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Fourth (Final!) Year PhD Review

As always, when a year in the PhD comes to an end, my review of said year emerges. It has become tradition on this blog for me to reflect on each part of the PhD process. As my fourth and final year in the PhD comes to an end, it is time to reflect on it. Which is exactly what I’ll be doing here. I try to describe my experiences as best as I can, so you can get a real grasp of what different parts of the PhD are like. I have written a review for my first and second and third year in the PhD as well. Please do read those if you want to have an even better overview! As always, I’ll be splitting the year into terms, and I’m writing up my experience at the end of each. To break the fourth wall: I started this article on 16/12/2020, as that is around the time the first term ended, and I actually had time to write this up. So let’s dive in!


Term 1 Following from a surprisingly excellent and productive third year summer-term, the start to this term seemed promising. We continued to design our skew and our second grocery store experiment, which now are both online. Nothing really new here. We also continued looking at the data analysis for the second project, as we’re still stuck on having found a rather large coefficient, that makes rather little sense, for one of our more important dependent variables. This is holding back that project a bit. We found a similar issue within the fourth project, as they are based on the same data, and I’m starting to wonder to what extent you can “explain away” bad data. Yes, I am getting increasingly frustrated with that. The fifth project, the one with a bank, was moved into the stages of having data shaped up and access being granted, so there is a slow start there. I expect to be able to clean, manipulate and analyse the data towards the end of the second term. Bit late for the PhD, but this could easily flow into a different job, such as a postdoc. My projects with my Australian collaborator are also moving forward, despite moving rather slowly. Given her intense teaching term and my PhD, and all the other stuff in my life, this was to be expected. Her teaching ended this term, so the winter break and the second term will see a rise in productivity on this front! Despite initially saying that I wouldn’t teach during my final year, I was essentially begged to help out with a module I was used to teaching anyway (Business Statistics), as there was a new module leader on the block, a shortage of TAs and the novelty of online teaching looming over us all. So I did teach this term, which I quite enjoyed. It also gave my week slightly more structure, as structure keeps going out of the window with each new lockdown or tier-of-COVID-panic change. I’m obeying all rules, but let’s not pretend it’s not tedious as fuck. So the structure was good, so was the course, claps to Tim for being a good module coordinator. It also made me decide to teach again next term (2nd term), as online teaching continues, lockdowns will probably continue, and I need the structure. The additional money is also nice. Online shopping has gotten a bit out of hand… With regards to job searching, I’ve been putting the hours in. It’s recommended to start looking for postdoc opportunities about a year beforehand. This is with a focus on grant money though, and matters especially for the US. Within Europe you can start 6-8 months before, and Australia seems similar (this is just advice I’d like to get out there). Sometimes you have to apply for both grants and postdoc schemes separately, which is a complete hassle. I haven’t been looking at postdocs or academic jobs exclusively. I also looked into industry and I am “leveraging my contacts” (uhuh) but jobs in industry don’t want to wait another 10 months for you to finish, their turn-over is much quicker. As things stand, I’m leaning towards working in industry more than working in academia. There are several fundamental issues I have with academia, that have given rise to many a frustration, which I’ve aired on the Questioning Behaviour Podcast several times over. As I’m reflecting back on this term, I have not chosen a great moment to do so, mood wise. The day before I had a “nice” long chat with one of my supervisors, in which we aired some frustrations with each other. I initially asked for the call after one hell of a miscommunication, which was “the final drop.” Out of this 1,5 hour long chat we concluded we have very different working styles, different experiences (obviously) and that our communications styles don’t match very well either. We also agreed we should have had the call much earlier. In the end we came up with some practical solutions for dealing with our problems, which is the outcome I wanted. Despite achieving the initial goal (at least we have a verbal understanding), some of the things said cut deep. My self-esteem has taken a massive tumble. Again. The PhD is not for the fainthearted or the insecure…


Term 2 As good as the start was to term 1, as rubbish was the start to term 2. Because of the meeting I had had with my supervisor halfway through December and the things that got said, I decided to just throw myself into my work even more, to start feeling better about myself. So I went from really long intense work weeks, to even longer and more intense work weeks. I barely hung out with my family and did not take an actual break for either Christmas (I took one day off) or New Year's (I again took one day off). Unsurprisingly, this phase didn't last very long, as this is simply not maintainable and by this stage I hadn't had a break in close to a year. Additionally, now that I'm back in the UK I won't be able to fly home to see my family before I finish my PhD, I am thoroughly regretting the fact that I spent so much time working, and didn't spend more of it with them. To get back to the actual PhD side of things, progress was made. For your perspective: I am writing the review of this term on 26/03/2021. After meetings started back up halfway January my supervisors were happy with my progress and my second and third chapters began to take a form in which only the writing requires editing, and not the analysis (sigh of relief). Additionally, we were finally able to finish of the pre-registration for one of my online experiments which I was able to run in less than a day. You cannot imagine my relief and overjoyment when that experiment was run and I could just move onto the analysis of the results. As soon as I started analysing those results however, I ran into the issue that they are non-conforming to previous research in the weirdest possible ways, so now we're trying to figure out what to do here. I will admit very honestly that this is becoming an increasingly larger source of frustration, as neither I nor my supervisors really understand what is going on... I have so far also not been able to complete my first chapter (the r&r) as there are still too many restrictions due to COVID-19, I am optimistic that we should be able to run this end of April. And quite frankly, whether we can or cannot, we will just have to. On the topic of what is known as my fifth project (with the bank), the data has been received and progress is being made. I have no idea whether this will fit into the PhD, as I am concerned about the time limit, given that all the other projects obviously have priority. With regards to the work with my Australian collaborator, that has sped up! As said before, she now doesn't have to teach and we're making strides forward, so this is all really exciting. We took on another author on one of our projects, because they are an expert and it made sense. This project, on leadership, is now running parallel to a project on associative reasoning. We're also in the process of editing a book, so lots of good stuff going on there! On the topic of teaching, I taught this term as well, although I remember saying that I wouldn't. I taught Strategic Games, which is just game theory. I really enjoyed the first five weeks, it gave me a structure I needed. It also made me feel useful as at least the students were benefitting from my work. However, I started to have issues of feeling overwhelmed around week 6 (half term) as my 50+ hour work weeks were getting to me (surprise). The irony is, I do think the fact that I "went hard", also known as working at least 50 hours a week on nothing but the PhD helped. I'm not saying it's healthy, because it isn't. I didn't even last 8 weeks doing that, but it did get me in a much better place with my work and supervisors. So do what you will with that information. It probably requires explaining that this (over)working was simply being driven by the imposter syndrome, a fear of failing, a fear of never being good enough and the fact that the PhD just doesn't come with moments where someone looks at your finished work and says: "well done." The PhD is incredibly void of those moments. If you take that gaping void and add it to doing job searches and applications which take up a lot of time, for little to no gain: I'm applying to jobs I have no real interest in out of the sheer fear of unemployment and it's just raining rejections over here. You're just eating away at your own foundation of self-esteem, and that is just rough. In hindside, "just rough", is a good way of describing this term. To end this term: in the morning of the 22nd of March I had my completion review during which there was the general agreement that I was on the right track and should be able to complete the PhD succesfully. After hearing that one sentence, followed by 600 things I should still look at and should improve I lost most of my motivation of that week. As I'm writing this we're still in that week. I have decided that it's time I take a fucking break, because my resilience has dropped below zero. Me writing this is reliving some of the worst parts. I cannot imagine that this makes for an interesting or even enjoyable read. Let's just hope the third term is better. Better can take many forms by this stage.


Term 3 I read back over my review of terms 1 and terms 2, what a depressing period that was. Well, I can tell you now, term 3 is less depressing, because quite frankly, I didn't feel anything. I'm writing this on the 30th of June, which is the last week of term 3. I can summarise my progress with regards to the PhD chapters rather quickly:

  • Chapter 1 needed an additional study run, which literally finished running today. It'll take me at least a week to actually get the data into a shape in which it can be analysed, but it also means there's no further experiments to run, and that this is the last effort for the r&r (except rewriting it). Score!

  • Chapters 2 and 3 which I mentioned before as only requiring writing edits, well, that turned out to be a blatant lie. After my supervisors went over the text they decided that they didn't agree with some of the variables or results, which they had seen at least ten times by that stage. So that required redoing. This only recently became an issue. This is very much going to be the type of thing I keep editing and adjusting until we're simply out of time. The main reason for this is that the data really isn't that great as it's hyped up to be. As a result of this, we also decided these chapters wouldn't be published. Which was both a relief and a slap to the face. As most things seem to be in the PhD.

  • The fourth chapter is finished as I was able to go through the counterintuitive results with the help form my supervisors rather quickly. We know why those results are there, as peculiar as they may be. That chapter will also go through the editing phase now. The lucky thing with experimental data is that you cannot keep picking at it in the same way that you can with enormous amounts of third party data.

  • The technically speaking fifth chapter is also taking form. But as I now have three months left in the PhD and we're mainly in the data checking process I have a feeling that it won't make it into the PhD. Given the quality of the data however, the work is very likely to be publishable, so I'll continue working on that after the PhD.

Arguably, that's everything going on for the PhD itself. Reading it like this it seems like rather little progress was made, but I can promise you lots of progress was actually made. I will submit on time, and that's all that matters. In terms of the out-of-PhD work such as the Australian collaborations and projects, I have no clue what's happening there, as a lot of meetings just keep getting perpetually cancelled. So over the third term there were a negligable amount of meetings. Not my fault, is all I can say to that. Last, the job search and hunt has yielded some progress, with applications actually moving into the interview stages. I will keep you posted of progress there. I hope to have a job offer before I submit the thesis. Pray for me! As I mentioned in the beginning, this term I didn't really feel anything. There was no anxiety, or depression or any of the dread really associated with the end of the PhD. I think the reason I didn't feel much in this term is because the end is in sight, and I just want to be done with it. My only motivation is finishing in time, and moving on with my life. I have mentally already checked out of the PhD. It happens.


Summer Term As you might have gathered from my writing over the years, the PhD working hours don't follow those of the actual term time. We don't take breaks when taught students do. So the summer term, especially the summer term of the final year, is actually quite stressful. It did not help I also had to move during this term. I decided to move back home and finish the PhD there, which I do think helped, a lot. What was true in term 3 is still true now. Chapter 1 is part of a revise and resubmit and is taking up shape now. We had a deadline that was the 3rd of September, which was perfectly reasonable as it was our second extension, but with my supervisors main desires are rather conflicting: keep it as short as possible vs. working with more stuff that now needs to fit in the paper (I need to explain the additional study, its implications and need to address the comments of the reviewers), so we have asked for yet another extension, now the 3rd of December. It's so abnormally slow... But I do think I'm getting there, and we might actually make the December deadline. It's just very frustrating to work on something for weeks straight, make massive edits and then be told in the supervisory meeting of 50 minutes that it isn't any good. Honestly, I received documents with edits where just entire pages are endless paragraphs of red text. Rinse and repeat. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are in the text editing stage. As I said before, they will be edited until we run out of time. I genuinely believe that. After a suggestion at SPUDM (conference) I did play around with some of the data for Chapters 2 and 3 some more, and found a way for explaining where all the money is coming from (quite important if you look at spending!) which might make the chapters publishable again. At least, one of my supervisors seems very keen on looking at that again, but that's for something after I submit and have had a break. This summer term I do feel like I've gotten things done. I even took a bit of a break (I went to the seaside province, Zeeland), because my supervisors were on holiday and I couldn't do much without actual feedback.

In terms of the out-of-PhD work such as the collaborations and other projects: my collaborator has gotten back to me and we're back on track there. The "fifth" chapter is moving into the pre-registration stage, which is half the battle won. Both of these things will continue long after I submit the thesis, which is something I also want to write a post about: the fact that after the thesis submission the work really isn't done. Stay tuned for that! Last, the job search. have been made a job offer (!!!) and we're now in the stage of applying for visas, so I'm super excited! It took a while to get there, but I'm super eager to start the job as it's with a great company and great people, in the field I love. For those who are wondering: yes, I am leaving academia. Not my cup of tea, at least not for now.


Conclusions and Announcements

If I had to describe the terms of this year I would argue that term 1 was disillusionment, term 2 was pure panic, term 3 was "just fuck it all" and the summer term was me trying to keep it all together before being #PhDone!

But now I am #PhDone. I have submitted. The beast was over 60,000 words and 188 pages. I am proud of it. Going back over the blogs I've written regarding the PhD, the Questioning Behaviour episodes I recorded with Sarah focusing on people who have done the PhD and are now Early Career Researchers, and all the comments and questions I get from my readers about doing a PhD has lead me to the following announcement: I am going to write a book. I am going to write an entire guide about doing the PhD, from before its very start, the conception of the idea to do a PhD, to way after you submit, looking at vivas, job market tribulations and career switches. I think the book is necessary and I think academia has remained intransparent for long enough. So look forward to it! As always, thank you so much for reading this abnormally long post. I hope it was useful, or at least entertaining. I am taking a bit of a break - I won't be around for October, and neither will the blog be. Don't worry, my 2 articles per week schedule will resume again on November 1st!

1 commento

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29 nov 2021

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