From PhD student to PhDone: Writing up that thesis

25 days ago, I submitted my PhD thesis.

I am relieved that it is now, finally, done. However, you have to forgive me for not writing elsewhere for a while. I’ve not been able to stomach writing anything beyond a text message recently. But I’m back. And I’ve missed writing. Since submitting, I’ve been immersed in web film projects, attending other people’s events and delivering media workshops – which are other future blog posts. Anything to get back out of my head and in the ‘real’ world. Actually, let’s not talk about reality. There are 8 pages on ‘reality’ that I need to learn for the viva.

At the peak of writing up, I was writing upwards of 5-7k a day – and I wrote 35k between Boxing Day and the 20th of January, it was such a rush that I can’t quite remember doing it.

Since my last blog post (advice with 12 weeks to go) I have been keeping notes about other observations about the end stages of the PhD,  I share this to pass on. I took so much from other completed PhD students when I was deep within it. I remember writing the first blog here about my PhD back in October 2009, speaking in abstracts and ‘what I intend to dos’ but little did I know how much of my life would be taken over, paused and later resumed by the process.

So this is my story of writing up the thesis. I have done this for my own posterity, a record of what happened to look back upon later on, but also to share my experience for others who might be entering and/or deep within this period. Increasingly universities are asking students to complete within the 3 years, presenting the PhD journey as neat and systematic process. For those of us who do not fit this model, we can often feel like failures or we are doing it ‘wrong’ – research can (and in some cases, should) be messy – and often it takes time. With research recently published on the welfare and mental health of PhD students, and the British Sociological Association (BSA) supporting events about supporting better mental health for early career researchers as a wider community of practice, I believe it is vital to talk about the ‘messiness’ of the process without shame, share our experiences to help each other over the finish line and beyond.

Back in July 2016, I made the (in hindsight, sensible) decision to stop pursuing precarious academic employment full time and returned to digital freelance life. It was a gamble, as I had exactly 9 months to finish the PhD before my registration period expired. I gave up (relative) security when it came to being plugged into an academic(ish) job and jumped off into full-time writing up, with a limited future projection into how life could be managed without my regular income and structure. Or even what writing up every day would look like. First, there is definitely a difference between the performance of a PhD student and completing a PhD thesis. I had never completed a large writing project before, what did I know about finishing a PhD thesis.

I was perhaps a ‘productive’ and ‘visible’ PhD student during my initial full time 2009-2012 registration period. I had published a couple of co-authored book chapters, attended and spoke at conferences, had teaching experience at 4 universities and had completed my PGCert HE and Higher Education Academy Fellowship. I got to travel to places, I was ‘invited’ to travel places (even cooler!) and I had collaborated on small grants. I had also had my writing and research in media publications (omg, the Guardian). However, there was a small factor missing in this equation. I did not have a thesis. I did not know how to write a thesis. I had various chunks of text in places, literature review, notes on things I had written for conferences and during literature searches, a lot of reflective blog posts and preparation materials for articles. But I did not have a focus to write my thesis. All this other stuff. All this other attention. And the thought of a long-term writing practice felt like it would conflict with this visible PhD student lifestyle.

I made a decision to return to my PhD part time in 2014 after attending a structured writing retreat that forced me to address the issues with the thesis (or lack of one). At this residential, I took all of the materials that I had ever produced as part of the PhD, and I spent the full two days structuring what I had into a thesis-like document. At the end, I had 20k organised using the writing platform, Scrivener. It was thesis like, it even had a sort of abstract – which didn’t change much from the final version I submitted at the start of the month. I felt a real release as well, very emotional– when before the feeling of panic about writing would often prevent me even beginning.

As I was writing full time, I would use the writing retreat model for the next 18 months, attending over 20+ that enabled me to carve days to work on my thesis and gain the headspace to simply write. Before then, writing was something that I did in snatched times – either first thing in the morning, or in a coffee shop ahead of a deadline. This model put writing and how I wrote in focus, rather than something you had to do on top of other work.

But this wasn’t enough, I was back into my habit of doing ‘everything but the thesis’ – and using the retreats as a catch-all. Because I had carved out time, it meant I was packing in far too much work so when I did go to retreats I was exhausted, struggling to focus and finding it impossible to see the end. At the end of 2015, I realised that I would need to change tact if I was to complete the document at all. I had submitted 40k for review in September that year. But I felt like I was writing the same 40000 words, never being able to break past that number. And I still didn’t think that my chapters were making sense. Nevertheless, she persisted.

It wasn’t until this time last year (March 2016) that it began to click into place. I started to rewrite my literature review (again), this time under three chapters, that later became two, that it began to really feel like a thesis. This took months. This was when I found myself, sitting at my kitchen table gym clothes and pineapple hair, staring at a wall covered in post-it notes with various themes I was drawing out (although writing this now, it seems like I had a plan – I definitely had a plan, it is just I had to spend most days giving myself a pep-talk that I knew what I was talking about). I rewrote my methodology and research design between October to start of December. I beat myself up for not having done this before I collected my data. I worked through this and realised that, actually, the writing process is as important as the data collection when it comes to an ethnography. My research philosophy became about writing stories into existence – when before I was totally hung up on what I didn’t do, comparing myself to other people who looked like they had had a ‘better’ PhD experience than me. With much word wrangling, I had finally mastered that ontology/epistemology patter.

When I hit December and realised that I had still to write two massive discussion chapters, my heart sank. I had received a letter from the graduate school to say I needed to submit my thesis ‘as is’ – five weeks early- and I honestly thought the game was a bogey. I fucking cried. And when I stopped crying, I pushed back. Got an extension to Hogmanay. I ramped up my writing, putting away over 4-5k a day, writing down all the numbers in a spreadsheet. I was watching everyone else around me enjoy their Christmas on social media, with the double whammy of being skint and unavailable. I now had jealousy to manage.

I wrote until 8.00pm on Christmas Eve. I hit 77k  as my final word count. The most I had ever written with 3 more chapters to complete. We decided to go out. I got drunk, fell over and almost broke my hand. Oops. Spent the Christmas morning at the minor injuries department, the Daily Mail would love me. I spent much of Christmas day in bed at Steven’s mum’s house, feeling sorry for myself and worried that I would not be able to write, especially as it was unclear that I would need my arm to be plastered. I was so much fun to talk to over Christmas dinner btw. On boxing day, I cut out 23k words of ‘notes and quotes’ from my 72k word total and started the counter again at 53k. For 3 days, I typed with one hand, accumulating 6k of findings that way before getting my injured hand checked out again. Luckily it was just a sprain, and I just needed to use it to stop it getting worse. Of course, I missed the Hogmanay deadline but gained a month extension.  When Christmas was out the way, I put my head down and wrote Chapter Five and half of Chapter Six (with only one day off from writing) by the 20th of January. It was here when I started to really fell the burn. I stopped working freelance, making the thesis the only thing in my life.

We went on holiday, which was booked to celebrate my mum’s 60th and (hopefully) the end of the PhD. I missed the deadline. Again. Oops. I wrote for 3 days of the 7 we were away, but by the Wednesday, I just couldn’t write anymore. I saw the wall, I hit the wall. I watwo-thirdsds through Chapter Six and I was writing the same thing over and over again. I was also feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I was exhausted and still unable to take a break. Despite being on holiday. I had worked every weekend since September and my brain and body just shut down. My dog broke his toe, I was locking onto Trump politics on TV and I was terrified of opening my laptop again. For the rest of the holiday I decided to just stop writing and relax. I had no choice. I needed to take a break and I needed to ensure that I was well enough to be able to finish it. I just felt myself retreat into myself and found it very difficult to drag myself back out. I was worried that I had reached the stage of burn out which caused me to drop out in 2012 again.

There was a smidgeon of me that thought that this was too much, I was getting sick again and this just wasn’t worth it. I did have a lot of there though. I did have a thesis. It was there. I just needed to get well again to write the most important part of the thesis, the analysis and the conclusions. This was the hardest part to get my head around, especially as I needed to work more on my findings. It was at this stage I decided that it would be worth investing in a proof-reader.

It was at this stage where I reach the turning point I desperately needed. I was so sick, both with the flu, ache-y body, that wouldn’t shift long enough to get well again and I was becoming incapable of rationalising out my anxiety. I had locked into this cycle that I was going to get asked to leave the university and kept replaying the story in my head about why I dropped out in 2012. Over and over and over again. I couldn’t sleep for ruminating.

Whilst Chapter One to Five were at the proof-reader, I went to the Doctors, who prescribed me beta blockers to manage the physical symptoms of stress. I had reached the stage where I was reacting to buying a loaf of bread in the same way I was processing my dog losing a toe. It was either all panic or complete despondence, nothing in between. Which meant I was also taking it out on everything that was not the PhD. The lack of sleep was also a worry, but the first night I had the beta blockers (which worked almost instantly) I slept for 13 hours. I also decided that being off work was not helping, making the decision to start accepting work requests. This helped massively. I like working, I like being around people, and 6 weeks of telling people I couldn’t do anything had taken its toll on me. I needed to get my energy from other people as I had none left of my own. However, the combination of getting my thesis back, fully edited and tidied up, new medication calming down my fight/flight reactions and engaging back in the outside world, fulfilling tasks within a short term capacity again all helped get me back on track to finishing the final analysis and conclusion chapters.

The final 5 weeks were a blur. But I was over the main hump. I knew I was on the home straight when I read through the completed chapters and saw it all coming together as one. Social media was really useful as well. I used Instagram stories to talk to myself but in doing so, I also spoke to other people going through deadlines. In the final months, I felt part of a wider PhD community in a much more meaningful way beyond having PhD in my title, just watching these snapshots of people’s lives that were just like mine. I was on track. I was at the stage where you print off stuff and stick to the wall. Great..

Twitter was also brilliant. There were people I follow who I have known since before I started the PhD, and all the other PhD students I’ve met in the process – to be able to actually land this thing in the same way I started it (online and publicly) was a major thing for me. I cannot describe the shame I felt when I left my PhD program, getting to the end – the real end – has been better than any high.

Writing each of the chapters was a learning experience, getting to the end of one and realising that I now know how to write this type of chapter. Perform this type of research. I was also learning and improving the craft of writing through doing it consistently for months. Being able to write and to communicate is taken for granted. For some reason, I felt so far removed from formal education despite being enrolled on a PhD and working in and outside a university. The last time I really wrote like this was when I was completing my MA in 2008. I had generated this belief that I had been in the wilderness for too long to be able to come back to it. Writing is something you did – and any writing I had done between 2008 and now had just been to get me by and fulfil a task. Ironing out the kinks and bad habits that had emerged over the years.  This writing I was doing now was deliberate and purposeful.

However, the journey of going from PhD student to thesis has been where all the learning has happened. Furthermore, the act of getting up, every day, and writing, even if you weren’t entirely sure if you were doing it right or if it was going anywhere. Managing your day so writing is a priority is easier said than experienced. I would be writing and I wasn’t sure how much would be a good amount in a day. I would faff about, take naps, worry taking a shower or going a run would take time out of writing, then not do either. It is ok to all or none of these things. But your brain will play tricks with you, it is a persistent mind game by the end. Every single time I dragged myself to the laptop, I had a ritual of writing on 750words.com to signal I was writing today. Some days I would only write there and then go guiltily back to bed. But, I wrote every single day for the time I was off. I found myself finding weird ways to reward myself, to celebrate success, to stay motivated. Because motivation is very finite, I was also working out the best time to call it quit (I am useless between 2-4pm) and making up for it later.

They say that thing about habits forming after 21 days? Well, I’m not sure if it was 21 days – but something happened between the wobble and the end where I realised that I don’t need to push myself anymore. I like writing, I’ve always liked writing, I just had a lot of shame about what happened in the past. However, here was me, counting down the final days towards submission, holding this document in my hand that was a PhD. Nothing that had happened before really matter anymore because I had managed to produce this thing out of nothing. Suddenly (and it did feel sudden) I was over the line, the excuses why I hadn’t completed had vanished. Like these demons had never existed. I understand how to write now and realise that I have it in me to do more, this time with the added bonus of hindsight and experience. It is a pretty powerful transition. Despite not knowing the outcome, I know that I have written this thing into existence. And with that I have gained so much more confidence in my own words.

In practising for the viva, I’m learning how to refer to the thesis as an object, speaking to it in past tense, practiaing what is in the document, rather than talking broadly about my research interests and stuff that excites me. I’m not having to dance around the subject, trying to get it to fit the conversation I am participating in. It is there. Sitting on the table next to me as a thing. I made that thing. That’s pretty cool.