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Finishing a PhD: a piece of cake or a hard battle?

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Topic: Science  |  Series: My Journey to PhD
Negotiating The last post about my PhD journey was a report on the move of my research group from Amsterdam to Maastricht. Despite the blog going silent for quite a while, my PhD journey was ongoing and I actually managed to finish my doctorate between the last one and the current blog post. As you can imagine, the Move I was writing about changed quite a few things: some for better, some for worse. Had I not stopped blogging, the latter category could have been perhaps emptier. Lately I have made a big move again. Before writing about my current Journey, however, I would like to take a look back and reflect on the crazy times of the last steps on my PhD Odyssey.

Indeed, I don’t want to describe my entire year I had spent in Maastricht. You can gain an idea of what was it like by reading an interview with me and my supervisor Ron Heeren published online in the Maastricht University magazine. The interview was done one day after my PhD defence and one day before I left Maastricht for Australia. Yes, this is not a typo: While some people work on finishing their PhDs and some others dig through the tasks related to moving continents, I was doing both at the same time. And that made my last months in Maastricht incredibly intense. But let’s start from the beginning of the end:

As every PhD, also mine was supposed to end with the opus magnificus: the doctoral dissertation aka thesis and its public defence. I had a very clear idea of what my thesis will look like and what message it will convey half way through my PhD. In the past three years, I had published a few papers and tied them in what I considered a nice thesis story. However, mine and Ron’s opinion regarding the quality of the thesis differed quite a bit. While I was happy with a thesis "good enough", Ron was convinced I could (and therefore should) make it better.

Trying to resolve our discrepancies, I managed to squeeze a few meetings with Ron into his already incredibly full agenda (which was always a huge achievement on itself) to discuss the end of my PhD and the thesis – the things we both imagined differently. I wanted to graduate with the amount of work that was done and close my PhD chapter three years after it had begun. (By that time, I had three papers published - one being a review article - and another publication was just submitted in Autumn. For an analytical chemist, that's a pretty standard situation to end a doctorate in.) Ron wanted me to add another experimental chapter. That meant for me staying in Maastricht for at least extra few months. And that simply was not an option for me. These discussions kept shifting the deadline for handing my thesis in more to the future and my frustration was growing every day. I could not understand why, having fulfilled all the official requirements, I just could not finish and move on. I felt like a marathon runner who was told at 40th kilometre mark to run another 20K, just because she is an outstanding athlete.

Talking of the marathon, it is worth mentioning that I have developed a repetitive strain injury on the entire wrist-elbow-shoulder axis during the summer. This not only prevented me from working even harder on my thesis (and was actually the main cause of the blogging pause), but also meant I could not swim nor ride my bike. An older shin-injury kept me away from running. And so it happened that my two most important sanity-keepers, triathlon and writing, flew out of window. With that going on, handling the fact that my partner was living in Zurich and my best mates I used to be in daily contact with before the Move stayed in Amsterdam, was harder than ever. All in all, I felt really miserable and my entire self turned into an "I-wanna-finish-my-PhD-NOW" machine. And you know the drill: The harder you try, the less things work out for you.  
The thing was that until that point, I practically have not encounter real hurdles on my PhD journey. I could not wish for a better supervisor or a better group to work with. I loved my projects and I loved the lifestyle that doing research offered: the travelling, the sharing of my passion. But the Move changed a lot in the dynamics of our group. Ron became ever busier and his until then impeccable management of the group suffered a lot. And so did the group. And so did I.

Luckily one of my strong assets is knowing what I want. I love discussions, but once I make a decision, there is hardly ever a way back. And I decided I wanted to finish with what I had at hand. This enabled me to come to the meetings with Ron with a well thought-through strategy. While I was ready for a battle, the meetings always turned out into fair debates. Eventually, we agreed on the content of my thesis and the deadline for its handing-in. Or maybe I should say: Eventually I managed to convince Ron that we will do it my way :) Being a great achievement for me, the agreement was actually a beginning of a very demanding albeit successful end which I will describe in the next post.

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