The ugly.

Doing your PhD is not pretty. Your body will not thank you for it.

My PhD went smoothly until the last 6 months. Man those months sucked. It all started with a post-doc interview opportunity.

Taking time away from your PhD to interview for post-doc positions you don't get.

I got offered an interview in December for a post-doc I really wanted. Feeling pretty awesome. I have done a few interviews before so I had a general idea what to expect. However, never an academic one. I spent a week preparing for it. They flew me over to the UK. I had to give a seminar for the work I wanted to do in the future as part of the interview, answer questions about the pitch and then interview for the position. The process took about one hour.

I wanted to be excellent in the interview. But I was not. I was tired before I left Australia from working too much. I flew half way around the world. I was nervous. I was intimidated. I really wanted the position and this made me interview worse. I am glad to have had the experience but I was really disappointed I did not get the job. I really wanted that job. The worst thing is I was so excited about it and told lots of people. It was deflating to tell people I did not get it.

Why is my PhD not done yet? Seriously why?

This was about the time things really started to go down hill. Hamburg was starting to feel like a long time ago. As January approached my 3.5 year deadline loomed. I thought I would make it. I stopped taking public holidays over six months ago. Was working a lot on the weekends. Long weekdays at work. Short Christmas break. How could I not get done by the end of January?

I watched friends submit their theses. They struggled too. I could tell. I wonder if they were struggling as much as I was. Why was my PhD not done yet? It sounds strange to say. But I really struggled with this. I was working my backside off. Why is it not over yet?

Come mid January I started to loose the confidence that my PhD will ever finish. My husband moved to Germany to start a post-doc position. He had already spent the previous six months in Australia waiting for me to finish. So we decided it was time for him to move and I will follow when I could. We packed up most of our apartment except for the essentials. We rented there for 3.5 years. It was our home.

When he left it was pretty awful. With the help of my parents we packed the rest of the house up a few weeks later. This was when things went down hill fast. I spent long hours at work, moved house and flew to Hobart to present at AMOS. I worked feverishly to get results for the presentation. After that I went to Darwin to volunteer for a field campaign. I had a good time but it was busy.

Not a good time to be semi-homeless

When I came back to Sydney I was effectively homeless. For anyone who has rented in Sydney, they will know how expensive it is. I was living in the eastern suburbs which was lovely. But too expensive for one person. So I had to give up the apartment I loved.

I had good friends who took me in. The way they opened up their homes to me was incredible. I had one friend whose home was my base and others who I stayed with when I wanted to stay back late at work or could not find the energy for the 60+ minute commute. There is no way to express my gratitude for them. I hope they know how much it meant to me.

I spent two months living like this. Staying in other peoples homes, cooking when I could but eating out a lot. Sometimes toast for dinner. Too much caffeine. Too little sleep. Too much work. Too much stress. I knew what I was doing was not sustainable. I really did. But I thought it would only be for a few more weeks. That time would pass. Then I would think but there is only a few more weeks and continue with the same pace.

I spent at least four months working at an unsustainable rate thinking it would soon be over. When my January deadline sailed past me I was gutted that I did not get finished 'on time'. So I set a new goal of end of March. Another two months. This will surely be enough time. So I worked harder still.

I worked so hard and for so long that my brain stopped working properly. I had no clarity to my thoughts. I had lost the ability to retain new information. I was incredibly forgetful. I wrote mostly garbled sentences. I would stare into space for no reason. I tried to hide it from everyone. I feared that my weakness was something to keep to myself. I am strong. I am tough. I can brave it out. This is what I was thinking. It will be over soon and it will be worth it.

I am a person who gets noticed. I don't mean that in any self advertising way. I laugh freely. I speak my mind. I talk to a lot of people. People tend to know my name. The office area I worked in feels like a share house sometimes. Always people to talk to in the kitchen. Lots of people want to know how things are going with me. Many people care. I will be forever grateful for this type of office environment.

But it was my undoing as well. Because people know me, I got asked a lot about my PhD. I got asked a LOT. I could tell that often it was from a genuine place where a friend wants to know how I was doing. Other times it just felt like gossip. A measuring stick. I often brushed these conversations aside. Or said it was going okay. Or that I did not want to talk about it. More often that not it was the latter.

I stopped talking to people in the kitchen. I gave people don't talk to me looks. I was still not finished my PhD. I was working hard. People kept asking how it was going. Aren't you done yet? I wondered the same thing.

Three days before my deadline I realised I was not going to make it again. This is now the third time I failed to meet my target submission date. I was broken on the inside. I remember staying up until about 3am one night thinking how I got myself to where I was. I had no energy. I was so sore in my shoulders and neck that they ached all day, especially when I lay down at night. The skin on the back of my legs was rough and sore. My eyes were itchy. My mind wondered all the time. I could not concentrate. I felt like a zombie.

I refused to concede. Only weak people concede. A PhD is supposed to be hard. This was a challenge I had to face.

This attitude broke me.

Not the kind of broken that time won't heal. But the kind of broken where you can't look people in the eye. The kind of broken were you can't be hugged cause you worry you will open the flood gates and not be able to close them again. The kind of broken where you stop talking to people who care because you know they can see straight through you and you don't have the energy to lie. My attitude was dangerous.

Now I am acting like a zombie.

It affected my heath profoundly. The combination of stress, too much caffeine, eating poorly and disrupted sleep. I went to see my GP. I had insufficient vitamin D. No surprise there. The only time I was outside was late in the afternoon when I ran. My iron was so low that my GP told me I was putting my body at serious risk.

Twelve months ago I was on the lower side of normal which is normal for a vegetarian and nothing to be concerned about. Now I am extremely iron deficient and I don't know for how long that was the case. My GP told me it was so low I should be dead. I am not sure if he was joking. I hope he was. He did say it with a smile on his face. But he also told me to go for a picnic and eat a cow.

I had worked myself into such a state that I could not possibly work any longer. My body could not physically do it. So I made the only decision I could. What I was doing was not working. I decided to pick myself up, leave Sydney and move back into my parents home in rural New South Wales.

It should have been easy to lean on my family for support. But I found it hard to go home. I left the country when I was 18. I wanted more. I wanted to be an academic. I returned after I finished my undergraduate degree and could not find work. I was now doing it for a second time. I am a grown woman and soon to be 30. I am married. I am independent. But at the same time I wanted very much to be taken care of by my family. But I had to concede to the idea that I was not strong enough to do it on my own. I had to lean on other people for support. This was not an easy thing for me to do.

However I loved the idea of spending time with my family in equal measure.

Asking for help.

So I went home. It took two trains and a bus. In a little over 8 hours I was home. After I made the decision to go home I knew it was the right one. I took five days off. I slept more than I had in a long time. I ate good food.

I can not even begin to describe my bodies response. I had no idea what I did to myself until I started to come out the other side. I was starting to think more clearly. My body was still very sore but not as bad. I would have liked to have taken more time off but wanted to get finished so I could go to Germany and visit my husband. I spent another month finishing off my PhD.

It was a lot easier then before. I still worked crazy hours but not as crazy. I was taken care of by my family. They provided me with their strength. I came back to Sydney with a nearly completed thesis. Only needing to work on the last pieces and then it could be submitted. I celebrated it finally being over with close friends. The next day I flew to Berlin to celebrate my wedding anniversary with my husband.

Continue to the next part of this blog: the plain embarrassing »