Folks, it’s almost time to get this thesis show on the road. Tomorrow my PhD thesis heads out the door and into the hands of my committee members.
Tomorrow will be a good day because, at least for a little while, I’ll be able to get rid of this thing that’s become like an annoying houseguest—tolerable yet irritating. It’s true that on the whole, writing my thesis hasn’t been too bad. I have loved being able to work at home, not packing a lunch every day, and avoiding my commute a few days a week. I have had moments in which understanding bloomed right before my eyes, and I was actually able to see data and entire projects as I’d never quite seen them before. THAT was very cool. The experience has given me some confidence that I’m going to do just fine as a postdoc, provided I find a way to let my brain focus without dissolving into a million scattered thoughts. The focus of thesis writing has been at times exhilarating and exhausting. But now I just want to be done.
It’s hard to explain how mentally draining it is to be committed to something as long and intense as a doctoral graduate program. I imagine it’s in the same category as marriage or children, although to be fair, since I have not made either of those commitments, I can’t really say. Regardless, it is a big, B-I-G commitment. Bigger than I could have possibly imagined at age 21, when I started graduate school. I feel like I’ve been on an extended road trip for the past six years. For one thing, my butt is really sore from so many hours spent sitting at my desk. My back hurts, too. Like a lot of road trips, this one has been very interesting. I have learned many obscure facts, like the fact that flies have brains. (Did you know that?) They also have seven photopigments that function in three different pairs of “eyes” if you will—their giant compound eyes (the ones you can see with your own eyes) as well as two “hidden” eyes, an eyelet and a group of cells called ocelli. And believe it or not, the fact that I know these things makes me irresistible to a certain someone. Yes, I am one hot nerd.
This road trip called grad school has been a lot of fun, too. I’ve done a lot of cool experiments, found some interesting results, and worked with a great bunch of people. I’ve learned that science is more fun when you can share it with someone and that I really like working as part of a team. For the first couple of years, I worked really hard and managed to get some stuff done, and that was good.
When the trip was fresh and exciting, driving was a challenge, but I was eager to prove I could handle it. Half the time the map was wrong, and sometimes I ran out of gas, but I could always just nibble on a snack until I figured out my next route. My station wagon turned out to be a piece of junk that liked to run itself off the road. I got stuck in ditches and telephone poles all the time and had to call for help. It was usually the same man on the other end of the line, an American-born Indian who was often very helpful but occasionally gave me driving advice that was more appropriate for someone with a Ferrari, not a station wagon. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from that man.
Around year five or so, my accelerator broke, so I was stuck in neutral until the Journal of Neuroscience gave me a new accelerator and a first-author publication. During year six, the engine fell out of my car and I ran out of snacks. I abandoned the car on the side of the road and started walking home. Occasionally I stuck out my thumb and tried to hitchhike, but whenever I did that, they always dropped me off in the worst places in town, and I ran like hell to get away. So I quickly learned to stop asking for help from other vehicles, and I just kept walking.
I’ve been walking for a long time now. I’m very, very tired. I need to get home. I need to rest. On Tuesday, I will pass a hopeful sign that says, “Just three more weeks until you are free.” I am desperate to see that sign. Until then, I will keep moving forward, one slow step after another, for as long as I can. I am almost done.