Sacrifice and Submission

Narratives of sacrifice are woven into many stories about research. Nobel laureate Dr Barry Marshall famously drank a culture of Helicobacter pylori in order to demonstrate that the bacterium is indeed the causative agent of stomach ulcers. Closer to my home, one colleague who is now a postdoc took to sleeping in his office during the closing weeks of his PhD study:

I borrowed one of the benches from the common room to sleep on.

These two anecdotes, and a number of other urban myths, propagate a seductive culture of “more is better” when it comes to the hours scientists put in and the days we dedicate to our research. In science, commitment is a prerequisite for success, but notoriety might be obtained through extremes of dedication.

PhD students in particular might complain about or joke about their workload, describing their punishing schedules.

PhD comics

For most of the duration of the PhD, despite the demands of a doctorate, I found it possible to maintain a sense of balance. I made an effort to continue with my hobbies and to keep in touch with my friends, who were a real source of both support and perspective. I am glad that I made this effort. But despite the importance of life in the work-life balance, I did feel troubled by a persistent sense that I was not working quite hard enough.

Having declared that doing a PhD does not have to mean three solid years locked in a garret, despite war-stories that might suggest otherwise, I did find that, sometimes, needs must. One colleague declare that he wrote up his PhD

in two months, but I don’t think I washed, slept or ate during that time.

Fortunately, for my office-mates, I started writing up sooner. During my writing-up stage I did at least had time to wash, if not to do a lot else that was not thesis-related. Of the many nuggets of advice I have been given over the past three years of my PhD, one which sticks with me is that, overall, a sense of balance is important to prevent burnout. But that sometimes, and not all the time, but just sometimes, you have to throw the concept of work-life balance out of the window and just knuckle down and work. Having emphasised the importance of work-life balance above, If any time during your PhD falls into this category, surely it is the run-up to submission of your thesis. During that time, the world beyond my work routine became difficult to imagine:

In the fortnight that has passed since I submitted, I have rediscovered rooibos tea, and sleep, and I have reconnected with friends and family. I have also started a new job, moved house, and somehow become embroiled in the organisation of the London Watch Party for Science Online 2013, which I am organising with Eva.

My examiners have received their copies of my thesis, and I have my copy to re-read. The viva has been scheduled. I am grateful to everyone in the Science Blogosphere who has helped me to get this far.

Bob O'Hara introducing Blogging the PhD

Bob O’Hara introduced Blogging the PhD to the readers of This Scientific Life when Occam’s T launched.


The below is an excerpt from the acknowledgements page of my thesis. Sincerely, guys: you made it much more fun. Thanks for all the cheers.

Thank you, OT.

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12 Responses to Sacrifice and Submission

  1. YAY SPROG! Congratulations again on submitting and on the new job. Have you managed to start breathing again yet?

  2. rpg says:

    Well done sprog! (My Mac keeps wanting to autocorrect that to ‘sprig’. Perhaps it’s trying to tell us something).

    It’s been an honour and a pleasure to be on the journey with you. Remind me to tell you the story of the guy who actually time-shifted his day to a 30-hour clock…

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks Richard!

      Remind me to tell you the story of the guy who actually time-shifted his day to a 30-hour clock…

      Wish I’d thought of that Crumbs.

  3. *applause*

    Hah! Made the acknowledgments. Now, when’s the defense? :D

    • Erika Cule says:

      Thanks! Both for the applause, and for the help along the way – I meant what I said in the acknowledgements.

      The defence is some weeks off, giving me plenty of time to worry re-read the thesis.

  4. Eva says:

    I think I already congratulated you, but if you end up with too many congratulations you can save them for lesser occasions. Congrats!!!

  5. Grant says:

    Lovely to hear. (I know I haven’t written here often, but let me say that much.)

    It makes me want to relate “yet again” how relatives ask how great you must feel handing in your thesis, but most Ph.D. graduates I know are more thinking “well good riddance *that’s* over” :-)

    Enjoy watching scio13 from afar. I will be too, in between work and whatnot.

    • Erika Cule says:

      I didn’t feel anything except exhaustion until a week or two after I had handed it in. I don’t think relief will come until after the viva. In the mean time, when I am not at work I am doing the revision for papers from my thesis, resulting in a working pattern which feels eerily similar to that of a final-year PhD student…

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