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.
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:
— Erika Cule (@erikacule) November 28, 2012
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.
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.