The bad.

I spent the first two years or so feeling pressure to perform for my PhD. Mostly internally generated. This is the sort of person I am. I want to achieve great things. I push myself harder than I should. I set unrealistic deadlines. I suppose this is true for most people who take on a PhD.

PhD induced chronic pain

Early in my PhD I developed a migraine. Sounds innocent enough right? Wrong. I developed a migraine in April 2010 that I still have today in May 2014. Some days I have a jack hammer in my head that can get so loud I just want to sit in a ball on the ground and pull my hair out. Other days I can block it out like white noise. It is constant with varying degrees of intensity.

The simple reality is my PhD gave me chronic pain. The long hours sitting at a computer, the tension in my neck and shoulders. I worked though my pain. My supervisor understood and supported me. My family supported me.

People often ask me how I can put up with it. The only answer I have: what other option is there? I know what I want. Should pain stop me? This is a really hard question. I was doing everything right. I took breaks, my desk was set up correctly. I exercised. I slept at least 8 hours a night. It happened anyway. I started my PhD very healthy. The same can not be said now.

Unrealistic expectations

I wanted to finish my PhD in three years or under. I did not just set this as a hopeful goal. In my mind it became a truth. I would not say, 'if I finish in three years' but 'when I finish in three years'. While I was organising my Hamburg trip I realised that I was not going to make the three year deadline. The reality was hard to swallow. I am not going to be one of those people who finish their PhD on time.

Sometimes I wonder if I could have made it without my headache. I can't know for sure, but probably not. Its easy to say to myself its not your fault you have not been well. But I see through this excuse and chastise myself for thinking it.

Writing papers is hard: do I really need to look over my code again?

I arrived back from Hamburg with a new perspective and a strong eagerness to get my PhD done within 3.5 years. That gave me until the end of January, 2014. Totally doable right? Wrong. I found writing really painful. The experience of writing my first paper was hideous. I did what I thought was good work. Before sending drafts to my supervisor I would lay out logic that made sense to me and would do some editing. I would rethink about the significance of the work, what the results mean etc.

Each time he shredded it. Metaphorically of cause. In hindsight each draft I sent him totally deserved it. They were rubbish. I now really appreciate the honestly. At the time the criticisms were difficult to read. I found it really hard to be so bad at something. I am not unaccustomed to being bad at things. I fought my entire way though high school. Fought harder still during my undergraduate degree. I found that learning new things does not come easily to me. But I really thought that writing papers would be something that I would be good at.

I have always struggled a little with spelling and grammar. I came to terms with this a long time ago. I try to better myself. I had no idea how hard it would be write papers without these skills. In addition I find it hard to communicate what I am doing. I am bad at describing the big picture. I hate introductions. I don't read enough papers. Put all this together and it does not paint a good picture. My saving graces are that I find programming easy and enjoyable. I am a perfectionist. I am independent. I can solve my own problems. I have an eye for detail. I don’t quit. Without these skills I am not sure I would have made it this far.

Writing papers is so much worse that I could possible have imagined. I had no idea that it would take so long to write my first paper.

But the good news is that the more papers I write the better they are. The quicker they are to do produce a draft manuscripts. The easier it is to get results when you can already see how you want to write the paper. The ease of making paper quality plots from the beginning. The foresight to write parts of the introduction while your reading papers.

One thing that surprised me about writing my first paper is that I still needed to error checked code which I had previously tested and thought was right. Only to discover bugs. And even more bugs. Then when you think that its all good ... bam another bug. Thankfully in my case none of the bugs I found changed the results I had. They were all minor.

When I find a bug in my code, my heat rate increases, my hands get clammy and my first instinct is panic. I worry that this bug could be a game changer. Is my paper now rubbish because of this bug? Oh god other programs call this piece of code too are they all wrong now also? It is a hideous feeling. I heave learnt at this point to walk away from my desk. Get coffee. Go outside. Anything but look at the code further. If I try to fix it there and then I find it hard to shake the stress and I over react.

I had no idea that when you write a paper you look over almost all of your code again. That was an experience as I coded in IDL and Python for the first paper. For later papers I have code in Python, NCL and Fortran. Also scripting in CDO and bash. Its an interesting challenge for your brain to switch but easy enough in time.

Writing my first paper was not an enjoyable process overall and took so much longer than imagined. However the satisfaction of getting it accepted in the Journal of Climate, especially since it was my first publication, is pretty awesome.

Continue to the next part of this blog: the ugly »