When I tell people I work at the Open University, the response has often been “so…is your PhD all distance-learning then?”. It isn’t. I have spent the past four years in the OU labs and offices in Milton Keynes, amongst the denizens of a vibrant (and very much corporeal) research community. Despite this, I have somehow conspired to conduct my PhD interview, thesis submission and soon my defence, all in absentia. A small, yet fitting, irony.
The effects of the recent lockdown within academia have been overwhelmingly disruptive, with the cancellation of conferences and research visits, not to mention the added strain of improvised home-working and restricted freedom for those with young families and dependents. Though I can’t pretend the prospect of indefinite university closures and massive uncertainties were ideal for a student in the latter stages of thesis writing, I count myself extremely fortunate. For me, it offered some form of silver lining. A quiet room with little to do but write.
Part of the challenge of thesis writing lies in knowing your triggers for procrastination, making the choice to adapt where possible. In my case, the social atmosphere of a large office provided welcome conversation, distraction and the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas in the early stages. By the time it came to hang up the pipette and focus, that environment had become an anchor and I moved to a quieter location. That choice was my own, the more recent, imposed. However, the effect in both cases was a similar increase in personal productivity.
That isn’t to say the process has been entirely straightforward. Life with a partner in the emergency services, under the current circumstances, goes hand-in-hand with irregular sleep patterns and myriad stresses and worries before the PhD is even mentioned. What it did give was a vital sense of context, helping me to concentrate on my task without being overwhelmed by the days where a seemingly simple edit becomes three hours’ work, where frisbeeing the laptop through an open window seems the most appealing course to pursue.
Constructive input from furry colleagues is not always possible, but always welcome.
It suddenly feels more important than ever to connect with those we care about. I, for one, have spoken to some friends and family far more often than before the lockdown. Although the “thesis cave” is a widely recognised and sometimes useful state of mind and being, it is now even easier for PhD students to feel socially and emotionally isolated. While it would be unreasonable to expect the writing process to leave the rest of life untouched, keeping at least some social fixtures helped prevent total envelopment.
A particularly good habit picked up from a previous office mate has been to set - to a greater or lesser extent – boundaries between work time and private. This becomes doubly important in the home-working context, where the temptation to always do one more thing before signing off can be magnified. Of course there are days in-the-flow where you don’t want to stop, some where nothing seems to progress and you tell yourself to keep going until it does. The key is in identifying when that flow has slowed to a trickle, when that obstacle is better left to a fresh mind.
One thing that cannot be escaped, it seems, is the final agonising crawl to the line. The construction of the delicate, spun sugar web of cross-references. The battle to work with a document far beyond the safe limits of both an ageing laptop and Microsoft Word. The ineffable decision of your trusty machine to intersperse sections of Chapter 5 throughout the thesis, a blank page following every link to Table 4.2…
If you are reading this as an increasingly frazzled final-year student, fear not, for all these things shall pass. Almost all at once it will be there, done. You may not realise it immediately. You may double check the consistent spelling of “sulfate”, triple-check the final document for further formatting “quirks” and be near-disappointed to find none. You will probably feel slightly at a loss for a little while, perhaps anxious to cross that final threshold, but cross it you must.
I hope conditions allow you to celebrate with friends in person. If not, at least indulge yourself a few creations to mark the occasion. Take time to let yourself decompress. Enjoy the sensation.
For now, stay home and stay safe.