Last week a PI from the department remarked to me in casual conversation: “shouldn’t you be writing up?”.
At time of writing it’s mid-April 2021, and that PI didn’t know that due to COVID-19 I have recently been awarded a paid extension until January 2022. However, in the plan I have made for my final year (I’m a spreadsheets and lists kind of girl) I budgeted 3 months for writing up, so I would have still been in the lab even without the extension.
This sent me into a tailspin. Have I grossly underestimated how long it will take me to write my thesis? I confided in a friend. He said that this was on his mind too, as he knows someone who was writing their thesis for longer than 6 months. 6 months.
But I can’t stop doing experiments now. My thesis will be so much better when I’ve done x y and z experiments. When you’re in the thick of it- as I am- every experiment feels compulsory. My thesis will be too superficial if I can’t flesh it out with the mechanistic experiments I want to do over the next few months. I feel annoyed with my past self: if I had been more efficient in my first and second years then I could be taking my time to write my thesis and paper whilst working from home (such is 2021 life).
The thing about listing experiments to do, is that it’s never just those experiments. Results snowball into new questions, which suddenly need to be answered. An experiment which I only thought up yesterday will now make or break my thesis. This is how I’ve come to be stuck in the lab.
Also, and I might as well get this out in the open now, I’m planning to leave academia. Not just leave academia but also to leave the lab, to hopefully work in science communications. This appeals to me for a number of reasons: I want to spend more time thinking about the big picture of science, I want to work in a team and I want to see the impact of research on people’s lives. However, as the end of my PhD approaches I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going to miss the buzz of an exciting result. Every time I’ve carried out a laboratory technique recently I’ve thought, is this the last time I’ll ever do this?
It strikes me that a key attribute of people who enjoy working in a wet lab is a restlessness that is incompatible with full-time desk work. We wanted to be scientists so that we could have a varied job with some sitting down to read and think, but also plenty of time spent messing around with cells or proteins or chemicals asking mad questions which our experiment may or may not answer. Whilst I have no doubt that leaving the lab is the right decision for me, a perverse unwillingness to give up experiments is preventing me from full-time thesis writing.
Nevertheless, I’m hurtling towards the end of my PhD, and one of these days I’m going to need to put pen to paper. I will however be doing everything in my power to ensure it does not take 6 months. Any tips on relinquishing perfectionism and applying yourself to a long period of writing would be more than welcome, and I’ll be sure to document my progression over the coming months.