40 weeks til thesis

There are 40 weeks until my thesis due date: October 7th, 2016.


Having LOTS of nieces and nephews (ten, so far), I am acutely aware that this time period is synonymous with the typical duration of a pregnancy. So instead of weekly bump updates, I thought I could do weekly blog/vlog updates. Partly to keep me entertained, sane, and engaged with the world outside of the lab; partly to share my work and ideas with a wider audience; and partly to put something out into the world to which I can hold myself accountable.

Week 40, my first week back from the Christmas/New Year fortnight of holidays, was spent in ultimate planning mode. I’m not sure that my supervisor can truly appreciate the sense of calm and control that this dedicated week of timeline setting, Gantt charting, and working backwards from self-imposed publishing deadlines to project start times afforded me, but I would not have done it any other way.

In the first two years of my PhD, there were annual review milestones which required me to (among other things) prepare and submit a summary of the experiments performed to date and investigations still to be completed. The summary included a timeline outlining the proposed schedule in order to achieve everything set out in the initial project proposal within the time remaining.

As the first milestone review was due at the end of my first year, these timelines spanned the final two years, so there wasn’t room for a lot of detail. Moving into the final year… or rather, the final 40 weeks, I needed something more prescriptive. Clear objectives to achieve on a weekly basis. Bite-sized pieces of work. The big, final hurdles, broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. So I sat myself down with the notes from my latest supervisory group meeting held at the end of 2015, and got started on breaking it down.

Break it down now! (gif via giphy)

Flashback to when I was in Year 11 and elected as a prefect for the following Senior Year… I was invited by the school to attend a leadership conference. Full formal school uniform, fancy dinner, people in formal dress giving speeches – the whole shebang!

There were a host of eloquent speakers, some more inspirational than others. I know it had a great impact on me at the time, but I cannot for the life of me remember any of their names, or even what most of them spoke about. What I do remember is a famous sportswoman sharing with us her method for the lead up to international meets. She followed the 7Ps principle, “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance” and it has stuck with me ever since. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and all that.

The seven peas (image via Penny Thots)

Those words were echoing in my head in the final week before summer holidays, so I knew the first task for 2016 would be defining my action plan. Hence the Gantt chart is now complete, my 16 year old self is very proud that I am still employing the 7Ps a decade later, and I feel capable of what lies ahead – which is really the most important part.

There was a solid month, once the euphoria of passing the Mid-Candidature Review had worn off, where the enormity of the task left for me to complete was thoroughly overwhelming. I withdrew. I stalled. I cried. I was scared to start for fear of falling short of the mark – mostly because the very nature of a PhD is that no-one has ever done your research before so you have no idea of where that mark actually is! It was a horrible feeling of impotence. And every day that I didn’t make progress, I would beat myself up a little more. As I looked into this feeling and learned more about it, I found that it was the classic signs of burn out mixed with the ever-present Imposter Syndrome. Yay…

So when holidays came around, I switched off my PhD-brain, immediately and completely. I had no ongoing experiments to monitor, no studious thoughts anxiously buzzing away in the back of my mind during Christmas dinner. This meant I had two weeks of quality time with family and friends and my partner – and even some time to myself! Two weeks of sleeping, eating, drinking, swimming, sunshine, walking, cleaning (surprisingly cathartic to throw clutter away!), cooking, crafting, laughing, watching movies, singing, making memories.


So now, 40 weeks out from the finish line, I have a plan made of small, achievable tasks; a set of stepping stones to simply follow. All the thinking about what to do, when, and in what order has been done. It’s now just a matter of putting one foot after the other to eventually reach the finish line in this science marathon also known as “the PhD”.

The mother of all Gantt charts (current at time of post, but subject to change) outlining times for planning and executing the final experiments to complete each aim, writing and submitting papers, writing and proofreading chapter of my thesis – the LOT!