The Struggle

Completing an ill-conceived PhD thesis is a lot like strangling to death, someone you once loved.

It’s been four years of wonderful freedom and tenure. Through this time you’ve nurtured your baby into a child and naturally grown quite attached. It may have been your partner, your supervisor, or maybe a voice from within but you’ve been told it’s time to finish. It’s difficult, no parent thinks their child is ready for submission into the real world. After all, you’re a parent now.

As the good student you are, you have a nice plan for how you’ll finish the thesis. “Maybe I could start taking a day a week off work so I can write it up in a nice cafe?” you say. How cute. The cafe experience is of course lovely. The buzz of significant conversation, the now-familiar waitresses whose smile can provide brief respite; but there are always distractions to take you away from your art. Months pass and you notice that the end is no closer. You also notice something else. As the thesis document comes together it less resembles a small, quiet, fragile child needing of your care, and more like a young adult: tall, oppositional, and strong.

Your child appears to be resisting you. It’s hard to notice at first but derivations for equations go missing, as do references for quotes you wanted to include. You could have sworn they were there. It wasn’t him, was it? Days later you realize a problem with your work you’d previously missed. An entire section — a good ten pages — is now irrelevant. That little shit! He’s getting in the way.

The agreeable pleasant submission you had planned has gone sour. Your child isn’t a remarkable “contribution to human knowledge”, but a mangy amalgam of dodgy research, unrelated concepts and embarrassing mistakes that needs to be quietly disposed of with minimal exposure. This thing will fight you at every stage. It’s time to get serious. You’re just going to have face up to it, wrestle it to the ground, and place your hands around its neck.

Don’t think about what you’re doing, you just have to push. Keep applying pressure. Yeah that paragraph is lousy, but screw it, it will get picked up by the supervisor. Keep going. Keep writing. Push. Your arms will get sore but you need to push. He’ll fight back, just push.

Push. You take holidays from work. Push! Work on it seven days a week. PUSH! You sweat, but he is hurting. Eventually his air hunger takes over and his arms flail to land a lucky scratch. That’ll leave a scar. A permanent, physical reminder of the mess you made. Perhaps it will serve as a memento that you’ll never let another project get so out of control. You fantasize about your next project, how absolutely perfect you could make a thesis from scratch if you had another go, if you just didn’t have to finish this one…

You’re almost there, your arms hurt, keep pushing. His eyes have rolled into the back of his head. He’s settled down, perhaps resigned to his fate… You start to relax.

While things are settling down, why not have a week or two off, surely you can let go of his throat for this last easy bit, it’s a shoo-in now. Big mistake. He could be on death’s door but if there is a flicker of life in him, he’ll come back. And he’ll be angry. You may rejuvenate for a moment, but the near-corpse will reanimate after a transient splutter with renewed blood lust. However, the promise respite is too much, you loosen your grip.

The recess is particularly painful because the pause has reminded you of a time that’s thesis free. It’s actually possible, for the first time in years, to spend a Saturday on the couch not feeling guilty because submission is so… Imminent. But back in that dark, blood soaked alley the man rises. He does one of those scary declined-head-looking-into-the-camera shots and starts running. This isn’t a jog, its a fucking T-1000 striding down a highway with its arms all like hooks and shit. He’s coming for you, and you have no choice but to face the music and wrestle him back to the ground.

A terminator may scare the average person, but not a PhD student with a crushed soul. Prolonged violence tends to dull the mind of the perpetrator. This shell you once called yourself quickly and without expression subdues the beast. Despite your fulfillment of your primal violent urges, and unlike a runner, you cannot enjoy your second wind; the work to get it back under control is automatic, surgical and cold — some would say, scientific.

The thesis is less a T1000 and more an Agent Smith. You’re Neo now, in that scene where he can block every punch. You’ve seen past the veil, into the matrix; you know the system. The truth is there is nothing romantic about submission. You look as if you barely take interest as you block and take him down with one hand. The choking begins again. His eyes roll again but you know better than to loosen your grip. Mercy is for masters students. Push. Your code finally works to produce one of the required graphs! Two months ago you may have received this as a minor victory. But such signs of progress are lost on your numbed perspective, much like how you don’t flinch when your son’s eyes have become bloodshot from lack of oxygen. You’re Abraham now.

Push. Your progress results in an unexpected change. The man sheds a tear. This, of all the things, gives you pause. Can you really finish him? All those fun times, travel for conferences, interesting parties, can you really finish it off?

Bam, segmentation fault. Another hurdle that’ll set you back a few more weeks. In your moment of tenderness the fucker kicked you in the balls. Surely he didn’t do it intentionally, but then you see it. His mouth turns up in the slightest smirk, barely perceptible to anyone other than the man’s parent. He spits in your expression of paternal concern. You push.

And it’s finished, not with a bang, not even with a whimper. You’re kneeling over the thing when you feel a hand on your shoulder. The supervisor congratulates you in a bored kind of way, pragmatically pointing out that there is “publishable stuff” in that cold sack of meat splayed on the concrete. Writing academic papers based on your research is akin to cannibalism — a forced act of resourcefulness that’s not very nutritious. But that’s fine. Your hunger’s gone, desire’s gone, your life’s gone. The system works, you’ve removed your personality from the work — you’re a scientist now.