The Day I Submitted My Thesis

Hello. I have not updated this blog for a long time. There have been three main reasons for this:

  1. For a while, my research was going so spectacularly badly that I didn’t find it funny anymore.
  2. After that, my research started going unexpectedly well. This also meant that I couldn’t find anything funny to say about it.
  3. A couple of strangers wrote to me saying, ‘Wow, your blog is great and you’re so brave! Most other people would worry about it affecting their job prospects. But apparently not you!’

So after submitting my PhD thesis, when I was starting to really consider my job prospects, I read over my blog posts. I read lines like, I expect everything to fail before I’ve even started” and “the thought of quitting research after my PhD makes me feel relieved.  I decided to quietly bury this blog. I didn’t renew the domain and I removed the link from my social media.

That was almost two years ago. Last week, I was in the mountains trying to catch birds that did not want to be caught. I watched through binoculars as a bird walked into a trap, stood there, foraged around, then stepped out of the trap without setting off the trigger. Maybe that was what got me thinking about this blog, again.

I started this blog at a time when lots of things were going wrong that were beyond my control. The blog was my attempt to regain control of the narrative. If I could make my situation funny, then at least someone would get something out of it, even if I felt like I was pushing a pile of rocks in a trolley without wheels.

Of course, that meant I only wrote about things that went badly. I never shared updates about the things that turned out well. So today, I thought I would write about the day I submitted my thesis.

The Day I Submitted My Thesis

The day I submitted my PhD thesis was like a birthday, but better.

On my birthday, I usually celebrate by reading nice messages from people I like, eating all my favourite foods, and feeling like I have an excuse to do anything I want. The day I submitted my thesis was the same, except that I felt like I had actually earned it.

The best advice I have for anyone who is about to submit their thesis is: plan something. You only get this day once. Even if your plan is to stay in your pyjamas watching bad movies, or take a very long nap, fine – just have something to look forward to.

My thesis had to be submitted electronically. I sat at my desk in my dressing gown, filled in a bunch of forms, pressed a button, and that was it. The webpage said ‘Congratulations!’

I sat back and felt – what? Exhausted? Relieved? Empty? It was like dropping a big rock off the edge of the cliff. You’re holding all of its weight and suddenly it’s gone, but the aching in your arms and your back is still there. You can’t see where the rock fell, and maybe that wasn’t the best way to drop it, but it’s gone now and there are no more rocks and here you are, standing and looking around, empty-handed.

That’s why you need something to do.

I went to a floatation tank. This was perhaps an unconventional choice of celebration. For those who don’t know, a floatation tank is (usually) a large pod, similar to a bathtub, filled with extremely salty water. You climb into the pod, close the lid, and float naked in the dark for an hour.

I am not quite sure why I chose floating naked in the dark as my post-thesis-submission activity. It seemed as good an idea as any other. But for the first five minutes, while the pod played soothing music to get me settled in, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake. An hour seemed like such an impossibly long time to lie around and do nothing.

Then I started to let my thoughts wander.

Then I started hallucinating.

My highly artistic impression of the hallucinations I experienced in the floatation tank

I eventually emerged from the session feeling disoriented but liberated – which is also a good way to describe the feeling of finishing a PhD.

That evening, I celebrated with a bunch of friends – new and old – by watching Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ in a seminar room at the university. We drank bird-themed beers. It was a good time – one of the best days I can remember.

There is one other thing that happened, the day I submitted my thesis.

My partner and I were walking from our apartment to the university, heading there early to set up the movie. We noticed a cluster of people and emergency vehicles beside the tram stop. There was a young woman talking to a police officer, pacing and gesturing.

When we talked about it later, my partner said, ‘I keep seeing her face’. The woman’s eyes were wide, distraught, and she was talking fast.

Then we saw the body bag on the sidewalk.

I don’t know what happened for those people, that day. I don’t know what that young woman saw, or exactly how that person died, or how many grieving friends and relatives they left behind. All I know is that my best day was somebody else’s worst.

I understand that this is taking my light-hearted story of floatation tanks and bird-themed beers into a darker place. But I wanted to share the whole truth of my experience. The truth is that, during my PhD, sometimes it felt like my work was the biggest and most important thing in my life. It wasn’t. Sometimes it felt like the work would never end, or that it could only end badly. That wasn’t true, either.

PhD students show a particularly high risk of having or developing mental health issues. One survey of >2000 graduate students, published in 2018, found that graduate students were six times more likely to have depression and anxiety than the general population. Although this figure might be inflated, if students experiencing issues were more likely to respond to the survey, the results are still alarming.

I started this blog when things weren’t going so well for me, but I was okay. I had a lot of support from my supervisors, partner, family, friends and fellow PhD students. The ‘failures’ I experienced during my PhD still led to a happy conclusion. But I was also extremely stressed and busy. When you are stressed and busy it can be easy to lose perspective. You can end up so focused on this one part of your life that you don’t make time for other things that matter.

For me, these things will always be tied together in my memory: a ‘congratulations’ message, hallucinating in a floatation tank, celebrating with my friends, and this terrible reminder that our lives – and the lives of people we love – can end abruptly.

I am sharing this because I think it is important, because I don’t want to forget it, and because it was never recorded in my PhD thesis: celebrate every win, spend time with people you care about, and look after each other.

Feature image for this post (guy pushing rock) by Vicky Sim on Unsplash

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