How to make your academic conference paper a success

Ok, so a couple of months ago you saw that Call for Papers. You liked what you saw. At first you were shy, because you didn’t really have a paper. But then you thought that you could just whip a section from your thesis into shape. No probs, whatsoev. Now it’s the night before your conference and you have no idea what the fuck you were thinking. Apart from cursing your foolish past self, here are some things you can do to make your academic conference paper a success.

1) Do NOT go overtime. If you have 20 minutes, speak for 20 minutes. Or fewer. Gandalf the white meme saying
Stop mid-sentence if you have to. Whatever you wanted to say after the time limit won’t be heard anyway because people will be busy thinking. The chair will be thinking about whether they should cut you off. Your fellow panelist will be thinking about whether you’re stealing their time. The audience will be thinking about lunch. No paper in the universe is more important than lunch.

2) Know your audience. At my first conference, I presented this elaborate (read pedantic) paper about the manuscripts of the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough. Three seconds in, I realised that my audience could not be less interested in Clough if he were the world’s most mediocre bingo player. There I was blabbering on and on, while I could feel the entire room thinking about the two modernist papers presented before me, and, you know, lunch. Then I went overtime. Apart from a really traumatic experience, I also gained the invaluable knowledge that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure… could have got that from the big book of platitudes but I like to do things the hard way.

So, when you touch up your paper for the conference, have a good look at the program. How different is your topic from everybody else’s? Given what other people are speaking about, what can you expect your audience to know, what do you have to explain? What can you expect your audience to be interested in, what will bore them to death. Can you link what you want to say to what interests your audience ? Can you link your paper to the other panelists’ topics?

The general rule is: the closer your topic is to other people’s topics, the more accurate and elaborate and the less “interesting” you have to be. The more alien your topic is, the more you have to sell why it’s interesting. One easy way to do that is to gesture beyond the scope of your research. For example, knowing that my audience cares about literature but not about Clough, I should have discussed what my research tells us about the way writers write and editors edit.

3) Know your time slot. If you’re on first thing in the morning, when everyone is happy sipping their bad conference coffee, you can pretty much be as academic, complex and theoretical as you like. People are in their “let’s listen to some conference papers and be super academic” mood and you can hit them hard. Now, the closer you come to lunch, the less brain can you expect your audience to devote to you. This means that if you want to get a message across, or if you want people to remember you in a good way, you have to give it your all. If you have to be complex, summarise your argument in a simple, concise manner before and after you make it. Be entertaining. Put very little text and many bright pictures on your slides. Speak slowly, enunciate, emote. People have been listening to other people reading their papers all morning, just speaking in a different and more animated manner will get you an extra few ears.

4) Don’t just read out a passage from your thesis. I know, a lot of people do that and we are trained to think that it works. Well, it doesn’t. Even first thing in the morning, academics tend to overestimate the amount of auricular stimulus their audience can take. Papers that would be fantastic in print are often too complicated for listening comprehension. So even if you will be reading your paper out, write it for listening, not for reading. A good way to do that is to read the finished paper out while recording yourself (this is also a great way to keep an eye on the time). Then, listen to the recordings and note the moments when you hear yourself struggle with a sentence, or when you notice that you are losing interest as a listener. If you have a test audience, ask them to take notes of the moments they were interested and the moments they were bored or thought that something was too complex. Also ask them to sum up what you said so you can see whether you are getting the right message across. 

5) Practice. A year ago I spoke at a conference on evil at which Terry Eagleton gave the keynote. Words fail to describe how much and how obviously better he was than me. At first this depressed me but then I realised that it would be significantly more depressing if a man who’s been doing this for almost 40 years longer than I have, were not better than me. Practice might not make perfect but it does make you suck much, much less. Practice with an audio or video recorder on your own, practice with an audience, take classes (most universities offer presentation classes for little money, the ones at Oxford are tremendously helpful). Most importantly attend conferences and view them as training opportunities. Especially graduate conferences (where the risk of embarrassing yourself in front of future employers is low) are a great place to try out new things and improve. I’m speaking at the Oxford graduate conference on “Value” on Friday and since I am on just before lunch and my subject is incredibly far removed from what everybody else is doing, I have decided to use the opportunity to try out how I feel about speaking with pointers but without a script. It might be just right for the time and the audience but even if it’s a disaster, at least I’ll know, without losing more than my dignity in front of my peers.

My final piece of conference advice has nothing to do with the actual paper but is at least as important: Stay for the after show party. Conferences are about presenting your work and presenting yourself and finding out what all the cool kids are doing. This is actually much easier with a meal and some vino. Oh, and last but not least. Do drink but not too much. No matter what they tell you, what happens at the conference does not stay at the conference…

What have I missed? Any advice? Most importantly, any ideas on how to write an abstract that will get me a good time slot and a suitable panel? I always end up at the wrong time in the wrong place…

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Five ways to love the PhD thesis MORE

Ok, so reminding yourself why you love your thesis is lovely for the meditating, kumbaya singing crowd, but I am not zen enough for that shit. It was fun; I made a list (lists are good); but on day 2 I got bored. Rather than telling myself why I should love the status quo, I should probably engage in making the status quo lovelier (this is completely unrelated to, say, UK elections). So instead of going on about reasons to love the thesis, I am using that knowledge for improvement. Here are five ways to love the thesis MORE:

1) Go places. 

Rather than celebrating the mere fact that, like many thesis writers, I can write wherever I want, I should bloody well do it more. Beware the crying children and garrulous tourists but if the place is nice enough, I usually find that what I lose in productivity, I gain in overall happiness, which often translates to productivity and creativity. So especially when stressed and anxious – when you feel you don’t deserve to leave the library – make an effort to discover awesome new places to work. Even a few hours of Working While Happy can make you love the shit out of your thesis (I hear a pint also helps).

2) Love your topic.

People spend a lot of time feeling that the topic of their theses is insignificant or boring. Good news is, it probably isn’t. If it were, your uni wouldn’t have accepted you. Your supervisor wouldn’t have taken you on AND most importantly, you wouldn’t have wanted to do it in the first place. Bad news is, a lot of the work you have to do probably is boring. In order to make a fascinating point, one has to spend a lot of time doing monotonous, dull things. I spent a month last year reading 18th century French texts on the efficacy of grace. Believe me, it sounds more exciting than it is… But I needed to read those dull texts for my overall argument. And though I didn’t see it then, the overall argument is pretty fly.

My PhD thesis on theodicy and literature paraphrased in a single image

A picture is not worth a 100,000 word thesis. I miss Kindergarten. Those were the days.

While belly-deep in the valley of boredom, remind yourself of what it was that first attracted you to your topic. Especially when you are bored with your work, don’t avoid it but discuss it with willing victims. Become passionate again. Find the popular science book that relates to your topic and read it FOR FUN. Find tangential connection to your topic in tv shows, or the news (OMG Stephen Fry is totally talking about my topic). Or nerd out and draw your thesis.

3) Get off on your thesis writing.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before:

PhD student 1: “Hey, how’s your writing going?”

PhD student 2: “I have xxx words but they are awful.”

No, they bloody well aren’t. Obviously the overall structure has to gestate and that ain’t pretty; chances are, the macro structure of the the thesis will be rubbish almost right until you hand in. BUT, at the same time, some of your writing, especially on the paragraph or sentence level is bound to be amazing early on.

My supervisor has a habit of ticking the bits that he loves. This is incredibly helpful, not only because it makes me feel good but because it makes me see where things are going well and where I need to add sparkle. If your supervisor doesn’t do that for you, ask a friend or do it yourself. Highlight the bits you are pleased with to remind yourself that you can write some rockstar prose. It is also really helpful to keep a list of the stunning phrases, subtitles or sentences that didn’t make their way into your writing or that fell to the Grim Editor; you might be able to use them later on.

4) Become a better human.

Ok, I know this seems a stretch – especially if your thesis has turned you into the junk-food-malnourished, anxious and not so great unwashed – but hear me out.

Writing a thesis obviously induces intellectual growth, you’ll know more about your topic, about writing and about your field when you’re done. But it also fosters all kinds of emotional and even (I shudder to admit) spiritual growth. It teaches humility but also the self-worth that comes from doing something you thought impossible. Writing a thesis is like everything people say about having children, only that the crap you clean up is usually your own.

Most importantly, you will probably never have fuller control of your time – which is why PhD students complain about their procrastination so much. But what if instead of procrastinating, you are actually taking time to become the person you want to be. When you ask people how they procrastinate, answers range from running, rowing and mountain climbing to learning languages, singing in choirs, writing fiction, baking, or charity work. Truth be told, I’d rather be a person who climbs, bakes, speaks foreign languages and helps people than a person who finished their thesis really quickly.

5) Come together.

We are always whining about how lonely writing is – after all, it’s just you and your  computer. But the truth is that thesis writers are not actually alone, at all. Libraries and faculties are full of people who aren’t only doing what you are doing but probably feeling what you are feeling. Anxiety, impostor syndrome, writer’s block– all these emotions are caused by writing a PhD thesis, so naturally, the thesis writing crowd understands each other better than “normal people”. This is why I love reading thesis blogs. It reminds me that I am not alone at all; I am a member of an exclusive secret society – half freemasons, all free food.

More importantly, if isolation is what makes people unhappy with thesis writing (and for me it is) then the solution is glaringly obvious: work together. Some universities (like Stanford and ANU) are really good at bringing writers together. They offer “Thesis Boot Camps” where people meet to write for a few days, balancing peer support and peer pressure. Even if your uni does not offer these programs (Oxford doesn’t), many aspects of the group writing experience can be recreated without official support.

I recently read about “Shut up and Write” on the amazing “ThesisWhisperer” blog and have been experimenting with it since. I am still working out the kinks (how do you remind people to shut up without being a dick?) but am sure I can make it work. The great thing about “Shut up” is that anyone can set up a group. All you need is a room to do it (a cafe or community space) and some dedicated people. Even when group work is not the most efficient (which I hope in time it will be), it stops your thesis from being the thing that keeps you away from people and becomes its own social occasion.

So these are my five ways of loving the thesis more. What have I missed?

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Ten reasons to love the thesis: 1) I can work where I want. 

Much like writing a thesis, writing down ten reasons to love writing a thesis is not as easy as I initially thought. The big problem is that a lot of the things that make PhD student life so attractive have Australia-sized downsides. Things in the thesis aren’t simply black and white but many shades of that color in-between.

We spend a lot of time fretting about the detriments of doing portable work; the fact that no matter the place or time, we always feel like we could – and therefore should – be working. I sometimes envy the people who leave the office or the lab and are free to do whatever they want without feeling guilty. All I need to do thesis work is my laptop. And it’s always with me. Sometimes I catch myself planning the work I’ll do when I get home on the way back from the library. Like grad students everywhere, I cheered when the Dowager countess asked the question that had been troubling me since I began this: “Weekend? What is a weekend?” A couple of weeks ago a friend explained the concept of the thesis workation to me: “It’s basically a vacation where you work on your thesis.” To which I replied: “So it’s basically a vacation.” So yeah, being able to work everywhere means you’re never really off duty.

But let me just take this chance to remind myself not to be a total plimhole. The reality is that I can work wherever I want, whenever I want, wearing whatever I want. Mostly I want to wear PJs, and whether I work at home or in an Oxford library, people are very openminded to my work attire. So, today I am working in my garden looking at woods and sheep, cows and lamas (while wearing a PJ). A week from now, I’ll be working in the gorgeous quad of Somerville College, Oxford. In a couple of months I’ll be working at a lake in Northern Italy. This sure beats being stuck in a basement lab 8 hours a day, 45 weeks a year. I might not have a designated work space – or designated non-work spaces – but I get to work in some of the coolest spaces on the planet (or off the planet).

This is me working in my garden near Heidelberg, where I spend half the year because I am free to leave Oxford whenever I want, not working in a lab and all...

This is me working in my garden near Heidelberg, where I spend half the year because I am free to leave Oxford whenever I want, not working in a lab and all…

The good thing about being able to work wherever I want is that I know the moon landing was not a hoax because, contrary to all the people who are tied to an office, I had the time to be there.

The good thing about being able to work where I want is that I know the moon landing was not a fake because, unlike the people who are tied to an office, I was actually there.

When the cat tries to keep me from working by sleeping on my arm, I turn the tables around, by working on the cat.

When the cat tries to keep me from working by sleeping on my arm, I turn the tables around, by working on the cat.

All images are my own, apart from the one of my mate Buzz and me, which belongs to NASA but they kindly allowed me to use it (public domain).

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Leaving the Mousetrap – Loving the Thesis

In an experiment done by psychologists at the University of Maryland and published in 2001, a group of students were asked to play a simple game where they had to solve a maze puzzle. […] Two groups of students were asked to solve the puzzles in which the goal was to help a cartoon mouse get safely to its mouse hole. But there was a twist. One group of students was working on a version of the maze that had a piece of delicious-looking cheese in front of the mouse hole near the exit of the maze. In technical parlance, this is known as a positive, or approach-orientated, puzzle. On the other group’s version there was no cheese, but instead a picture of an owl that was poised to swoop and capture the mouse in its claws at any moment. This is known as a negative, or avoidance-orientated, puzzle. The mazes were simple to do and all of the students completed them in around two minutes. But the after-effects of the puzzles on the students were poles apart. For after completing the maze, all the students were asked to do a different, apparently unrelated test that measured creativity. When they did these, those who’d avoided the owl did 50 per cent worse than those who’d helped the mouse find the cheese. It turned out that avoidance ‘closed down’ options in the students’ minds. It triggered their minds’ ‘aversion’ pathways, leaving them with a lingering sense of fear and an enhanced sense of vigilance and caution. This state of mind both weakened their creativity and reduced their flexibility. (Mark Williams and Danny Penman Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

For the last 10 months or so, I have grown more and more anxious about my thesis, for no good reason other than that it isn’t finished yet. I still have 17 months till I want to hand in so my thesis has every right not to be finished. And yet I am often filled with vague but intense fears. The metaphors in my head have become more and more negative. My thesis is a stable I have to muck out. A dragon I have to slay. A slippery boulder I have to roll up an impossibly steep hill. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I am running away from something, or trying to prevent something awful, rather than feeling like I am building something awesome. Somewhere during the last year I have slipped into the habit of thinking of writing my thesis as something I do to avoid catastrophe (missing deadlines, loosing funding, or, worst of all, disappointing my supervisor) rather than as something I do because I want to – as something that gives me pleasure, makes me better, or allows me to reach a career goal. Little by little my thesis has stopped being a positive, or approach-orientated, puzzle and has instead metamorphosed into a negative, or avoidance-orientated, puzzle.

I don’t actually need science to tell me that thinking of my thesis as this dangerous monster isn’t helpful. Forgetting that I love my thesis makes it seem like a chore or a pain and because it puts me into fight or flight mode, where creativity is replaced with a struggle for survival. This is emotionally painful as well as making it so much harder to work. It is really difficult to write creatively or concisely when you can’t even move because you’re so petrified with fear. It is really difficult to read when you can hardly see the page in front of you because your panic clouds your eyes as if you were about to black out. It is really difficult to hear your supervisor’s encouraging advice when your ears are full of the rush of your blood and the quick thump thump thump of your heart.

Judging by the results of the Mindfulness maze experiment, the solution is deceptively simple: I have to change the way I see my thesis. I have to go back to working towards the cheese and not away from the owl. I have to remind myself that there really isn’t an owl – that I am not really going to die if I don’t finish the chapter today. But perhaps more importantly, I have to remind myself not only of the cheese at the end of the tunnel but of the fact that I really enjoy the maze.

I am writing a thesis in English literature not for the money, or the fame, nor all the highly attractive and lightly-clad people that throw themselves at you once you have a PhD in English literature. I am writing this thesis because I want to. I love my thesis. I also hate it, sometimes. And that’s ok, too, as long as the bits I hate don’t make me forget that at bottom, this is a good thing and that I am not merely working towards the cheese but actually eating my way through it (This is a great metaphor for people who are really into cheese. Luckily, I am really, really into cheese).

Unfortunately, when I had the realisation that I need to rekindle and remind myself of my thesis love during the last weeks, this was soon followed by the realisation that telling myself “I really love my thesis, I really love my thesis” is a bit like telling myself “Don’t Panic!” – a surefire way to induce thesis hate or a panic attack. After some more reading, I decided to take another page from the Mindfulness book:

The ten-finger gratitude exercise

To come to a positive appreciation for the small things in your life, you can try the gratitude exercise. It simply means that once a day you bring to mind ten things which you are grateful for, counting them on your fingers. It is important to get to ten things, even when it becomes increasingly harder after three or four! This is exactly what the exercise is for – intentionally bringing into awareness the tiny, previously unnoticed elements of the day.

As it is, this exercise is pointless for me. I love my life and can easily list ten things that give me pleasure without even leaving the cheese shop (Raclette, Mozzarella di Bufala, Morbier, Gorgonzola, Pecorino, Manchego, Gruyer, Feta, Appenzeller silver label, Appenzeller gold label, and oh dear God, Appenzeller black label). I am constantly and intensely aware of the total amazitude of life – a flower smelling, food tasting, nature appreciating pleasure seeker, that’s who I am. So what I need to do is to refocus my ability to enjoy and appreciate life towards my thesis. To smell the flowers of my work and savour the cheesy writing. So I took pen and paper and made a quick list of the ten reasons I love writing my thesis.

I did this yesterday and I must say that it helped. I did have a really productive and relaxed morning. But then, a couple of hours ago, I could feel the anxiety rising ever so slightly. My brain started telling me that I promised I’d send the document off on May 1 (tomorrow). I started conjuring up vague images of all the things that will happen if I don’t finish this….

That’s when I decided to take a break, look at my list, and write a blog post instead (hi there!). I think the list works; I just have to turn this positivity into a habit. So, for the next ten days, I will take one of the short points on my list and write about it here. This has three reasons:

1) Public blogging means accountability – I can’t just give up when panic hits – and is therefore a great way of habit formation. By the end of the ten days, I hope to be on the way of regaining an enjoyment-based and goal-oriented approach to my thesis.

2) I know that I am not alone in this. Most of the thesis writers I know share at least some of my fears and avoidance-oriented mindset. To be honest, I think part of the reason I see my thesis in this way is because I am surrounded by people who describe their thesis through avoidance metaphors. I think it would be really cool if instead of teaching each other to fear the thesis, we could support each other in finding better metaphors and a more positive frame for engaging with our work. So if you are so inclined, I would welcome reading some of the reasons you love your thesis.

3) Attaching cheese to my laptop has so far not shown the desired effect.

Having tried all the usual productivity tools, I became creative. #cheesywriting

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Command S – A Haiku

Dumb girl in the spring,

Likes to write on a MacBook.

Save your file, moron!

If you replace the words “f-ing around with yakuza” with the words “not saving your document for two days” and Uma Thurman with my mean machine, then this is almost exactly what just happened to me.

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Writer’s Dread

Tell me if you know that one: You wake up to a beautiful morning. Your schedule is clear. The people you love are busy at a convenient distance. You’ve had a bit of breakfast. You have even done a bit of cleaning. You’ve made yourself a beverage. Your desk is tidy and sunbathed. It beckons you to work. There is nothing standing between you and a glorious day of thesis work. Nothing. You could just write all day. Finish that chapter. You know exactly what you need to do.

She works in beauty. My office.

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So you hit the social networks for a bit. You read that article about the “value of the humanities”, or about the plight of early career academics, or that bit of Eagleton polemics about how higher education is being shatnered by neocapitalism. You tell yourself that this is basically work because these things are about academia and you are an academic. Reading this is basically your job. Then you start looking at your friends’ facebook pictures. Also the friends of your friends.

All of a sudden you catch yourself looking at your neighbour’s cousin’s beerpong pictures from 2012 and find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that it’s 11:27 and you are still not working.

For a minute you tell yourself that you’re suffering from writer’s block… that today is not the right day to do your work because you’re just not inspired. But a little voice inside your head tells you that you cannot claim to have writer’s block if you haven’t even opened the document.

So you tell yourself to just open the document. After a new bout of procrastination – thank God for that obliging fool who, in the meantime, posted another academia related article on facebook, also, who knew that Nigerian cooking shows were so damn fascinating – you realise that you still haven’t opened the document.

Because you do not want to open the document. Because the idea of opening the document – not even writing in it – just opening it, fills you with an unnamed dread. Not full-blown panic, just a profound sense of discomfort. Quickly your brain goes through all the possible reasons why you don’t want to open the document. Are you tired? Sad? Hungry? Do you have to go to the loo? Are the fingerprints on the windows keeping you from working?

And it’s none of these things… though if you ask yourself whether you are sad, tired, or hungry for long enough, you are bound to become so. But the truth is, you are not afraid of your document because the conditions are bad but because they are excellent. If you fail today, when you are rested, relaxed and well-fed. When you have a beautiful plan of what you need to write next, when nobody is about to interrupt you, when everything is just as you always want it to be, you’ll really have failed. You’re afraid of opening the document because if you fail now, it won’t be because of the conditions; it will be because of you. And now it’s 12pm and you have waisted the best hours of the day. And then you wonder: Why do I do that? Do other people do that? (Seriously, I wonder, do you do that too?)

Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. What matters is that sometimes you do (and by you, obviously, I mean I) and you can recognise this dread, not as a character flaw but as a silly habit. And habits can be broken. So acknowledge the habit and  forgive yourself. And then open the document. (I just did; it felt surprisingly doable).

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While you were busy making other plans – Part 2

[This is the second part of a two-part post. The first part is a list of 10 things that go wrong when you write a thesis. The second part looks at ways of dealing when things go wrong]

First things first: I lied. In the little explanatory bit of the last post I wrote the following: “It’s a list of 10 things that go wrong when you write a thesis, so it’s a bit depressing. But I promise: It gets better.” Obviously, I cannot know this. You might have all of these problems simultaneously for the entirety of your thesis. It’s not likely, but then, winning the lottery or getting thyroid cancer isn’t likely either and yet there are clearly people who do. So, you or I might be the poor buggers who consistently and painfully get, you know, buggered. There is no reason to believe that it gets better. Either there is no God, then there is no one to make it better thus no reason to believe it gets better or there is a God, then, well have you read the book of Job? Actually, this is a massive part of the motivation of my thesis: a longing for the intellectual honesty to admit that if you do not believe in a benevolent, just force that intervenes in the universe, you cannot propagate the old lie “it gets better”. Some clouds have no silver lining. There is no universal law to the distribution of crap. You might do everything “right” and yet have all the wrong things happen to you.

This seems like a depressing aside but it’s crucial to keep this in mind because it means that you don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed when things go wrong.

I sometimes feel like my sense of responsibility and agency actually makes things worse rather than better. At the time of writing, I have a cold. I have been ill a lot lately and it is keeping me from working at my fullest potential. I focus on eating healthily, and sleeping enough, and exercising and yet, I still end up being ill a lot. But even more bothersome than my ill-health is the nagging feeling that I am responsible. I cannot work on my thesis in the way I’d like and I feel that there must be something I can do about it. That I should exercise more, or exercise less or eat a different kind of healthy… and I can feel my brain getting sucked into a an analysis-loop that makes me anxious and prevents me from sleeping and potentially even from being healthy. When other people get ill, they spend a couple of days netflixing in bed and then move on with their lives. I spend the little capacity I have on being anxious rather than either on getting better or on getting things done.

The funny thing is that I like planning because I like to be happy. This works because a lot of the time, good planning prevents things from going wrong. But even with great planning, things sometimes go wrong and then you don’t only have to deal with that but also with feeling like you planned incorrectly – like you could have prevented this; even worse, that you caused it. Maybe this is me becoming zen with old age but, actually, admitting that shit happens and that things get different but not necessarily better can be incredibly liberating.

So how do you deal? When I started this, I thought the answer is always prevention. Now I am not so sure. Great planning cannot always prevent your body from getting ill, your computer from crashing or your relatives from being annoying. Of course, that does not mean that you shouldn’t try to plan well. You should. Preferably your plan should integrate all these things happening. But at the same time It means that you should accept that you cannot fully plan a three-year process.

One of the tricky things about writing a thesis (or being alive, really) is that you have to act as if you were absolutely responsible and at the same time feel as if you have no responsibility whatsoever. You have to do all you can to make things go right but not give in to asking “Why didn’t I?” or beating yourself up over “I should have”. The difficulty is striking the balance between taking control and letting go. This is a difficult balance to strike and it helps to approach it as a row of binary options:

The Problem

Tree diagrams are almost as calming as trees.

As far as the anxiety that inevitably follows planageddon goes, to me the best thing to do it is not to fight it but to accept it. To recognise it for what it is: Anxiety that is a natural part of the process rather than a weakness or character flaw. This is why wrote this list. To make my own brain realise that there is a relatively contained list of things that can and will go wrong. As anyone who’s read the Bible or Rumpelstiltskin knows (pace Shakespeare), there is magic in a name. There lies a world of difference between an unnamed dread and the realisation that one is merely suffering from anxiety inducing event number 6 and that one has dealt with this before and will deal with this again. Also, it helps having a tree diagram telling one what to do. If your computer dies there is a concrete list of things you can do, if you are ill or have anxiety the potential of action centres around acceptance and calming, rather than running around like a headless chicken trying to fix the unfixable.

Yet, acceptance and regaining calm is also something you can work towards – I do it through running in the woods and yoga (though those two obviously fail when I am ill) and writing this blog, a lot of my Oxford friends do mindfulness meditation. And yes that is another massive time-eater. And part of the process is to not follow the maths that tells you that if instead of spending 30-60 minutes a day meditating or doing yoga or looking at trees, you spent the time actually working on your thesis, you would be much further and wouldn’t need to be anxious in the first place. Trust me when I say, this math is a trap (one that I whole-heartedly step into every other month).

From time to time, life and your thesis will form a crap-throwing cooperation and there might be nothing you could have done to prevent it (though there might be and once you have cleaned yourself up, do spend some time asking whether it could have been prevented). But once shit happens, instead of wallowing in it, deal with it in whatever way it wants to be dealt with.

Things may get better. They might not. The trick is to realise when things are better. And you must realise it because, as anyone who’s ever visited an ape house knows, sooner or later the crap-flinging continues, often without discernible reason. So do as Kurt Vonnegut tells us, take time to smell the flowers of your work, give yourself a slow clap and from time to time exclaim: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

Everything is truer if it is said by Kurt Vonnegut and accompanied by an ice-cream sundae.

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