On Not Being Ready to Try

I'm going to level with you: finishing a PhD was harder than I believed it ever could be. It almost took me down. For those who aren't immersed in the research world, let me explain what's involved (in my field, as the outlines vary slightly). It was meant to be 3.5 years of hard but inspiring work, feeling the stress but also feeling inspired, submitting something I was reasonably happy with at around 4 years, going to viva 2 months later, passing with minor corrections (to be explained later) and getting those done fairly easily.

Now lets talk about how it really went down. You do 4 years of fairly intense research work. You struggle to stay efficient, so you work a LOT. You hopefully successfully submit some research papers for publication during the 4 years... but I didn't manage this. You submit a form that gives you an initially sensible-seeming hard deadline for this work to be written into a coherent document with a solid argument. As that deadline nears it becomes more and more unachievable, as you realise that even document formatting for something over 250 pages long takes 1 week including late nights. You hand in something that you are profoundly disappointed in. That was July 25th 2016.

You then continue working on your experiments; as frankly they were not finished or published. If you are lucky, like me, your supervisor finds bridging funds so you are still paid to do some work for them. This allows you not to become flat broke whilst working for the next stage, but adds to your workload as obviously you have to do something additional for that money. In the background your examiners are being contacted, are organising the viva, and are (constructively) ripping your thesis to shreds. The viva is an oral exam where you must defend all you wrote and defend the quantity and quality of your work. It's meant to be a few months after submission. For a variety of reasons, mine was later, on December 12th 2016.

The viva lasts 2-6 hours with two expert examiners and one convenor (who makes sure everyone is constructively harsh, not truly harsh to one another). My viva was seemingly time constrained to 4 hours at most, as I knew my external was giving a talk in the afternoon. I found this initially relaxing, thinking they must at least have made a decision in order to know it could be that short. However, I suspect they found me more convincing on paper than they did in person, as my viva ended up lasting the entire time until the talk. It did not help that they move through the thesis in chronological order and everything my examiners disliked was concentrated in the first chapter. By 20 minutes in I was convinced I was failing. After 3 hrs 45minutes they told me to go away so they could decide. I sat at my desk and batted away both colleagues and tears. Ten minutes later they called me back in to tell me I had passed with minor corrections.

Ah, corrections. Theoretically it is possible to get no corrections, but very unusual. If you did, then you did not make a single mistake in even your spelling across a 250 page book. Minor corrections is anything written-only. It could range from spelling errors to new paragraphs. Major corrections means you need to do more research. It is not what you want. I ended up with minor corrections, with some fairly hefty additions to the introduction required. I was given a deadline in April because I had a new work position and therefore could only work on these corrections at night (minors are otherwise 1 month).

I took a month off, then started working on the corrections. This is where I fell apart spectacularly. I still can't really explain why. My friends and family were also pretty (kindly) baffled. I suspect 4.5 years just got on top of me. I also felt that there was so much I'd hoped for with my thesis, which had not materialised, and that there was so much I would want to change but the examiner comments did not necessarily correspond to those things. It didn't help that the month-old break had reminded me how It felt to have a schedule, to see my partner, to see my friends. Therefore when I went from that to driving straight from my Ayrshire job to my PhD work (6am-12.30am awake every day, of which 2.5hrs is commute), I completely fell apart. I was in frantic tears for at least a half hour most days. This culminated on a Tuesday where I sat and sobbed for 2 hours sitting on our (filthy) kitchen floor whilst my partner alternated between attempting to reassure me, making dinner, and looking helpless at my distress. 

These corrections were submitted in April (the sharp eyed among you may notice this was also the time bracket of my last blog) and it took a further month to get them confirmed. I am a doctor. Awesome.

But I swear I still need time to heal. I still feel tired a lot of the time. Whenever I think of the papers I still need to complete, my heart rate rockets. This may make me sound like a drama llama, but the feeling is PTSD-like. This residual stress and anxiety is impacting badly on running. I am training for Berlin very poorly. I just don't feel I'm mentally recovered enough to push for something yet. For anything yet. Even if this is a very different goal, its still a big goal. In retrospect, I shouldn't have gone for Berlin entry this year, but I didn't know that then. We do our best with the knowledge we have. 

So now all I can do is try my best. People quite often use, 'trying their best', as a proxy phrase when they really mean, ' I will give 100%'. But I am using this phrase in complete, brutal honesty and what I mean is that I am trying the best I can give right now. That is about 20% effort. That is what I'm capable of giving right now, no more. I am not ready to really try. That isn't going to be a race pace or even a shadow of a race pace. However, I am probably going to be capable of an enjoyable potter around Berlin.

The next piece of this puzzle to work on is how to make myself okay with that realisation. When I said the stress and anxiety is creeping into running? One of the ways it is really showing up in is my tendency towards self criticism about my running form and even about my identity as a runner. So I can say I know I can't put in 100% for Berlin, but there's work to do before I can internalize that. 

Lastly, I guess this blog post serves as free therapy as a kind of half arsed explanation for my lack of posting and lack of fun running. You'll see me out on the trails again now though. I can feel the mental swing happening - running is starting to be a source of joy and comfort again. I've felt it in the hills, running on the wind farm today, on an August weekend in Mull. The love is coming back to me slowly. To help keep the love alive, for the next foreseeable future I'm entering events for fun and fire, not for times. I've got a weekend of events in October in the Lake District which are back to back opportunities to gawp at stunning autumnal scenery with some wonderful people, then I plan to spend winter in the low hills. I'll see you out on the trails. I hope I'll be loving every moment. 

Post written by Scallywag and published on Scallywag Sprints on 29/08/2017

PS: Please don't let this put you off doing a PhD if you were considering one. I just wasn't the right gal for the job - too anxious, too perfectionist, too prone to catastrophising. Although I guess maybe I was the gal for the job, given I have a PhD now. Who knows really who is right for that challenge. I'm happy to discuss it all - the highs as well as the lows (travel! Amazing colleagues with incredible minds and therefore some of the most interesting and funny chats of my life!) - with anyone who is interested in pursuing one.


  1. My god this sounds insanely stressful. I must say as soon as I finished my degree I was DONE with education. Exams and essay writing had exhausted me and I was ready to leave. I'm glad I did because I know I wouldn't have coped with this.
    Sounds like tho it was hard and almost broke you, you survived and succeeded. Don't let Berlin stress you out. Just plod round and enjoy the experience without pressure. Hope you're alright!

  2. Only just seen this post - I did wonder where you'd gone. Well done for getting a phd but frankly I suspect they are over-rated. I know several people who backed out or dropped it, instead of fighting on. It will hopefully pay for itself. Meanwhile I hope life and running and fitness stuff returns to normal. Bet your partner is happy it's done! Good luck returning to planet earth! x