, relax a bit and get back into a new routine, and also feel ok going back and reading my thesis. I’ve heard that some people find it difficult to go back to their thesis after submitting; I spoke to a colleague last week who said “Ooh, have you read it again yet? I couldn’t read mine for months”. Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case. After taking an entire month away from it, I’ve now gone through my thesis a few times – it’s full of post it notes, scribbles, and little tabs directing me to each section. I’m just getting to know my own writing again, but on the whole I’m pretty happy with it. I know that there are bits that could be improved, pieces of text that could be re-written to improve clarity or flow, but it’s unrealistic to think that a thesis is ever going to be perfect. My thesis is the result of a 3-year training degree, if it was perfect I may as well quit research now. I know I can keep learning, and that’s the thing I’m most excited for when I think about pursuing a career in academic research.

That said, the last 2 months haven’t been particularly easy. Truthfully, I am exhausted. My brain doesn’t feel the same as it did when I was writing my thesis; I keep making silly mistakes with things – nothing major, just stuff like scheduling a meeting on the wrong day and having to re-schedule, or forgetting to do simple things. I’ve spoken to a few very lovely people who have experienced this weird not-yet-a-Dr stage, and I’ve been assured by every single one of them that this is totally normal. That’s a relief, but it’s still irritating.

If anyone has any hints and tips for the viva, please do let me know! At the moment I’m using Rowena Murray‘s ‘How to Survive Your Viva’ as a bible. I found her book ‘How to Write a Thesis’ really useful during the writing process, so I’m hoping that this one will get me through the viva too.

For now, I’m taking a few days off work to really focus on the thesis. Hopefully the next blog post I write will be with good news post-viva.. keep your fingers crossed for me!

The Post Thesis Hand In Slump

I submitted my thesis at the end of June, and things have been a bit weird since then. After talking to a few people that handed in months ago, I’m realising that this feeling of weirdness is totally normal, and incredibly common. So, in true Heidi style.. I’m blogging it out.

The day of thesis hand in was fine, the weekend after thesis hand in was great (I’m still telling people about the baby reindeer that I wasn’t allowed to bring home), and then I started to feel… weird. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, but it’s definitely weird. It’s like I’ve lost motivation but at the same time I want to achieve more than ever before – my ambition is in tact, I just don’t have the drive in me right now. I am emotionally and physically exhausted, and at the same time I’m frustrated that I’m able (and willing) to nap for at least an hour at any point during the day.

As I said in a recent post, I’m back at work having started a Research Assistant role. Honestly, I think this job is absolutely perfect for me right now. I need a very clear list of things to do that can be broken down into manageable tasks. Achieving those tasks and staying on track is helping me to feel some sense of satisfaction, whilst ensuring that I don’t have an entire project that I’m fully responsible for. This role allows me to do that whilst freeing up time at evening and weekends to spend time doing stuff that isn’t work.

So, what’s the plan for the next few months?

First, I’m going to give myself a few more weeks to let this weird feeling linger. During the coming weeks I’m going to make sure that my Research Assistant stuff is done on time and to a high standard, and then after working hours I’m going to keep working on creating products for Science On A Postcard, and getting involved in public engagement projects. Those creative projects are fun but help to keep me feeling productive, and they always remind me why I love what I’m doing. Then in the first few weeks of August I’m going to kick myself into touch and start looking at my thesis again ready for my viva.

Essentially, this blog post has been a pretty self-indulgent way for me to say that after you’ve handed in your PhD thesis, it’s totally cool to feel a bit lost and weird. Hopefully those of you that have handed in/are about to hand in will get some comfort from this – no wonder I’m exhausted (and you will be too), I literally just wrote a book.

So, I Finished My Thesis

I haven’t posted anything on this blog for what feels like a very long time – in actual fact, it’s been about 4 or 5 weeks. In those 4 or 5 weeks I finished and submitted my PhD thesis.

*Pause for dramatic effect.*

I KNOW.

I actually did it, I got comments back from my Supervisors about a week before my submission deadline, and they were minimal. I was incredibly relieved, because by that point I’d mentally checked out. I made the changes over the course of about an hour, checked formatting etc, and then sent it to print.

I’d like to introduce my newborn baby, born 3 days ahead of her due date on Tuesday 26th June, and comprising of 61,622 words spread over 250 pages; welcome to the world ‘Making clinical trials more efficient: consolidating, communicating and improving knowledge of participant recruitment interventions’.

Mother and baby are both doing well – I suspect baby better than Mother at this point.

Really though, I am exhausted. I took a week off after submission and spent time reintroducing myself to my family, my boyfriend, and the idea of having a social life (and books, I have read lots of books). I went to Aviemore for the weekend and spent time clambering about in the Cairngorms and trying to convince aforementioned boyfriend that introducing a baby reindeer into our life would be a really good idea (I did not win this argument and I am still living sadly in a pet-free home). After that though, I felt really unproductive and like I was wasting time (that goes to show how alien relaxation felt), so I relaunched my Etsy shop with a whole bunch of new products.

I’m now back at work. I was lucky enough to secure a job as a Research Assistant based with my PhD Supervisors so don’t have to worry too much about money and that whole being unemployed thing (hoorah!). My brain still doesn’t feel like it’s functioning at full capacity, and I am ridiculously tired all the time, but I’m getting there. I rejoined the gym and yesterday I missed the England match (yes, the World Cup has absolutely sucked me in – it’s coming home etc etc) in favour of returning to my weekly hot yoga class for the first time in about 3 months. I’m getting back to blogging, so you can expect more frequent content over the coming weeks, and I’ve managed to work in some freelance writing too. Life feels a bit more normal.

Actually, now I think about it, it sort of feels like the process of writing my thesis didn’t really happen; time went by so quickly that it’s a weird blur in my mind. The only real evidence I have that it happened is a bunch of blog posts tracking my progress, the thesis itself, and the addition of a significant amount of baby weight.

Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Weeks

I just realised that I missed my ‘T-Minus 1 Month’ post, so I’m quickly putting together this T-Minus 3 Weeks version so that you can see where I’m up to with my thesis writing.

In my last update post I set some aims:

  • Literature review – STOP MESSING ABOUT AND WRITE THE BLOODY THING!
  • Systematic review – Slot into final thesis structure.
  • Qualitative study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • User-testing study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • Thesis introduction – Get a first draft written for the beginning of May.
  • Thesis conclusions – Get a first draft written for the middle of May.

I want an entire working thesis draft by the end of May – that’ll give me a month before hand-in to ready through it a million times, tweak things, ensure I haven’t repeated myself a million times, and then make sure that the formatting and referencing is correct.”

Spoiler alert – it’s now Sunday 10th June and I do not have a full draft. I am very nearly there, but certain bits of editing and writing have taken longer than I thought they would.

Anyway, where am I at?

Current word count: 63,966 (that’s the entire document, appendices etc included)
Current page count: 247

Introduction

I’m almost there! Just need to rewrite my thesis-rationale section and this bit is officially off my to do list (for now).

Literature review

DONE. It’s done! Weirdly enough, once I’d gotten over the ridiculous amount of procrastination I did to avoid writing this chapter, it wasn’t so bad. Once I’d got comments back from my supervisors, I actually enjoyed the editing part. Weird.

Systematic review

DONE! This chapter has been written, edited and written a bit more. It is complete.

 

Qualitative study

NOT DONE. I got comments back from my supervisors a few weeks ago so I need to go through and edit, refine etc etc. This is the chapter that I’m most dreading – it’s a black hole of imposter syndrome and whenever I go back to it I feel like I’m not good enough. Time to get rid of that feeling and get it done!

User testing study

DONE! This chapter has been written, edited and written a bit more. It is complete (for now).

 

Aims for the next week or so

Looking at that, I don’t actually have that much to do at all. It’s totally doable in the next week or so. Time to knuckle down..

  • Thesis rationale – By the time I leave the office today, I’m going to re-write my ‘Thesis rationale’ paragraph, that will mean that the entire thesis introduction section is complete to a standard that I’m happy with.
  • Systematic review in context – This is a sort of short bonus chapter that comes after my Systematic Review, and provides information on the other reviews that sit alongside mine. I need to write this. I already have bits of text in various documents so I don’t anticipate this taking a huge amount of time, I’m going to try to get this section done on Monday.
  • Qualitative study – This chapter needs a whole lot of editing, which I think will take me 3 or 4 days to complete. I plan on doing this Tuesday-Thursday/Friday.
  • Thesis conclusions – Each of my results chapters have their own conclusion sections, so this chapter is about bringing everything together and making recommendations for future work. I have a tonne of ideas for this chapter because I’ve discussed the contents of it with my supervisors a few times already, so I’m hoping that means it won’t take me too long to translate those ideas from my head on to the page. I plan on doing this Friday-Sunday.

I’m then going to try and print out a full version of my thesis (oh my god!) on Sunday afternoon, so that I can go through it on Sunday evening and Monday and ensure that I haven’t missed anything obvious. Tuesday 19th I plan on sending my thesis to my supervisors for one final look over, and then I’ll have time to make any final edits, tweaks etc before I submit on Friday 29th.

Thesis Update – T-Minus 3 Months

I’m now 3 months away from handing in my thesis. 3 months sounds a lot friendlier than 12/13 weeks, so I’ve going with that. I’m coming strangely close to the end of the PhD process, and to be honest I am feeling a bit sad about the whole thing. This PhD has been brilliant – even the bits that have been tedious or boring, I’ve enjoyed because I’ve found a subject I’m passionate about. It will be very, very strange to have this thesis done and handed in, but I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to secure a short term contract that will keep me working with the wonderful team at HSRU until the end of 2018 at least. That’s a big weight off my shoulders, and means that my thesis needs to be done! Anyway, here’s an update with 3 months to go; I wrote a blog post with 6 months to go and said “there’s work to be done but I think it’s doable!” – that’s where I’m still sitting now, I know that I can get this done and handed in on time, I just need to really knuckle down for the next 3 months.

So, how far have I got?

Literature Review

In my last update post, I aimed to:

  • Sort out the categories of papers into more manageable subsections, and work them into a sensible order. Get at least 3,000 words written.

I’ve sorted the categories of papers into various folders that will help me to write sections of the literature review, and they are in some sort of sensible order. Confession time – I have not written 3,000 words. To be honest, I have done absolutely everything in my power to avoid writing this literature review; my flat is spotless, there is no dirty laundry at all, I’ve seen all the films that I’m interested in that are currently showing at the cinema, and I’ve found complete strangers to puppy-sit for on Borrow my Doggy (if you don’t know what this is and you really like dogs, I suggest you go and sign up asap) – proof below.

There’s also an unfinished 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle taking over my living room floor. Seriously, the jigsaw thing isn’t a joke. It’s been there for over a week now.

ANYWAY. This week I’m locking myself in my office at home, and I’m getting a first draft of this literature review written. I am done messing around, avoiding it and finding literally anything else in the world to do instead – this thing is getting done this week – pinky promise.

Now, moving on to a more positive part of thesis progression..

Systematic Review

Last time I checked in, my systematic review was sitting at 33,496 words, and it had gone to my primary supervisor for comments. The comments were pretty limited, which I was pleasantly surprised about. The majority of the comments were related to changing the presentation of the results section to cut down words and make the chapter as a whole flow more easily. I made those changes and the chapter is pretty much done – it’s now 25,387 words which I’m much happier with.

I’ll have a final read through it when I put all of the thesis chapters together to ensure there’s no repetition in the introduction/background sections etc, but for now, it’s off my to do list (hoorah!).

Qualitative Study

I’m pretty happy with where I’m at with this – I handed in a first draft and got comments back from both of my PhD supervisors with lots of brilliant pointers of how to build on what I’ve already got, expand my points and set my findings in context with the wider literature. Next steps are to go through these comments and make improvements etc. I feel pretty confident with that though, which is nice; I had a meeting with my supervisors to talk through changes etc and they were really helpful so it’s just a matter of me making time to do it, and getting on with it.

Currently, it’s sitting at 15,610 words and it will undoubtedly grow by another thousand of two by the time it’s finished.

User-testing Study

In my last update I mentioned that the qualitative document that I had then, needed to be split up into 2 separate chapters – I’ve now done this, and I have a ‘qualitative study’ chapter, and a ‘user-testing study’ chapter. I used the writing retreat that I went on at the beginning of March to work exclusively on this user-testing chapter, and I made some really good progress. I handed in a first draft to my supervisors in the middle of March, and already have comments back to work on (side note: having supervisors that actually engage with my work and want to help me develop my skills is the absolute best thing; if you’re looking for PhDs at the moment, please, please make supervisor choice a priority – it makes a huge difference to your experience).

This chapter is currently sitting at 8,384 words, and I expect it to increase to ~9,500 words or so once I’ve gone through and addressed comments etc.

Aims for the next 2 months
  • Literature review – STOP MESSING ABOUT AND WRITE THE BLOODY THING!
  • Systematic review – Slot into final thesis structure.
  • Qualitative study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • User-testing study – Address comments and slot into final thesis structure.
  • Thesis introduction – Get a first draft written for the beginning of May.
  • Thesis conclusions – Get a first draft written for the middle of May.

I want an entire working thesis draft by the end of May – that’ll give me a month before hand-in to ready through it a million times, tweak things, ensure I haven’t repeated myself a million times, and then make sure that the formatting and referencing is correct. Phew. This is all getting, very, very real.

Thesis Writing Full Time #2: Creating Structure

I’ve now been thesis writing pretty much full time for about 7 weeks. I’ve still been dipping in and out of work for other projects, leading the organisation of a new local branch of Soapbox Science (our speakers have just been announced – see the brilliant lineup we’ve secured for Aberdeen here!), designing new products for Science On A Postcard, and flitting about at Buckingham Palace.. so it’s not all been thesis-based. Anyway, I feel like I’ve finally got into a routine so thought I’d share that – hopefully it’ll be useful for those of you also writing up and struggling to find your groove.

I said in my last ‘thesis writing full time’ post, that the most productive times for me were between 3 and 6pm, and after dinner until I go to bed. As it turns out, that estimation was wildly wrong, and I just happened to be most productive during those times because I forced myself to focus during those times (that said, I am writing this blog post at ten past 9 on a Wednesday night, so many the night owl thing has some truth to it..). I’ve now found a much better routine, and it involves just getting on with work no matter what time it is. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. This structure thing takes time and dedication, and it’s actually quite difficult to force yourself out of bed an hour earlier just because you ‘should’.
I went on my first writing retreat last December and thought it was brilliant, so brilliant that my parents gifted me another one for Christmas, but it was the second one that I went on (March), that really forced the need to create structure into my brain.

As I said in a blog post about that first writing retreat, Rowena Murray’s retreats rely on a set structure made up of writing blocks, non-negotiable break times, and a distinct lack of distractions (the health app on my iPhone genuinely thought I’d been asleep for 3 days because my phone hadn’t moved from my bag during the entire retreat). During my first retreat I thought I’d got a lot done, but knowing what was ahead of me meant that I prepared much more effectively for the second, and I finished a thesis chapter a week in advance of the deadline (I know, shocking!).

This writing retreat structure is brilliant, it forces productivity, and in the words of Rowena herself, it forces ‘self-efficacy’. So, how have I managed to translate this seemingly magical structure into real life? I’ve been using the Forest App to force myself to focus (I see the irony of needing an app to reduce my ability to be distracted by technology, but it works for me), and I’ve been blocking out writing slots (an hour or an hour and a half depending on how much I want to achieve), and then.. just getting on with it. That’s been great, but it’s easy to find something to creep in and take that time away from me.

Enter, the wonderful Lucy Hinnie. I met Lucy at the March writing retreat where we bonded over a shared love of the fact that Rowena Murray was actually making us more productive, baked goods at break times, and RuPaul’s Drag Race (do not judge us, that show is a cultural masterpiece and I will hear nothing against Mama Ru).
Anyway, she’s continued to be fabulous from afar, and today she ran the first #remoteretreat via Twitter. This took the same structure as Rowena’s retreats, and judging by the response online, it was bloody brilliant. I didn’t manage to make this one, but Lucy is forcing our productivity again next Wednesday (28th March), so I wanted to draw attention to it.
I’ll be joining next week’s #remoteretreat but will need to skip out for an afternoon meeting – join us at 9.15am (GMT) to set goals, and then get writing!