Time is ticking

It’s the middle of January. My PhD funding officially runs out in 11 weeks time. And I haven’t started writing a thesis yet.

OK, so January is a typically depressing month every year, but this year will probably be my worst ever. I took a total of 4 days off over Christmas and New Year, and have been spending long hours in the office. I feel like I’m working a lot, but I don’t always feel like I’m getting much done. Let’s say this is my excuse for not writing a blog post in so long…

At the moment I’m trying to finish an enormous paper on eclipsing cataclysmic variables – the possible progenitors to Type Ia supernovae, which are used to measure cosmological parameters. The paper is huge because it currently includes all the CVs I’ve been studying with pt5m which turned out to be eclipsing (around 10), all the CVs which turned out not to be eclipsing (around 30), and all the CVs which we’ve known have been eclipsing for ages, and have been observed by our high speed instruments ULTRACAM and ULTRASPEC over the past 10 years (about 40). Some of these objects have been observed on 10 or more different occasions, with up to 6 different telescopes. Each object requires careful data reduction, analysis, plotting a light curve, and a short discussion. The observing log alone could end up being ten pages long.


This paper already has 57 figures, with about 30 more to come.

I’m definitely past half way, but putting this paper together is hellishly boring, so it’s not going particularly quickly. I’m still hoping to finish it before the end of January, but that’s going to be tough.

As I’m sure is natural for all PhD students, I’ve found myself questioning my choices quite often in recent months. Why am I doing this? What will I do next? Does anyone really care? I haven’t found the answers. Instead I’ve simply found a dull, aching necessity to get this damn thing finished.

Doing a PhD feels like taking the great ring to Mordor. You spend two and a half years wandering around the foothills, getting lost, turning back, meeting great friends and enemies, battling your own self-determination. At the end you find yourself climbing a mountain. A bloody big mountain, made of sand. All you want to do is turn around and slide back down and go home. And all everyone around you wants you to do is keep going and meet them at the top. But with every step the sand gets softer and you sink deeper, making the next step harder than the last. To top things off, there’s a black rider (end of scholarship) snapping at your heels, and you’re running out of time.

At a particularly depressing moment this week, Emily helped me turn this analogy into motivation. The view from the top will be incredible, and life on the other side will be worth it. Now I just have to keep going.

However, I would offer a word of caution to anyone else who might be considering doing a PhD. If you’re not really certain you want to do it, if the foothills feel like mountains from the very beginning, or if the sand is so sticky you’re not moving at all – don’t do it. Turn around and stay in the Shire – it’s much safer there and your mental health isn’t at risk. Also the world won’t end because Sauron isn’t real and you’re not a hobbit.

Thankfully my supervisor is chasing up possible options for extra funding. In the meantime, I’ve blocked Facebook from my work computer, and will be saying ‘no’ to most of the social or activism invites that come my way for a while.


2 thoughts on “Time is ticking

  1. Oh dear… I might be in trouble then. I don’t want to do a PhD, I want to be a university lecturer, unfortunately, in the UK at least I cannot do this without a PhD, so therefore I am doing one. I’ve got about 20 months to go… and motivation is already pretty low. I’m far more excited about the teaching I’m doing this term covering another lecturer’s sabbatical! Good luck with the write-up, I hope the metaphorical sand mountain turns to rock, or you can just strap on some kind of metaphorical jetpack to get you to the top.

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