Reflections, one month after my PhD Thesis submission

Hi all!

Haven’t been writing for a long time. But if you follow me on Instagram, you might have noticed some major life updates. In case you haven’t, here’s for the posteriority:

I submitted my PhD thesis on April 26th 2019. Hooray!

So I’m releasing this post 1 month after. I honestly had, for a very long time, no mental energy to write about anything. And as soon as I submitted my thesis, I went on a weekend to Alentejo (the calm Southeast region of Portugal) and then on a trip to three cities (Bogota, Colombia; Madrid, Spain; and Frankfurt, Germany), all in the span of two weeks. And, right after, I had to work some more for PhD related manuscripts and presentations. So I basically didn’t have much time to let the feelings sink in.

I would love to tell you that, even for someone like me who enjoys writing, that the writing process was very structured and happy and that I could actually tell you that I spent 2 months writing exclusively. That never happened. Every person writes differently, every dissertation is different. But I can share a bit of what my timeline was and tools that helped me.

My thesis is, at the moment, a 180 pages long book. I am now waiting for the examiners to provide feedback and to let me know if my thesis is ready for the public defense. Contrary to the UK and North America, the full defense is public in Portugal. Both the seminar and the discussion with examiners. So, two examiners will provide their opinion, and then a date for my defense has to be scheduled.

“The Secret of Getting Ahead is Getting Started” – Mark Twain

Writing this thesis started in 2016, when I was still on the first year of the dissertation work. I was aware, after my experience with my MSc thesis, that time is so short and there are plenty of delays and changes of direction during a PhD. So, back then, I felt very energetic and structured and I was writing one hour every Tuesday, using the Shut Up and Write scheme, in the UK time scheme. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would put in another Shut Up and Write hour following the North American timezones and sharing how both 25 minute periods went on Twitter. I didn’t follow the scheme again for a very long time and it saddens me to see that the group has closed its operations, but you can always do your own and join a peer group. I also became part, in 2018, of a Slack community of people writing their thesis called GradWriteSlack. This community was created and is actively run by Krishana Sankar (well known on the Scicomm IG community for her page) and this community was also a good source of support in the final stages of writing. Of course, you can (and should) meet with someone in person going through the same. Real story, once I was so uninspired that I dragged a friend down to get our laptops on a nice brewery in Lisbon and write. All about the change of scenery!

I ended up not changing my intro substantially from those introductory pieces of writing I got from my thesis initial literature review. I also wrote quite a lot in 2017, when I moved to the United States to perform the health economics part of my thesis work. But another thing I also wrote a lot of was…code!

“While there’s code, there’s bugs”

Like doing experiments in the lab, writing code also leads to a lot of mistakes, lovingly nicknamed “bugs”. Especially when your programs are quite long and have to accomodate for different case studies. I have four results chapters on my thesis, and for each I had to collect a lot of data, update the structure of my code, write the corresponding research articles, make figures, troubleshoot, etc etc. So I felt that, as writing the manuscripts for each results chapter was more important, I left the full thesis writing to the end. And, in the meantime, I still had feedback from those academic writing pieces and had to change things.

“Portuguesa? Tens um sotaque diferente…” (“Are you Portuguese? You have a different accent…”) became the question I heard the most in these last months in Portugal

Maybe the third most frequent after the dreaded “When are you going to defend?” and “What will you do after the PhD is done (or, in other words, do you have a job already)?”

One thing that I also noticed was the nightmare of every bilingual researcher. I wrote and spoke so much in English that I actually was starting to write badly in Portuguese. This happens to a lot of people. Even writing a 1500 word overview of my thesis and a 250 word abstract in Portuguese was quite daunting when all the standard scientific jargon is in English. I believe that it was one of the reasons why I tried to write a bit more in Portuguese for my IG account. I lived almost 2 years in the United States nonetheless, but I returned to Portugal almost 6 months ago, so I am still baffled by how I still mix in my head Portuguese and English. I don’t know if my accent changed that significantly (bear in mind I lived in Czech Republic as well in the past, and I lived in Aveiro, where the accent is a bit different from the Lisbon area). But, even if people in Portugal think I am not Portuguese when they look at me, I still get asked a lot by foreigners if I am Russian or if I speak Russian. Go figure :p

Burnout is real.

On the PhD and science communication communities on social media, I bet almost everyone had a post about burnout. I believe that, if you are readers of this blog, my absence was telling of how tired of writing I was. And I love writing, don’t get me wrong. It’s because I felt there were days where I had no fuel left to keep going. I always saw the end so near, and then there was always something that I felt would need improvement. It became an endless spiral. So, when I realized I was going to travel indeed in the beginning of May, and that I would only return to Portugal right on the day when the deadline from the University to submit my thesis would be, I made a point that I would submit in April. I still have been feeling very unproductive because I’m no longer writing or generating plots for 16 hours a day like I did for most of April until I submitted, but things are stabilizing.

I didn’t even sink in how effing awesome having done this is!

I know my thesis isn’t perfect and I have plenty to study until my defense. My thesis essentially spans three very different topics and I want to learn even more so I am well prepared. I’m also going to submit one more manuscript, I’m going to fully document my code, I’m going to eventually teach someone how to use the methodology I developed until the end of next month. I fail to give myself enought credit for having pushed through a lot of self-doubt, changes in my personal belief systems, moving to another country and then moving back, and all the lessons I learned.

So yes, congrats to me!

None of this is possible without help. Of course!

Writing the Acknowledgements section of my thesis was quite fun. I thanked my funding body, my supervisors, everyone I collaborated with, and my loved ones. Those are private acknowledgements. But I left a word for everyone who cheered for me online during these three years of my online presence. Some of the people I met because of my blog and social media pages cared enough to meet me in person and a few became real life friends. So, thank you for enjoying my content and experiences and offering encouragement 🙂 hope I could impact you in any positive way.

I hope to write a few more posts in the meantime but, as ever, can’t promise. I’m still very tired and I’ve been devoting most of my free time to offline activities. I want to return to travel posts and I’m actually going back the two cities where I studied abroad (Boston, USA and Prague, Czech Republic) soon! Would you like a “then and now” series about these two cities?

Catia

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