When it all needs to come together

Riding the last wave of the PhD was a dream I have had for many years. I dreamed it to be a nice gentle wave that I could surf into paradise (or at least the next step of my academic career).  However, this wave has been deceivingly challenging to ride and sometimes I even wonder if it is going in the right direction.  Some lessons I have learned to those wishing to jump on the last wave soon.

First, communication is key. Communication with whom? With everyone. First and foremost, communication with your supervisor is the most important thing you can have. I would regularly have discussions about my thesis plan. Often this plan would change unexpectedly. It was not until I started writing down the results of each discussion I had with my supervisor that I could have a plan that was going to stay the same. I would have carved it in stone if I could, but a sheet of paper pinned to the walls of my office will suffice.  Every time this plan is about to change, I go back to the piece of paper that says…this is how we agreed it was going to be done…let’s stick to the plan. Every time I get off track with other things, the paper draws me back too. It is a powerful piece of motivation.  

Communication with your spouse, kids, family, and friends. I have written previously about the art of separating academic life and family life. However, on this last stretch, it is so difficult. I cannot stop writing chapters in my head at all hours of the day. My daughter’s math homework looks like it should be organized and formatted into Tables similar to those specified by McGill Graduate Studies Thesis requirements. My responses to simple questions are delivered back in thesis defence style. An illustration of such odd thinking:

My daughter: “Mommy, why is the my hair not as long as Rapunzel’s?”.

Me: Well Kissy (my daughter), the mechanism of rapunzel’s outrageous hair growth is unknown”. However, there is evidence that increase keratinocyte growth factor is required for optimal hair development”.

My daughter: Mom…what is kera….kera….that thing you said?

Me: It is something that makes Rapunzels’ hair grow long…it is only found in Asparagus. Eat your vegetables.

My daughter (note she is 4 years old): Mom you need a vacation.

The unexpected communication challenges I am facing are those which take place during my sleep. Sometimes I wake up exhausted because I have been re-enacting a thesis defence in my dreams for the last 4 hours. Better yet, when I am actually able to sleep peacefully, I often wake up to my husband blurting out best care practices for his emergency room patients. He is entering the last year of his emergency medicine residency and soon has the test of his life too to pass. So, either I am deriving formulas at 2am or he is trying to resuscitate the cat (while verbally outlining all the steps he is taking to justify his actions to some academic evaluators). Our bedroom is a strange place right now. We have been married for 6 years…and I am not sure this is what they meant by the seven year itch. I am hoping to finish the thesis defence at least 3 months before his exam, because clearly the two of us are not helping each other with the subconscious evening dream activity. He is still my biggest fan and I am his….the cat….not sure he likes my husband any more.

Next piece of advice to those PhD thesis surfers….go write somewhere without a connection to the world. No internet, no phone, no IPhone, tablet, nothing. If not you will find yourself blogging for Gradlife when you cannot write a conclusion to Chapter 4. My best work happens when I go to my aunt’s house to write. She has no internet, just a desk where my computer sits. I get so much done there.

One last thing. Keep in mind that we are a very privileged group of people who have the opportunity to complete such tasks.  It is often difficult for our family and friends to understand why we put ourselves through such rigour. Each of us has a reason for doing it, and the outcome will be outstanding.  For now, I suggest we can laugh through the academic madness, and use perspective to keep us grounded. Support your fellow grad mates, because we are the only ones that can unwind the tangled challenges that present at the end of a thesis. We are each other’s metaphoric  rocks- so let’s keep each other motivated, supported, and grounded in perspective. This is only a relatively short process in our lives- and many exciting doors will open for all of us in the near future.  Go McGill Grad students!


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