After 51 chapters, most of you have probably figured out that I'm about to blow this joint for greener pastures. But I have one pressing problem: The writer's-block bug has bitten me and does not want to let go. Writing a column is one thing, but culling, summarizing, and pontificating about all the data that I've collected over the last few years has driven me to a quiet panic (okay, maybe not so quiet, but definitely panic). I know I will finish; I'm just having a hard time staying focused on what needs to be done.

I've made a pretty good start, however.

  • I've made lists.

  • I've gathered all my important data.

  • I've made more lists.

  • I've done several literature searches, although I still have one more to do.

  • I've made still more lists.

  • I've made some pretty pictures, but I need to make more.

  • I've written several journal articles already, which will form the basis of my thesis.

  • I have an outline. Sort of. Is that another list?

And because I've become a "deadline person," I've set a deadline. A deadline seems to motivate me through the lazy/panicky spells I experience occasionally--well, more than occasionally--and force me to write with gusto.

After all of this preparation, I should be off and running like a stallion in the Preakness--um, maybe that's a bad analogy. I don't want to be Barbaro.

But it's not working; the least little thing seems to get me off track. The sight of my co-workers makes me want to throw things, so I go home to write. But because my apartment is so messy, I can't concentrate. I want to clean it--no, I want to purge/burn/dismember everything/-one in sight. I know these emotional swings are a "write" of passage (pun intended)--but a judge might not see it that way, so I try a change of scenery.

The lush, green grass at a neighborhood park is inviting. But it doesn't help. I am turning into a thesis grinch: The sight of anyone doing something that I might possibly enjoy, no matter how boring, irritates me. I never lie in the grass, I'm allergic; but it looks so lush and inviting now.

My last resort: one of my usual haunts, a coffee shop. This is a pretty good choice--Internet access, caffeine, and I can look like I'm working. But despite my best intentions, I seem to have made friends during my time here. They see me at the coffee shop and ask the inevitable question.

Well-Meaning Friend: "How's it going?" (Translation: Hmm ... you're not in lab, let's play!)

Me: "Fine, I just have to write it up, finish the papers, move, prepare for my next job, and regain my sanity." (Translation: I have to write, could you please go away?)

WMF: "You have a job already? Wow, that's great! Where? What are you doing? When are you leaving" (Translation: I HATE YOU. No, not really. Well, yes, I do, but I'm trying not to let my envy show.)

Me: "Some arcane place, where I will realize my dreams of being an astrophysicist." (Translation: Please! Go! Away! I want to leave, but I'm being sucked into this conversation that I'd rather be having than writing, even though writing will get me away from here!)

WMF: "That's so cool. I wish I could get out of here." (Translation: Yes, I do hate you ... a lot.)

Me: "So how are things with you?" (Translation: If you won't leave me alone, let's hear about your hell since you're intent on extending mine with your presence.)

Fifteen to 20 minutes and a cup of coffee later, I've lost the taste for whatever it was I was supposed to be doing and end up:

a) going home to sleep.

b) going to dinner with this person (or some other person who drops by to chat) and then going home and to sleep.

c) surfing the Internet mindlessly for things I don't need.

d) lapsing back into freak-out mode because I have so much to do.

- or -

e) going back to the park, to another coffee shop, or somewhere else in the hope that I won't see anyone else I know.

I used to wonder how anyone could possibly leave graduate school "ABD" ("all but dissertation"). How could anyone do all that work and leave without the degree? Now I understand: Writing (or not writing) can drive you up a wall. For some people, it's a refreshing and wonderful experience, taking all their hard work and forming it into a concrete--well, paper, technically, but you know what I mean--document. Coaxing all of their thoughts into a coherent masterpiece, staking a claim on a little corner of an intellectual field, can be quite liberating. But not often; so far, I have only met one or two people who describe their thesis-writing experience that way.

Everyone else tells me horror stories: lack of sleep, dreaming in equations, equipment malfunctions that occur just when you need that one last piece of data; writing with a fifth of Scotch nearby. Of course, we can't forget everyone's favorite: finishing your data analysis and having your adviser say, half joking/half-serious, "Why don't you treat your data this way (instead of the way you just spent weeks or months on)?" Then there are the colleagues who continually ask for your help or opinion, not thinking that you might have something better to do. And then there are the beloved, infernal family members inquiring sweetly, "Is it done yet?" More stories of writing bliss: laptop failure, broken limbs, sudden migraines, gastrointestinal distress, overeating, undereating, hives.

My current fantasy involves being banished to an island (with wireless, of course) to write at my leisure. My adviser immediately reads anything I send to him. He sends it back with a note: "Brilliant! Perfect! No changes needed."

Back to reality. I have lots to do, and unfortunately no writing support group to help me push through. And although I do not have a spouse/significant other on which to heap my sorrows (or to clean my apartment), I have adopted the all-important thesis-writing sidekick/fairy godfriend. This is the person tasked with checking my vital signs every so often, making sure I've eaten, supplying me with the junk food I require, putting up with my rants and raves, and, in general, pushing me gently forward without sending me over the edge. So far, she's done a pretty good job, and she hasn't gotten tired of me yet. But I think I may have scared her a few times with my tirades.

Resources for Thesis Writing on ScienceCareers.org:

If anyone out there has any other creative methods for making sure the writing gets done, I'm all ears. I now return me to my regularly scheduled program: staring bleary-eyed into the computer as the espresso I just drank dances in my system. Bottoms up!

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.