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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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No going back: diary of a thesis

Around 8 months ago, I returned to the UK from CERN with a fresh enthusiasm and readiness to write up, and declared that I was beginning the challenge of the thesis. Of course, nothing is that simple. A PhD is an organic and unusual creature, constantly evolving, and many of us face the danger of not knowing when to stop. We work towards goals that depend on so much coming together, and if things go wrong we have to adapt those goals. I have been very lucky – I have my data. But with data inevitably come cans of worms – nothing is straightforward in the early stages of an experiment this complex. In reality, my focus on writing has been much more recent (somewhat demonstrated by the lull in posts).

My contract ends soon, but many of those one year ahead of me are also just starting to get the thesis completed, having continued with analysis without pay for the last year, to see a little more LHC data, to have a few more plots, to squeeze little more out of the experience. My heart goes out to those who have to finish without data. It must be a tough decision to make.

Now that I am finally in the flow of the writing process, I am finding it to be one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted. Like many others, I underestimated the gravity of the challenge. As a result I have decided to start writing a weekly diary, documenting the things I find motivating, useful, challenging and so on. I hope that others in my position can find it helpful.

As well as writing, I have been applying for jobs. This is a challenge of an entirely different sort – right now in the UK there are so many particle and nuclear physics PhD students writing up, and virtually no post-doc positions waiting for them. Many are choosing to leave. I am choosing to be imaginative and see where life in the UK takes me. We shall see.

So here is my motivational point for the day. It comes inspired by my supervisor, who sent me a text message from atop a mountain in Spain yesterday. He sent me the picture below, and commented:

“Note the aggressive slopes, which gave me a lot of trouble for several hours. I would have given up long before except I had jumped across rocks so much I did not see how to get back, so I carried on and … eventually got to the top! I am sure there is a message for everyone in there somewhere.”


Writing a thesis is more of an endurance trek than a sprint, which is why the difficulty took me by surprise. It will take longer than you think. You will have times when you struggle to keep going. The length will continue to daunt you. The message I took from this story was that, although the road ahead is terrifying, to be at this stage of your PhD means you have already come an incredible distance. Each page you write, each sentence, is another struggled step towards the top. Just keep going.

It has been over a year since my tearful moment in the Tatras, Slovakia, when I turned back, too frightened to embark on an impressive climb. I was afraid because I knew that if I started, after a few rocks I would not be able to turn back. However, I often look back on that day and remember a local young girl with her pet dog taking the climb with ease, and wonder if I could have made it to the top. By pushing to the finish with my PhD, I hope I will make my peace with that.


One response to “No going back: diary of a thesis”

  1. Neil says:

    Great post