By  Aimée

Most people say that the last few months of your PhD are the most productive.

What do they know?  Such sweeping, general statements though well-meant can be quite deceptive.

The past couple of months I’ve been waiting for this productivity bug to get ahold of me and totally take over. I expected that by now I’d have all my ducks in a row, ideas sorted, figures done, written up more than half my thesis with guns blazing.

One thing for sure is that I will not tell anyone the end is the most productive. It gives people false hope. Not a false hope that everything will be okay, because that bit is true: it WILL be. But a false hope that for some reason it will be easy and straightforward. Somehow you will be gifted with astuteness, creativity, efficiency and motivation at the end. It is part of the mythology of a PhD.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this period “hard”.  From what I’d seen of others, I’d imagined  it would be quite arduous because of the overwhelming workload, the novel ideas you had to come up with, the data mining process, and everything in that vein. But in the midst of all this, I find that this is the time I actually enjoy my PhD the most. Finally you can see the big picture – and mull over the bigger, overarching ideas. You can create a narrative that seems to fit. And the pieces of the puzzle are finally coming together. Instead of smaller things like error analysis, sensitivity and reproducibility that seem to plague your days as a second-year PhD student. That said, the biggest challenge in the last few months has been motivation. How do you wrap up 3 – 4 years of work? How do you motivate yourself to be consistently productive day in day out? Or even have one fully productive day a week? With no benchmark to compare against, everything is so subjective.

A famous African proverb has become my motto. The proverb’s something like: “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”. Its pertinence to doing a PhD is simply stunning. I can only wrap up this PhD a day at a time. And I find that by focusing on bite-sized chunks I can get through the day. I also find that elephant meat is an acquired taste; it takes a few goes before you really get into it. But once you do, you begin to perceive all the hidden flavours and you appreciate its texture. You begin to understand what it can go with, and what is disastrous. You also understand the best meals to have it for. Some like it for dinner, others much earlier in the day. Ok, before you get all grossed out, I’d like to clarify that this is all hypothetical. The elephant analogy perfectly describes the PhD process.

More than that, the elephant analogy helps to some degree with keeping the kid at bay. “The kid?” You ask. Yes,  the kid. I’ll backtrack a bit to give some background…

For some of us, writing is such a vacillating process.  Which makes it very hard to track one’s progress. You write a paragraph today. It’s gone tomorrow. Only to return a week later.  I’ve come to discover that there is a little kid inside me that throws tantrums whenever I sit down to write. After 10 minutes seated at my desk the kid starts to scream on the inside “NOOOOOOOO! NO! NO! NO! NO! I don’t want to do this”.

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I must say oftentimes I give in to the kid’s demands and get up and do other things – the art of procrastination! And now that I think about it, this kid has been there all along, throughout my PhD. I realize I have never acknowledged the existence of the kid. Whatever the kid demanded, I always caved in. When the kid was tired of reading literature, I said “ok, let’s go to the lab”.  When the kid was tired of writing up any results, I said “ok, let’s go to this random seminar”. When the kid was tired of MATLAB, I said “ok, let’s call it a day”!

My obliviousness to the kid all this time has made it very unruly and I find myself in Supernanny territory. Do I need to learn to tame this kid if I want to finish a.s.a.p? I spoke to my family about taming this kid and they suggested giving the kid treats after any work has been done. I thought, “What a swell idea”. I could totally get the kid to behave by dangling a carrot (read: chocolate) in front of it! But the kid knows all things. And actually tricked me into giving it the treats before any work was done – on numerous occasions. I’m keen to hear ideas about how to go about taming this kid. And if any of you have had a similar experience.

Now I’m not saying the kid’s wildness is necessarily a bad thing. The kid keeps me enjoying the simple things in life. But if this research is to be wrapped up soon, a few things need to be sacrificed. And that kid’s unlimited reign is top of the list. Of late though (last 2 weeks), the kid has been in hibernation (thank God)!! There has been a renewed sense of purpose – and there’s also the longer than usual attention span. I realize my appetite for elephant meat is usually mutually exclusive with the kid’s presence. So, I shall ride this productivity wave out while the kid’s asleep. Then again, maybe there’s actually no way to tame the kid. Maybe the way forward is to take advantage of any spare moment when the kid is dormant. Maybe the kid’s notoriety keeps me sane. Or is this taking the easy way out?