It just doesn’t seem right. I’ve sent my dissertation to the printer, only eleven minutes after I had planned to do so. Perhaps it could have done with another hour or two of proof reading, but by the bitter end, I just wanted to get the thing off my desk. And I did! Hoorah! Except… it didn’t really feel like ‘hoorah!’.
Something people don’t warn higher degree students about is that achieving the ‘ultimate goal’ of completion and submission can be not so much relieving as overwhelming. In the moments after pressing ‘send’, I actually felt physically ill and head-achy. I was cold, shaking, and fidgety. ‘What if the examiners think its bollocks? What if I forgot to include that final reference on page 51? What if I accidentally submitted the version from yesterday, before I double checked the page numbers and margins?’ And worst of all, ‘what if someone asks me how I feel?’ The delicate house of cards that is the intensely-focused self control a completing doctoral student must draw around him or herself could have collapsed in an instant. When you’ve been living in your office for weeks on end with about five hours sleep a night and taking your calories mainly in liquid caffeinated form, let’s just say it all gets rather fragile. Pass the tissues!
For me, the only way to cope with this extremely unsettling sensation turned out to be a long walk, an enormous cooked breakfast, paracetamol and half a day of aimless window shopping. Whatever it takes, right? Maybe in a few days’ time I will feel elated, but the enormity of completing something so large and significant in one’s life will take some processing. For now, I’m just glad to be over the initial panic. And I suspect I got off lightly.
In the last few weeks of frantic work, keeping the lid on emotional disturbance was a priority. In order to work effectively, I did an awful lot of deep breathing, quite a lot of running up the stairs to the eleventh floor and back, and a lot of talking sternly to myself aloud. I drank probably toxic amounts of peppermint tea and consumed way more cheap chocolate than was good for my waistline. I somehow learned to function at a mental level while my senses were dancing a tarantello. At one point I even suffered from the very unpleasant sensation that my right hand belonged to someone else, and that insects were crawling all over my body, (Delerium tremens, but without the whisky. Where’s the fun in that?)
Clearly, there were some pretty serious stress metabolites to be processed after living through all of this while remaining single-mindedly focused on a goal, so it’s not really a wonder if I needed to ‘crash and burn’. But these are the things about academic life that don’t often get aired in public. They can take you by surprise, even though they’re probably common.
Managing the emotional side of doing academic work doesn’t get the attention it deserves. There are lots of workshops students can attend about time management, using Endnote, university policies and procedures, performing statistics, using library search functions, writing CVs, and so on. It’s easy to focus on managing the information because it’s clear that this has to be done. It’s not possible to produce a thesis that coherently expresses complex thoughts without that underlying structure that wrangles the jostling ideas into shape; furthermore, universities themselves are complex beasts that require special knowledge and experience to navigate effectively. Research students have to learn to manage both these kinds of information to succeed.
It’s much easier to neglect emotional management than information management, because it doesn’t seem like the main issue. Students fall into this thinking trap too, which is why even when mental health and fitness programs are provided, students often fail to make use of them. In addition, students who make it to graduate school are usually fairly high achievers who have often internalized social assumptions that associate failure and succumbing to emotional ‘distractions’. Guilty as charged. Furthermore, there are times – like the last few weeks of a thesis – when you do really just need to put a lid on it and ‘push on through’. But academics are people too, and emotions are a real part of academic life. It seems to me good that we talk about this. So I thought I would make a small start by posting this little exposé. If you feel/felt like this when you submitted, you’re not alone. And if you’re preparing a thesis for submission, lay in some tissues and the bacon and eggs, and book in a good friend to hold your hand, because relief doesn’t always feel terribly comforting to begin with. Perhaps that’s the measure of what you’ve actually achieved.