You would think that writing a dissertation would take a long time. But I had deadlines--giving the thesis to my committee and defending in time to start my new job--and I had to break all sorts of writing records to meet them. You would also think that kind of pressure would be enough to focus me on the task at hand, right? Well, that's not exactly the way it went. I had many moments in which I couldn't keep my mind on writing. I'll chalk it up to "that's just the way I am"--all my life I've found it hard to focus on one thing.

To keep myself entertained, I've always had more than one activity, more than one set of friends, more than one thing on my mind, and more than one way to approach a problem. Somehow, I still manage to get it done. I can now add my dissertation to the list of things I've managed to finish in spite of my less-than-focused approach.

I succeeded because, during my writing experience, I learned how to live with my lack of razorlike focus. I wanted to share some of the things that got me through:

  • I bought the magic notebook--but I didn't keep it in a plastic bag, as recommended. I did, however, keep it with me at all times, and it kept me from writing on too many Post-it notes.

  • Keeping the computer off sometimes was really helpful. Drafting sections longhand in the magic notebook was very helpful. Because I then had something to work with, I was motivated to write. Working longhand for a while--organizing data, evaluating images, rethinking arguments--helped to collect my thoughts so that when I turned the computer back on, I was motivated.

  • Staying away from people I knew kept me productive.

  • I cleaned my apartment so that the landlord could show it, but because it was clean, I was able to write at home without wanting to burn things.

  • Hard chairs are bad for the body. They may keep you awake, but it's at the expense of your bum.

  • Rewards, no matter how small, are necessary. I didn't need a piece of chocolate every 5 minutes, but a movie or gatherings with friends once a week kept me feeling human.

  • Rotating writing locations was helpful because I needed changes of scenery (indoors, outdoors, restaurant, apartment, bookshop, library, office, rinse and repeat).

  • Backup, backup, backup. My particular backup strategy involved a 2GB USB key that I kept with me constantly, the 250GB external hard drive that I had on my desktop, and a folder with my chapter files on the server in the department. Each file had the date of last revision both in the file title and on the header of the chapter page.

I talked to my parents a lot more during this time. They would gently ask me how it was going, and I would groan a response. They coddled me and sent me funny e-cards and hilarious e-mails. Because I asked--okay, I insisted--they didn't give me too many "it's almost over/you're almost done" positive-thinking speeches. They have done plenty of worrying about me, and I'm thankful that they've been there for me.

Speaking of being there for me, thank you to everyone who sent writing tips. They were very helpful. Here are a few I'd like to pass along:

  • Structure your writing day to include breaks for fresh air, exercise, rest, and rewards for each paragraph you finish.

  • Mindless fun is good for you, so do something you enjoy at least once a day.

  • Arrive at the library (or wherever you are writing) stocked with enough food for the day, find a sunny spot, and get to it.

  • Include empty days in your planning calendar because writing will take longer than expected.

  • If you have time, take a little vacation.

  • Remember that a finished thesis may not embody the perfection you crave, but it has the great virtue of being a finished thesis.

  • Once you've worked on a chapter or section for a while, set it aside for a few days, then come back to it; your errors will be more evident.

  • Have a writing workspace that has everything you need--references, data, hardware, software, magic notebook--so that you can just sit and write when the moment hits you. This saves you from having to prepare each time.

It's also important to think about why you're writing and whom you're writing for. My thesis is partly for me (I need something to sacrifice to the gods of science), partly for the people in the lab who continue my project (and prove everything I did to be wrong), partly for my family (although they may never read it in its entirety), and partly for my adviser (who also may never read it in its entirety).

What--my adviser? Surely he'll read it! Um ... no, the sad thing is my adviser--like most advisers--really only cares about the papers we publish; he has actually said as much. But it's hard not to write for him as well, knowing that his opinion matters so much; chalk it up to another of the absurdities of graduate school. It seems strange to work so hard for something and then to realize that no one but you really cares. It's only the stuff in literature that ever gets noticed. It's a bittersweet end.

Yes, you write to showcase the work you did, to prove to your adviser, your committee, and the world that you are worthy of those three little letters. And then it sits on a shelf, waiting for the day 10 years down the road when someone opens it up and pulls out one procedure or technique, hoping that they will find some scientific hole in which they can do their thesis work. Or maybe they'll manage to find some detail that will help them with a project they're already engaged in.

It's so anticlimactic, it's funny. I just can't help shaking my head: I spent X number of years doing this? This is how graduate school turned out, and what the heck happened to the last X years of my life? Still, I do feel better now that the document is out of my hands--much better. Talk about feeling conflicted.

And that ambivalence isn't the only source of internal conflict. I should be elated that it's almost over, and part of me is. But another part of me doesn't quite believe it. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out that there's something else that I have to do that'll take me another 5 years to complete.

It's because of this ambivalence--especially the first kind--that right now I don't even want to talk about graduate school with anyone who hasn't been through the experience. I don't want to have to fake how proud I feel about everything, how joyful, how *insert perky emotion* I am. Because I'm not. Not really. Not yet.

Tune in next time to see what happens once the thesis is defended and the partying begins.

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.