Epilogue: What's in a name?

Today, the 17 September 2014, my PhD was conferred (technical speak for completed). I found out almost two weeks ago that I had fulfilled the requirements of the degree. It was the second happiest day of my life. My wedding was the day that beats it to date. Today it became official. Today I can use my 'Dr' title (which I will admit to day-dreaming a lot about, especially during the last year or so).

I have a goofy grin while I write this cause I still can't believe I have done it.

People tell me that when their PhD was conferred it was not a big deal. But for me, I fought hard for it - really hard - so I think I am enjoying it more and appreciate it more because of the struggle.

Given how relieved I was to have it awarded I felt the need to close this series of blogs with a more motivating ending. I regret nothing I wrote in the previous blogs. They were my honest and vulnerable truth as I saw it at that time. But I also wanted to share how good it feels to come to the end and be rewarded for the effort.

I will give a recap on what happened after I submitted my PhD. Don't worry the last few months have been just as rubbish as earlier months this year, so if your reading this like you would watch a horror movie for the blood scenes and Hitchcock music then stay tuned cause there is some of that too.

Submitting my PhD was hurdle number one after running a ultra-marathon. Hurdle number two is getting the damn thing accepted. At the finish line I could see a cap, a gown, a framed certificate, a title and the promise of a "Despicable Me" minions grin. These things helped to pull me over the finish line.

What happened after I submitted my PhD?

Well in my case, I flew to Berlin the next day. I took less than two weeks off and then started up as a guest researcher in the Meteorology department at Freie Universität. I was crazy to start again so soon but I only had 3 weeks in order to get ready for my first international conference talk. I needed the time to work on making paper quality plots, as opposed to thesis quality plots, and collect my thoughts about what the content of my talk all means.

I plan to write about the conference in a new blog but have let it slip through the priority list. So I won't dwell on that too much here. Other than to say I got my reviewers comments back the morning of my talk. Not great timing as the marks were not a good as I was hoping. A sure-fire way to throw away my confidence. But I had enough wisdom to avoid reading the reviewers comments. Save that for when I arrive back in Berlin. I was also motivated by a great TED talk by Amy Cuddy on how to fake it til you make it. I recommend it: here is the link.

When I got back to Berlin I read my reviewers comments. I was pleasantly surprised by one of the reviewers who was less critical of my work than I was about it. Almost all of the corrections I agreed with and the thesis improved for the better.

For my second reviewer things were a little harder to navigate. There were some very large holes that were found. Some valid, I have to say. Some made me think that maybe they were reviewing someone else's thesis and confused the manuscripts because mine was surely not that bad.

So its June at this point and I am in Berlin. I am in a wonderfully interesting and exotic city, its a beautiful summer but I am stressed, starting to freak out and my back is sore and tight again. When I left Sydney I had been under pressure to get my thesis finished. Apart from all the obvious reasons, I wanted to get it finished so that I could graduate in November (I already had return flights paid for) in which my husband and very close uni friends will also graduate. So this was my time line to get my degree awarded.

After the conference my focus shifted to getting a visa to stay in Germany, which is where my husband is a doing a post-doc. I successfully managed to get a visiting scientist visa but with far more work that I initially anticipated. I would guess it took about a week full time (possibly longer) to organise the correct insurances, translations and paperwork for the visa. My visa is only for five months so probably not good value for money in a time sense. But I am certainly glad to stay in Germany.

After getting my visa, my brain shifted from visa-brain to conference-brain. I was preparing for a second conference, GEWEX, this one I am up to date with blogging about. See the link here.

After I arrived home from The Netherlands you would probably be thinking, ok I guess she took time off now, I was thinking that too. But no. Thesis corrections were waiting for me.

Correction time

So I got my results back. I planned for my thesis corrections to be finished by the end of August. This gave me two months to make all the recommended changes, rewrites, new figures, new sections, extension here and contractions there. I started work on it as soon as the corrections came in but I did not commit completely to it until July.

I spent the next two months solidly working on the corrections. I added about 90 pages during this process, to a thesis that was already 200 pages. I apologise to anyone who reads it. Its a monster.

It is August at this point and I am four months post submission, with very little time off and a brain that did not want to cooperate. When I submitted I felt almost defeated. I was feeling pretty low but overcame a large challenge and felt proud about that.

Two successful conferences and a prize at GEWEX made me feel like I was building my confidence back up, which was scrapping the bottom of the barrel in the two months prior to submission. While doing my thesis corrections I found my confidence did not just scrap the bottom of the barrel, but it was totally gone. To continue along with the barrel analogy, my confidence was scooped out, the vessel smashed and set on fire. Here is why.

Because one of my markers gave me a major revision grade it meant that my thesis had to be internally reviewed by a panel of experienced scientists across the breadth of science at my university. They meet once a month and the outcome of my doctorate rested in their hands. It was a vulnerable and powerless position to be in. It also culminated with a complete breakdown of all confidence and at times my self worth. I understand the process is necessary for thesis that do not meet the expectations of the degree. I am just embarrassed and ashamed that someone thought my work fit this description.

Doing the corrections was at times very challenging. To correct things that I agreed with was rewarding as it improved my work. To logically argue my way through changes I refused to make, because they were not what I considered to be the point of the work, was much more difficult. I think now it might have been easier and quicker to just do the suggested work than to argue my way out of it.

Then I had to prepare a document which described the changes I made, quote the relevant new text and justify my responses. This task was infuriating. To start the process I had to do this in Office. Let me start by saying I did my thesis in LaTeX. Let me also point out that I have an advanced certificate in how to use Office so that was not an issue for me. But the sight of that document made me want to throw my computer out of the window then go outside and jump on it.

It started with my reviewers comments. I had to scribe one of the reviewers comments by hand as I did not get a version of the .pdf that I could copy and paste. Big waste of time.

So for each and every comment or suggestion I had to copy and past out of my .tex into my .doc then expand my description and/or justification. This is innocent sounding I suppose. But when you have rage from the stupid paint brush, your working in a table that has not been font managed ahead of time and your trying to be direct but not rude - it can make you pull your hair out.

I had to repeatedly copy and past the same paragraphs into multiple cells to address multiple comments on the same problems, give page numbers that moved the more text you added ... growl... ok so at this point I could continue but I will not. I am going to stop complaining about this. I understand their perspective that they need to see how you have improved your work. But at the same time it does not mean I have to like it. As I write my blood pressure has gone up, I am typing harder than I mean to, I am now angry and there is no need for it now. My thesis is done.

So lets speed though to where I have the comments done, they went to the meeting, they got approved and I got awarded my degree.

Because I am on the other side of the world while this is happening I was not entirely sure if my corrections even made it to the meeting. While it was not my intention in anyway it still came down to the wire. I was really anxious about the whole thing. The major cause of the anxiety was the fact that this was the last meeting before the cut off to graduate. Remember the motivating factor that got me to hand in my thesis and at times the whole reason for my existence, this is what it felt like though its clearly a little exaggerated, but I wanted very badly for my PhD experience to be OVER and to have my damn title.

Fear and loathing

I do not work well under pressure. I shut down.

I have never been more critical of myself. I have never put my body through as much. I have never been as emotional. I felt this when I was finishing writing my PhD. I felt it again with vigour during the thesis correction process.

So I ask myself a fourth time. Was it all worth it? I have previously answered, no, yes, no and now I trump them all with a goofy grin and say yes it was, but I won't lie about it being the time of my life. Parts were really crap. Two distinct blocks. Before it was submitted and during the corrections. I think people who look back on their PhD time probably think about the feeling they had when its done or when the graduate. Not about how hard it was. Maybe this is why we often hear the good stories and not the bad. But I think its more likely that people are not willing to be vulnerable about it.

I had given all I could to writing my PhD. I had only enough time off to adjust to jet lag and continued to push through. The thesis corrections took away the last of my confidence, it shredded my desire to want to be a scientist. I have not shared that with anyone, so its interesting that I choose to share this so publicly. I can't recall ever questioning myself or my direction in life. But during the corrections process I truly looked inside myself and asked the question: "Do I want to be a scientist any more?"

I found myself standing on the academic cliff. Do I jump off, quit my dream and concede that I was not good enough or not smart enough to make it happen. Or do I put on my big girls pants and move on. I was living day by day at this point. I could not think beyond this. Just process today, get as much done as possible and eventually it will be over.

I had a similar feeling back in Sydney before I left to go home to finish my write up. But that feeling was "is this worth it". A subtle but very different question. Do I want to be a scientist anymore? I asked myself this as I walked home from a particularly bad day at work. Is feeling this crap about myself and my work worth it. Once more I was feeling the same as I did before I submitted my PhD. Had I really leant nothing from the experience. I even reflected on what I did wrong, wrote a blog about it and yet I did it again.

The day I asked myself that question was a hard one. I have wanted to be a scientist since I was a child. So to have this question come out of my subconscious was a shock. What was even more of a shock to me was at that point I was not sure of the answer. The science I love was still present. But it was now tainted with pain, resentment, judgement, failure and pointlessness. Was it worth being miserable for?

This feeling stayed with me for a while. After my revisions had been done and the process was taken out of my hands I was often revising this feeling. Should my thesis not have made it through the meeting I honestly do not know what I would have done. I had considered the scenarios for all possible outcomes. If my worst case scenario occurred (which was that I would not graduate in November) I can't be sure I would want to continue in science. At times I was ready to pull the pin on the whole PhD, just seconds from the finish line. In moments on anger, fear or exhaustion I did feel like this. But calm would find me and I knew I would never quit my degree so close to the end.

I did not quit. I can say now that I am stronger. I am more determined. I have a thick skin. I can handle rejection. I can speak my mind. I can question others. I can defend my opinion. I want to be a scientist. These are the skills I have been developing that strengthen my character and resolve.

I don't believe that I will ever question myself like that again. At least I hope to never question myself like that again. I have chosen to stay on the science path. I just need some time to fall in love with it again and get my old self back.

Celebrating my PhD being awarded.

When I found out that my thesis had 'met the requirements of the degree' I cried. I am not ashamed of that. I was at work, in an office I share, so I left to go on a walk. I walked home to get champagne to chill. I had a little cry and that fixed things a little, but I still held the tension and anxiety. I Skyped my mum and dad to share the news with them and I cried like a family member had died. I think it confused them both cause they saw this as a happy moment. I don't think they understood what was riding on the outcome. A highlight of the day was drinking French champagne in the park with my husband. I think this photo pretty much sums up how I felt about it.

I am not even sure I fully took stock. I came to a career cliff and thought about threw myself off it. Instead I found myself with a PhD and my damn title. The bloody title which I fought so hard for. The one that now makes me smile like a "Despicable Me" minion.

So two weeks have passed since I got my PhD news. I still have not taken that month off that said I would. Instead I am writing a research grant application for a self funded post-doc position. A process which has been far more enjoyable that I expected. Since coming to the science cliff I feel kind of liberated thinking about the science I want to do. Technically the next few years are mine (funding, projects, and employers aside) to research what I want. That is a rewarding feeling. Though technically I have spent the last 3 years researching what I want but the context now is simpler. Maybe I am not a good post-doc yet, in fact that's highly likely. But things are not so black and white now. PhD/no PhD. That phase has passed. Now its a job. Being a scientist is my profession. I am not a student anymore. This is a liberating thought.

A good friend of mine at the CCRC, and an early career scientist herself, told me that your PhD is just the beginning of the stress cycle and as a post-doc I will be worried about publishing so much I can't even recall all the papers titles. Getting a job. Thinking forward. Looking for the next job cause they are so short. Setting up collaborations. Teaching. Supervising. I acknowledge they are all coming but for now I think I will just sit here in my PhD glow for a whole yet. I am sure in the months-years to come I will blog about these topics and how my opinion on them changes.

A key point of my previous blog 'Reflections' was to comment on how hard my PhD was on me and ultimately reflect on the experience. I now have a bigger picture perspective on it. I do not regret anything I have previously written about the experience. In fact quite the opposite. It was liberating and so many people have given me great support, feedback and told me some of their horror stories. In this way I consider my story heard and I got to experience the stories of others as well.

If I could give advice to a last year PhD student it would be simple: Do not give up. EVER! Oh and once its submitted don't assume its good enough. Prepare yourself for round two. In the end it will be worth it. It just won't feel like it at the time.