The biggest time sink as hand-in date approached was no-one’s fault but mine and it boiled down to indecisiveness about formatting. The classic procrastination was over labels on figure numbers. Do I choose “Figure 8: Classic picture” or “Figure 8 Classic picture”? Who cares really? It doesn’t matter that much. In that late-PhD fog though, I just couldn’t make up my mind and so I ended up with 40 figures with colons and 50 without. Changing that around at 1am was, to put it mildly, a drag. I wish I had given it a bit more thought and been brutally decisive very early on.
Similarly, references came back to haunt me. Wanting to push ahead I had paid a student to build up my database. Oh, what was I thinking? Using an undergrad student who didn’t know the difference between journal article names and journal names! Scary but true and pretty alarming to discover half way through your reference list.
TIP: Use willing students to help where possible in your research process but check their work!
The biggest time drain, though, was simply due to formatting a PhD size document. By the time I was finished my thesis clocked in at 353 pages. (That’s not untypical). A simple check on header formats would take an hour. Even adjusting and checking chapter headings took half an hour because there were 15 of them. Before you get too far into the document indulge in a day or two to choose formatting that really works well for you. And then stick with it.
It’s so important to have separation while studying, but how do you make sure that the necessary separation doesn’t become hurtful? How do you avoid resentful children en route to a lifetime of therapy? This was a tough one for me. I didn’t want Brett and Hannah to feel that they couldn’t have access to me but I also needed them to know that my PhD room was a different room from the others in the house.
When they were very little I would leave them with care-givers and tell them that I was “going to Mars”. “Going to Mars” they understood, really meant going down to the shed-study at the bottom of the garden, but in their vivid imaginations I was on Mars. If they wanted to contact me they would use the “inter-planetary” phone. And of course there were exceptions to the galactic separation. Needing a cuddle with mama was reason enough for warp-speed space travel, with me happily beaming back down to earth, because cuddles are available at any time – no questions asked.
I have a pet theory that the PhD process is at least part about unresolved issues from childhoods. At least, it was for me. (There are probably less expensive, less time consuming and less stressful ways of working through such matters than by doing a PhD by the way). At 40 I still felt angry at streets which seemed to treat the working class kid I was in an unnecessarily cruel way. These streets created dark scary alleys I had ran through and un-crossable chasms of deaf, inhuman vehicles. Someone (who?) had designed long winding suburban routes that made my journeys on foot long and painful and had designed roads which created the pools of water I had to wade through.
At 40 I still felt pained remembering Harry, a close cousin lost to a road traffic incident. This tragic loss of life compounded my frustration with the status quo. Moving to South Africa, one of the most road-violent countries in the world just highlighted the injustices further. Some years into the PhD process, when I was struggling to gather the necessary level of de-personalised ‘objective’ dispassion for a good piece of research I realised that my research question was driven at least in part by this anger. It’s OK, I realised, to be motivated by the anger, but in a PhD you can’t let the anger blind you.