Dr. Federer’s Wild Ride: The Tale of the 3-year PhD

A couple days ago, I stood outside a conference room while my doctoral dissertation committee discussed the defense I’d just given. My advisor opened the door to invite me back in and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Federer!”

Obviously I’m very pleased about this, in large part because I am absolutely delighted this experience is over. I did this PhD in 3 years (most people take 4-6 years) and I did it while I was also working full-time in a pretty demanding job. At some points, to be honest, it was just basically awful. I say this not to dissuade anyone from doing a PhD part-time, because I do think it’s totally doable under certain circumstances (like if you have a really supportive boss, which I do, and if you don’t have kids, which I don’t), but honestly in hindsight, doing it do this quickly was really pretty ridiculous on my part, although I had my reasons.

One of my professors used to say something that stuck with me – don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. When you look at someone’s finished dissertation, or picture of a black hole, or whatever, you’re seeing a final product that has been polished over hours, sometimes years. It’s easy to think, oh my god, everybody has it so together and makes it look so easy, so why is this so hard for me? So in the spirit of cheering on those of you who may be in this process (or are thinking of it), I’d like to shed some light on what it took to become Dr. Federer. (By the way, that same professor also said to us once “at this point in the semester, if you’re not crying in public, you’re doing great,” which I think is also worth keeping in mind.)

First, let me tell you about my typical day. I did my course work in a year and a half, which I managed by taking summer courses. During that time, I would get up around 5 am and be at work by 6:30 so that I could leave by 4 pm. That gave me enough time to get home and walk my dog before getting back in the car and sitting in rush hour traffic on the Beltway for an hour. I had two classes each week, most from 6 – 9 pm, and this usually got me home around 9:30 (thankfully rarely any traffic on the way home that late). Then I’d have dinner – obviously I was not in the mood for cooking that late at night, so on weekends I would cook a couple big batches of something that I could pop in the microwave. It takes awhile to mentally wind down from a doctoral-level class (for me anyway), so I usually read a bit or watched a show and got to bed by 11 so I could get up and do it all again in the morning. Over the weekend, I would read whatever I needed to for the next week of classes (and believe me, there is a LOT of reading) and write, but I still managed to have some free time, so it wasn’t too overwhelming.

In my program, there are no qualifying exams because it’s a highly interdisciplinary department and everyone’s doing such different things that it wouldn’t really make sense. Instead, there’s a requirement to write an “integrative paper” that demonstrates that you’ve achieved an appropriate mastery of your subject to move on to the dissertation phase. Mine was a research study that provided a grounding for my dissertation by providing evidence some of the methodological choices I would make. That took a semester, and it was probably the easiest semester out of the whole program. Next came the dissertation proposal, in which you write the introduction, lit review, and methods section that will eventually become the first part of your dissertation, and your committee makes sure what you’re proposing sounds reasonable. That also took a semester. I do remember periods during those semesters in which I had to spend an entire weekend working, but it was nothing like the dissertation would end up being. I also really enjoyed not having to spend that hour in traffic twice a week to go to campus for classes.

I started the final sprint toward finishing my dissertation in January 2019, and that was when things got much harder. All the things I’d said I’d do during the proposal had seemed pretty straightforward, but when it came down to actually doing them, everything took so much longer than I expected and most of it didn’t work on the first (and sometimes even the second or third try). My topic modeling outputs were a nightmare. My code comments were filled with frustrated notes to myself and the occasional expletive. Manually categorizing and describing things took hours longer than I expected.

The coursework portion of my life had seemed grueling because of the early morning hours and the horrible hour in Beltway traffic, but at least then I had enough free time to feel like I had at least a little work/life balance. For the semester that I worked on the dissertation, nearly every minute of my life was spent working. I would put in an 8-hour day at work, where I’d started a new position with considerably more responsibilities and expectations than my previous one. I would come home and spend half an hour walking my dog and then quickly eat something. During the most intense period of work, I ate nothing but turkey and Swiss cheese sandwiches for the better part of a month because they were quick to make. At one point, a friend sent me a Grubhub gift card so I would eat something other than sandwiches.

After that, I’d spend the next several hours working. I tried to have a cutoff time of 9:30 so I’d have enough time to do something else with my brain for a little while before going to bed, or else I knew I’d never get to sleep. Even then, most nights I’d wake up around 3 or 4 am and almost immediately my brain would once again kick into high gear, going over different ways to better approach the problems, fixes to the code bugs I was running into, or mull over wording of whatever part I was currently writing. Some nights I managed to get back to sleep, but more often, I laid there in the dark with my mind going full-speed until my alarm went off in the morning. I was constantly exhausted. Weekends weren’t much better. I let myself sleep in a little bit, but then it was all work, usually 12 hours a day, with breaks to walk the dog and of course make a sandwich.

During this period, everything was about the dissertation. I stopped going to the gym. A social life was totally out of the question. I would text with my friends, but I didn’t see most of them for months. Even my dog, Ophelia, hardly got my attention. She developed a bad habit of barking at me in frustration when I would be sitting on my couch working, so I started bringing my laptop and sitting on the floor with her while I worked, which seemed to make her happy. She would bring her Squirrelly (in our home, all toys are named Squirrelly) over for me to throw, and we’d have a little tug-of-war, but I know she could tell that I was distracted. One night she came over and dropped here Squirrelly on the pile of books I was referring to – pictured below – like, “come on, lady, seriously.”

Ophelia hates research but loves playing Squirrelly

Even when I wasn’t working on the dissertation, I was thinking about the dissertation. It was an albatross that always hung heavy around my neck, constantly on my mind no matter what I was doing. If I talked to you at some point during this 4-month period, I can almost guarantee you that I was also thinking about the dissertation while I was doing it. When I did finally finish it and send it to my committee, I was shocked at how much more productive I became at work. I got more done in the day after it was submitted than I had in the entire week prior, just because the dissertation took up so much mental space in every minute of every day that I had very little bandwidth for anything else. It’s something I’ve never experienced before and I don’t know if it can be fully explained to someone who hasn’t gone through it.

But I got through it. After I submitted it to my committee, I spent an evening listening to podcasts, drinking wine, and doing a jigsaw puzzle, and I thought to myself, “wow, what a decadent way to spend an evening.” It’s not, though – it’s normal life (I mean honestly, it’s a little bit boring of an evening in normal-life terms), but I’d so forgotten what that meant that I felt like I was giving myself an incredible indulgence. Even now that the hardest work has been done for weeks, I still sometimes feel a lingering sense of guilt when I do something like read a book for fun, or watch a show, or take my dog for a long hike, like I should be working.

So, I say all of this not to complain about my experience, nor to scare anyone who’s thinking of going down this road. Was it hard? Harder than anything I’ve ever done before. Was it worth it? No question. Really, I write this to say, yes, this is hard, and we all experience it. My dissertation advisor once said in an email to me, “you make this look easy!” and I’m sure to a lot of people, I did. But it’s not, no matter what it may look like from the outside. So, you, dear reader, who maybe is working on a PhD or some other degree, or maybe a challenging project of some other sort, I want you to know that you’re doing great. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides, because, no matter how poised and calm we may look to the outside world, it’s pretty messy inside for all of us.

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