How bad is the end of a PhD? Not that bad. It’ll be okay.

One of the PhD students in my group is in the throes of “thesis crunch time.” Another student is looking at her timeline and beginning to despair. They are looking to the postdocs in the group and asking us “how bad was it, really?”

How bad were the last few months of my PhD? Golly, it was bad, but that wasn’t the PhD’s fault.

I was flat broke. (Chronic illnesses are expensive, yo.) I was stringing together as many part-time jobs as my health and visa allowed, trying to pay rent, to pay for therapy, to pay for medication. I was juggling doctor’s appointments and medication side effects, trying to keep my physical health in check, trying to keep my mental health in check. I was applying for jobs, going to job interviews, not getting jobs, stressing out about the fact that sometimes job interviews don’t reimburse you for travel expenses and they certainly don’t reimburse you for the loss of a day’s income.

Also, my PhD supervisor and I weren’t exactly getting along. Part of me was wondering what would happen if my supervisor sabotaged my degree and I failed my defense.

Around this all, I would write. A bit here, a bit there. My supervisor was refusing to read my chapters, but my friends and collaborators did, and their feedback was all really positive. My examiners both knew what was up, both medically and supervisorially, and I knew that they both liked my work and liked me as a person. Even though it was bad, there was reason to hope.

Then I got hired in my current job. That afternoon, I quit my part-time job, and I went into crazy-writing mode. Two weeks later, my thesis was handed in. (What did I do to celebrate? Hopped on a bus, went to a doctor’s appointment.) I worked as a research assistant between the hand-in and the viva, passed my viva with no corrections, and started work as a post-doc the next day.

Not to be a walking cliche, but having a chronic illness really does put life into perspective. Sometimes there would be moments of moments of bitter irony. Once, during my PhD, I sat down to have lunch with a friend, asked her how her day had been. Awful, she said. Her paper had been rejected from a top-tier journal. Her life was over. 

My day? Oh, um, well, I had spent the morning at the hospital, and the doctor had told me that surgery wasn’t a viable option, that what I have was incurable.

(Protip: incurable diseases are conversation killers.)

Or, same friend, different lunch, complaining about how hungover she had been over the weekend, how a fun evening of binge-drinking had resulted in various vomited-filled escapades.

And me? Well, yesterday, I had gotten radioactive stuff pumped into my veins and had almost thrown up on the nurse, so I could relate, right?

(Radioactive substances: also conversation killers.)

My point is this: you’ll make it. PhDs are tough, but they can be vanquished. Take a deep breath. Take a walk. Spend some time with your partner, with your dog, with a hobby. See a therapist, do some yoga, turn off the internet, do whatever it takes to keep your head on straight and get the damn thing written. Break your to-do list down into little chunks, and if that doesn’t work, break it down into littler chunks.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s okay to be okay.


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