Thoughts on finishing my thesis and PhD

Posted by barb on Apr 23, 2008 in Random Thoughts, Thesis/Grad Life |

I suppose I haven’t blogged this here yet (though it did make it onto Galaxy Girl), but I successfully defended my PhD on April 11. Since then I’ve been working on revisions, but they need to be turned in by Friday, so will be completely done in just a couple of days.

Just after I turned in my thesis three and a half weeks ago, I started hearing things like, “You must be so happy to be done with your thesis,” or “You must be relieved to have that done,” or “You must feel a real sense of accomplishment.” The truth of the matter is that I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I chalked that up to the fact that I still had my defense to worry about.

For the two weeks that followed, I put together my dissertation talk. In some ways, it sounds like an easy thing – after all, it was only to be 20-25 minutes. However, being asked to turn 5 years of work into a 20 minute talk is a real chore. I debated taking auctioneer lessons to learn to talk faster, but settled on giving the digest version of much of the work, and hitting on the important and interesting results. I also studied the concepts in my thesis, so that I would be ready to field any of the weird questions my committee might come up with. All the while, I knew that I would finally feel a sense of accomplishment once the defense was over.

I won’t mince words. I was very nervous the day of my defense. I won’t go into details, but I have to say that as it was becoming obvious that the private questioning by the committee was drawing to a close, I was surprised. I had thought it would be more of an ordeal. Maybe it was because I tried to keep the mood light in the room, at one time even calling one of the committee members a “crazy man” (in jest, of course). But, after it was over, I still didn’t feel my sense of accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong, I was relieved that it was over, but I didn’t feel like I’d done anything great.

Since then I’ve been working on revisions to my thesis, and taking some much needed R&R as I can. Will I feel the sense of accomplishment that I keep hoping for when I submit the final thesis to the University on Friday? I have a bad feeling that the answer is no.

Any regular readers know that I have struggled with my thesis and my role as a grad student ever since I returned to finish my PhD in late 2002. I’ve debated quitting since about a year after I returned. I discovered that I don’t really like doing research, at least under the constraints that my thesis imposed (i.e. meetings only once a month at most, and very little interaction or discussion on my thesis science). I’ve kept going, it feels, only because I’m the kind of person who finishes what they start, rather than finishing to satisfy my need to follow my data and analysis to a logical conclusion. In some way I felt trapped, miserable in what I was doing, but unable to stop because I don’t like to be a quitter.

It seems that my thesis has become more an object of distain, hurt and frustration, so it’s hard to view it as a grand accomplishment. It feels more like I’ve decided to stop hitting myself in the head with a 2-by-4 after years of thinking it was the right thing for me to be doing. There’s not much sense of accomplishment in finally ceasing something that has caused so much pain and frustration. Maybe in a year or two I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something. For now, I want to throw my thesis across the room every time I look at it.

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