PhDs are tricky little buggers

So about a fortnight ago I submitted my PhD thesis for assessment, assuming all goes well it should be marked in a few months and if I didn't screw up terribly I should be graduating mid-year. This would make me Dr Tim, a strange concept. I can then fully stop thinking about it and move on to other thoughts, but for now I have to talk a little bit about some of the quirks I encountered while working on it.

This entire post could be summarised as 'despite people telling me it would be like this, I never expected it to be like this' which probably says more about me than the concept of a PhD but I noticed pretty much every other PhD student approach it in a similar manner.

The Writing

I have written lots before, I have written tech books, articles, papers, documentation etc etc etc so I wasn't really worried about the volume of writing I would have to do as I have (or thought I had) done all this before.

I was wrong.

Writing a PhD is very different from writing anything else I have done before, and the reason is because it is something new. Any time I have written something it has always had a structure and information provided elsewhere by someone or something else to help guide it as you write it. A PhD is by its very purpose a new piece of information. You as the author have to create the information you will use, you have to understand and interpret the information you generate, and you have to be the one to weave it together into something that makes sense.

The only guidance you have is past literature and even that you have to play around with and make it into something new to help tell your story.
This was all told to you when you start, but for whatever reason (arrogance in my case) everyone seems to ignore this and dive straight into the writing bog.

The Story

A PhD isn't just a dump of information, you don't just write down what you did and tah-dah you get given the doctorate (I wish they did though). You need to weave all of this into a story, you need to have a buildup and logical progression, the story needs to link backwards into what has been done and forwards into what you are doing.
Eventually you reach the end of the thesis and the reader should feel like you are closing the door you opened way back at the start.

This again was told to me in advance but I didn't really get this until near the end of the whole thing. I was at a stage where I had what I considered a content-complete thesis, essentially all the pieces were there. Reading through this revealed it was a piece of crap, there was no story, no weaving, no flow. It was bloody difficult to read and I spent months moving the different blocks around until I had something that made sense.

The Fraility of Your Squishy Brain

This is pretty much the only one that wasn't told to me in advance but one of the trickiest bits about the PhD was keeping it all in my head at once. When nearing the end and spending all time in writeup you are (or bloody well should be!) the most knowledgeable person in the entire world about your topic. There isn't really anyone you can turn to to ask specific questions because they just don't know the topic like you do. I tried this a few times before giving up simply because explaining the weird minutiae to them got tedious for everyone.

So essentially you need to keep everything to do with your research in your head, you need to remember the literature so you can argue what you are doing is valid and worthwhile and you need to remember your work and how it connects the gaps in the body of human knowledge. You also need to keep the flow in your mind so you don't repeat yourself or explain concepts well before or after they are needed.
I found that tools designed to help with this, generally things like Evernote or combination note and bibliogaphy mangers, were way too slow. At the start they were helpful but near the end switching between them and the document itself required too much context switching. I basically just left little notes and todos littering the document itself for things I couldn't remember.
I don't know if anyone else experienced these sort of issues around their work, but now I really question if any of these notes and memory tools are worth the effort required to use them. Switching back and forth takes too damn long.

The End?

So that is essentially all I wanted to talk about, the weird issues I had when working on my PhD.
Now that it is submitted and I've written this post I can safely stop thinking about it until the assessors come back.
Pass or fail, once the thing is marked, I will write up another post about how I used software dev tools to make working on the thing easier because I am pretty damn certain it did.