Ravings Borne of Thesis Madness

It’s been a long time since I last blogged. A long, long time. For the last six months or so, I’ve felt like I was using up all of the words in the world on writing my thesis and just didn’t have any left to spare for this slightly neglected blog of mine.

But now that’s over. Two weeks ago, on the morning of Friday 29th July 2016, I submitted my PhD thesis. It’s a 187-page document that represents three years, ten months and twenty six days of my life. It contains work that resulted in three published papers and one pre-print. It encompasses visits to seven countries, some multiple times, and approximately twenty conferences and summer schools. It represents more working hours than I would care to contemplate, all of which have culminated in a single 43,000 word epic titled “The Effects of Disorder in Strongly Interacting Quantum Systems”, a title that remained in flux up until almost the very last minute.


It’s hard to describe how it feels to be done with a PhD. On the one hand, I’ve known this was how and when it would end since I started. On the other hand, it’s still somehow taken me by surprise. For the last few weeks, if not months, it’s been occupying every waking minute of my thoughts and it’s only now that it’s gone that I realise just how much of my life it had slowly taken over.

I’m hugely relieved that this behemoth of a document is finally finished, but equally it’s only with a large dose of reluctance that I’ve finally let it loose into the world to be judged. There are parts of it I’m not happy with, but I could have agonised over the details until the end of time and still felt the same way. There’s always more that could be done, points that could be expanded upon or further clarified, chapters that could be better streamlined, and bits of work that ended up not getting done in time or otherwise not making the cut to be included in the final thesis. (Original Chapter 5, you will forever be missed…)

I’m also still a bit worried that somewhere in that document, spell-check might have carried out its recurring threat to replace ‘spinless bosons’ with ‘spineless bosons’.

Despite how important it seemed to me while I was writing it, though, a PhD thesis isn’t really supposed to be an eternal, timeless slice of perfection. It’s supposed to be a record of the work done during a PhD and a reflection of the abilities – and limitations – of the candidate. It’s easy to build the thesis up to be some kind of defining magnum-opus, only for us to become wound up and stressed out when the result remains stubbornly imperfect despite our best efforts. But just as the only perfect novel is the one you haven’t written yet, likewise no thesis is ever going to be ‘perfect’ in its author’s eyes.

Now that it’s submitted and out of my hands, I’ve had a little time to reflect on the process. Truth be told, I’ve spent most of the last six months wondering what the point of writing the thesis was. It’s a lot of work for something that’s going to be read by two, maybe three people and then never seen again, but perhaps that way of thinking is missing the point of the exercise.

In writing the thesis, I had to go back through four years’ worth of my research, but this time armed with four years’ worth of experience I didn’t have the first time around. It’s the first time I’ve really looked back on everything I’ve done as a single piece of work. Though it was something of a tortuous process, it’s ultimately quite satisfying to look at the final 187-page document and see how far I’ve come in the last 4 years. Most usefully, in bringing together everything in a coherent whole I had to re-examine all my previous work and fill in any holes in my understanding that had escaped me the first time around.

And really, that’s the important point. The ultimate test of whether I pass my PhD isn’t the written thesis itself: it’s the viva, or thesis defence, in which two expert examiners will grill me on my thesis and my research. Rather than seeing the thesis as the frustratingly imperfect final result of my PhD, I’m looking at it more as a seriously extensive set of revision notes for the most important – and hopefully most enjoyable – exam of my academic career.

Whether this is just thesis-madness talking or not, this point of view has taken some of the pressure off. I’m no longer so worried about the thesis being imperfect. Instead, I’m looking at the viva as an opportunity to correct some of its flaws, and a chance to discuss my work with two experts whom I have a great deal of respect for and who are generously giving up a great deal of their own time to help cast a critical eye over my work and ensure I’m up to scratch as a researcher. I can only hope that I am.

All in all, I think I’m quite looking forward to it. That might just be some sort of manic denial talking, mind, as my viva is actually just one week away.

It’s happening on the 19th of August. Wish me luck…


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