Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Making things write

Alright people, I have to admit I have been sucking at the blog scene lately. My life has been a little up and down. Ha, understatement of the year!

It’s been 8 months since I’ve been able to run. I am obviously quite frustrated but I also realize there must be a reason. I must be doing (or not doing) something that has made it drag on this long. I’ve considered a few possibilities, but have been too distracted and/or stressed out to make any drastic changes. More on that after I vent about my latest excuses for not taking care of myself.

At the end of April, I got the OK from my PhD committee to begin to write up my thesis. Essentially this means I have the summer to write a few hundred pages about what I’ve done in the last five years and explain why it’s important. In the fall, I will submit this fat book of science garble to a bunch of smart scientists, who will tear it apart, pick out its weaknesses and grill me on it for two or three hours. Once they’ve challenged me to the point that I am on the verge of thinking I am the dumbest human being on the face of the earth, they will suddenly stop and say “congrats, here’s your PhD!” It’s a strangely anti-climactic way of receiving a degree you’ve been working your ass off on for six years, but I have finally come to accept this abuse as simply the ‘form of education’ of grad school.

Perhaps this is why getting your PhD is such a long, grueling process. You are constantly questioned, challenged and guilt-tripped to the point that – unless you are a remarkably resilient and confident person – you feel like you are completely worthless. Although many emotions can go up and down, the feelings of guilt and stupidity will never leave you until you graduate (I hope that then, they do in fact vanish!). Getting sucked into this vortex means feeling guilty for sleeping for four hours instead of being proud you worked for twenty, thinking you will get recognition from your boss for never taking any vacations and working weekends until it just becomes expected of you, and ultimately becoming bitter about life in general. Thankfully, this intense depression doesn’t usually set in until the end, at which point you can *usually* muster up the courage to finish. I have heard many stories about how students have ended their PhDs. Some have ended happily, some not, but one common theme is a stretch of legit depression.

Studies have been published, and blogs have been written on the subject!


I suppose the last few months have been my stretch – at least I hope it was. I have not been happy at all. I will freely admit that now. I have felt lost, lonely, stupid, and like I don’t know what I want in life. It hasn’t helped that I haven’t been running. I have had no endorphin rush or outlet to vent my frustrations. I didn’t realize how dependent I had become on running to get me through times of stress. I think one day I complained to my labmates that my martini consumption was getting out of hand, when a new postdoc in my lab confided in me that it could always be worse. Apparently the last 6 months of her PhD she was going through a 26oz bottle of vodka every few days and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day...and she is also a runner! It gave me some perspective...but perhaps the wrong kind. Just because it could be worse, doesn’t mean it’s alright.

Which brings me to the past few weeks. I got the OK to write up and I can now see the proverbial finish line of my PhD. I had anticipated this moment for so why did I still feel a void? Why wasn’t I happy or satisfied? Perhaps it was because (as it goes in grad school) my committee had to make me feel guilty about writing up before giving me permission. And perhaps it meant I then had to acknowledge other aspects of my life that aren’t entirely uplifting. Whatever the reasons, I still wasn’t happy and I still felt lost. Last week I finally completely broke down, at a moment that I have since realized was both the worst and best moment to do so. It was in the middle of a meeting with my supervisor and several other scientists – not very professional – but in the end, it finally relayed the severity of my situation to both myself and those around me. I was forced to acknowledge to a lot of people that I was suffering. However, contrary to my fears, this didn’t perpetuate disappointment or admonishment! No one called me weak or stupid! Instead, I realized that there are many people who actually care about me and just want me to be matter what I have to do. It was incredibly uplifting to hear such kind and supportive words, especially from my supervisor.

Since then I have gone back to Vancouver and seen my family, another incredible source of kindness and support. My parents are amazing people. I can’t express in words how much I love them. After talking things through with them and other friends, I’ve realized that it’s all about perspective. Things really aren’t that bad, in fact they are quite good and I am a very lucky person in the grand scheme of life. And if I take a little control over things, I can make them even better. So here I am, with a renewed sense of optimism and motivation to get healthy and finish my degree. If there is one thing I know, it’s that I am not done with running and I will do whatever it takes to get back to my athletic life.

Amazing parents

Relaxing in beautiful Vancity

My current game plan is to go back to the sports doctor and figure out what’s going on with my shin. Why am I feeling this perpetual tightness, it just doesn’t make sense. I hope to get another ultrasound and an MRI to see what’s going on in the tissue and/or to see what stage of healing it’s at. I am seeing my fantastic physio Greg (check it!) twice a week for treatment. I haven’t exercised at all in a week, but that’s not even the point here, I want to gain the weight I said I would for real. I’m not messing around anymore, just going to get it done. I have heard from other elites that when they are leaner they don’t heal as well, and if that’s the reason behind all these shenanigans then that is so stupid! It’s the easiest thing to solve. My dad is trying to lose 5-10lbs, so we are going pound-for-pound for the next month to even each other out. I like it!

I am also back out coaching my awesome Ninja group every Tuesday night. I haven’t talked much about them before, but I will soon have to dedicate a blog to them. They are a great, positive and motivated bunch of distance runners. They killed a 7k workout last night and it made me so happy to see how far some of them have come in the past year. Go NINJAS!

I am feeling much more relaxed and positive about things, perhaps too much so since it’s been 3 weeks since I’ve been given permission to write up and I’ve only written a few paragraphs. Time to stop procrastinating and start writing, and that includes my blog!

A video that every grad student (or family member/friend affected by the life of a grad student ;) should watch!


  1. Just stumbled upon your blog while searching for my own motivation to write! I find myself 3.5 months away from my submission date and almost totally out of motivation to write. But you are absolutely correct in your discovery that things in our lives aren't really that bad, I also have a lot to be thankful for and need to remember that instead of all those negative thoughts that stop the writing process! Unchecked procrastination and the guilt that's associated with it is sometimes more mentally taxing than actually writing! Eventually it just comes down to getting the writing done so that we can get out the other end! So good luck with your writing and the completion of your thesis! (and also with life outside of your PhD, I love the deal you have going with your dad :)!)
    Anyway, I just wanted to comment to let you know that I really enjoyed your Blog article and wish you the best :)

    PS. Also laughed all the way through that video, it's all so true!

  2. Hi Erica, thanks for stopping by! It's comforting to know that we are not alone. Sometimes it's worth taking a step back and spending time away from work so that you can gain that perspective - makes the job seem less daunting when you come back to it. After all, thesis writing and degree completion is not the be-all and end-all of our lives. I think I'm having such a hard time getting started because unlike doing experiments in the lab, I can write whenever and wherever I want...and it's so easy to get distracted! Anyway, I know it will get done...
    Good luck with your writing, once you get into a groove I'm sure you'll be able to finish it in no time.

  3. Completely meant to comment on this a good 17 fortnights ago. This mysterious regular-reader-of-your-blog-from-the-abyss-that-is-the-internet was pleasantly satisfied when I read Shoeless Coolis (or GI Jane, I never know which is less queer for a complete stranger to refer to you...) opening up the can of emotion! I think it was pretty darn brave of you to write publicly about this kind of thing. Not easy to open up about what's eatin' at us.

    I can't say I identify completely with what you say since I'm no stressed out PhD student, but many of my friends are and I definitely see it. It's always really nice to have little pockets of support like family and close friends to keep you grounded. I actually was recently laid off of my job after 7 years (my only REAL job) and I instinctively reached out to family right after I got out of my notice meeting. It's cliche as shite to use the term "rock" to describe a supportive individual(s), but I think it fits in this case :)

    As far as your shin goes, I hope that sucker heals up real soon! If not, get them to cut her off and slap on a bionic woman-esque shin on there. Even better, go slaughter a cheetah, rip off its hind shin and duct tape that shit on there. Oh man, think of the endless possibilities!!

    Anyway, enough of my filling up the entire comments section. Best of luck, and the running world misses you! (is that creepy to say? Bah)

  4. Thanks OD! I am sorry to hear about your job - it really sucks, but I'm sure you'll go on to bigger and better things. It's things like this that we look back on in a few years and think 'wow, I'm glad that happened, cause look where I am NOW!' - but it's really hard to see at the time. And maybe it's cliche, but it's true - it's those rocks in your lives that get you through difficult times because they give you perspective and keep you sane :).

    My shin is ready to be amputated, I think that is a great idea. I am getting a series of tests to see what the eff is up, so far all are negative, so amputation might be the key. I miss the running world! I want to come back!!!

    Good luck with your running and racing - and job hunting if you are there already!

  5. I've heard it can be a blessing in disguise, but I suppose I'll have to wait and see, first. I think the job hunting kind of IS a running race! I'll be doing that today. I'm so lucky ;)

    Good luck with your tests! I'm sure working in a lab setting you must be able to easily acquire a bone saw of some sort, as well as some general and local anesthetics. Either that or pound back a bottle of Russia's finest and amputate away! This is some real 127 Hours shit.

    Fartlekly yours,
    Olaf Dyasiovich III

  6. The funny thing, I made a big reasearch recently to check out if it was possible to make an easy Phd. You know like 2-3 years part time, any kind of shortcut. And the conclusion is that there's no easy way, you've got to put the hard work and receive the mental torture. I guess I'll have to suck it up and do it if I really want one. I congratulate you for going through all of this and which you all the strenght you can get.

    I used to read your blog often and stumbled back to you from Coolsaet's blogroll. Good luck on your recovery, you have plenty of time ahead and will be back stronger. You won't lose your fans either, you'll be a good runner and a PhD!

  7. I am professor at the University of Guelph (and a runner, hence my reading of your blog). Like many, I struggled with writing throughout my career. A few years ago,I stumbled on "How to write a lot" by Paul Silvia. Book changed my work life. He makes the point that to be an effective writer you have to schedule time to write everyday, and that while writing, unplug the phone, the interwebs and close the door. This does not lead to quantity of writing, but to good writing habits. It's an easy read and worth the time if you want an academic career. Just a suggestion. Great blog Jane!

  8. Thanks for all the support everyone! It is very motivating.
    Richard, you are right - there is no shortcut and no easy way out. I suppose that will make it all the more gratifying once your done? (That's what I am telling myself :) My only advice is to make sure a PhD is what you really, REALLY want or need for your career before embarking on the process, otherwise it is not worth it. Plain and simple.

    John - thanks for the advice. I am sure Paul Silvia is right - you have to make a habit of it for longterm success. I think for me it's not the act of writing that's difficult (I actually love writing) it's the material that I'm writing about - the culmination of so many years of research that I'm trying to make sense of. I'm realizing, however, that it will never be perfect, so I just have to suck it up and get it down on paper!

  9. The video was really hilarious! I just can’t stop laughing. LOL! Anyway, it is certainly a long and grueling journey for graduate student wanting their Ph.D. on time. And the whole thesis writing process is certainly one of the things most student never want to do again. But, it just proves to show that if you can finish your Ph.D., you really have the knowledge and skills in the field.