Witnessing my partner writing their PhD

My partner has just completed his PhD Viva, taking ~4.5 hours. He monitored his heart rate and plotted it, seems quite a traumatic event.

This blog post is to acknowledge the stress of a PhD from a friend, partner, and outsider perspective. I hope this post isn’t misunderstood or reflects any selfishness: I am writing to acknowledge the stressful experience and what it’s like to witness.

My partner, Sam, area of research is Bioinformatics and although we met at the beginning of his 3rd year, I was able to watch a rollercoaster of emotions. Sam had fun times, and I, in my best attempt, tracked the funniest things said, and kept a subjective emotional journal during his 3rd and 4th year. I previously tweeted about this.

In the Figure below, Sam said a bunch of things throughout his 3rd and 4th year. The plot x-axis is time, from the beginning of his 3rd year in November (02/11/2016) to the middle of his 4th year (May), approximately one month before his Viva. The y-axis is my subjective opinion of Sam’s emotion during that time point, with timepoints having an annotation of what Sam said at that moment. The colours chosen are reflect the emotion: grey is neutral, green is positive, blue is not-so-great/sad, and red is negative. There was time-blip between March (03/2017) to October (10/2017) as I was deep into my undergraduate dissertation and web project.

line time plot showing the emotional stability of a phd student

Figure: Plot showing the emotional stability in my subjective opinion of Dr. Sam.

I saw that his emotions varied frequently, even in times he seemed happy or grumpy, he was often saying things that would imply the opposite. Screaming how “Bioinformatics is shit” seems like quite the negative thing to say yet he was laughing and seemed joyful, although it may have been the wine talking.

There seems to be more negative dips, but this doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth. These were times I was deep in work alongside Sam, but Sam had lots of other positive moments.

Some notable favourites (chronological order):

  • WHO IS THIS GUY sad - Sam thought his work was scooped and has a few sad weeks.
  • WINE TIME happy - Sam started to enjoy wine during his evenings of deep PhD work.
  • fuck you latex what the fucking fuck, I fucking hate computers not-so-happy - formatting a thesis is quite the challenge.
  • pls no more lit review sad - reading and writing-up a lot of papers can be exhausting.
  • THIS IS MY BABY very happy - Sam was making brilliant progress and was really happy with the thesis progress.
  • how do bees do this? happy - Sam moved from wine onto mead.
  • NEXT QUESTION positive - prepared a mock Viva for Sam and he was in good spirits.

The stress of writing seemed to change him (not always a bad thing). Sam didn’t seem himself some days: he would wake up only to write until late hours. Even though funny things were said, one major change was sleep talking.

Sam, when he eventually would sleep, I’d notice would seem to make more noises in his sleep and there was sleep talking (as reflected in the Figure above). Some examples of things he said: “the sequences”, “bad men at the bank”, and “it’s real science” (the last was shouted loudly). All things I would say are related to his PhD: sequences in Bioinformatics, bank may relate to the 4th year of no pay (abeyance), and “real science” perhaps defending his work via peer reviews.

One activity that I noticed to help was a change of scenery (from the house). I would try getting Sam out of the house and suggest working in a different location. I was writing my Masters thesis at the time so I also had the excuse to work. We worked in different areas of the department: communal spaces, the library, the thinktank, and Sam most enjoyed a secret location in the Biology building’s skybridge.

Weather was a factor in Sam’s mood: raining meant that he would get soaked if he went to campus, so he knew he had to stay in the house (also rain reminded him of his bees and pondered if they were doing well). I also tried to get Sam to do something different in the evenings, he found some fun in a space game and wine/mead.

Writing up a PhD thesis seems demanding: you need to set deadlines for chapters, yet if something is not ready to write-up, how can you meet that deadline? Some complete the PhD work first and write-up the thesis, others write as they go. Some students work best by making schedules, however, breaks in writing was difficult for Sam as it was hard for him to drop concentration then later try to resume.

All this writing and focus meant Sam forget to eat breakfast and lunch. I would try to grab him something to eat in the morning before he left for campus. I found he loved the chicken coronation ciabatta from our local garage.

Sam handed in the thesis and immediately I noticed a weight off his shoulders. Now the waiting game for the Viva. On the successful Viva day, Sam was nervous. But absolutely rocked it. He wore a great waistcoat and his brilliant chromosome tie.

Since the Viva, Sam had much more energy! We went on walks and explored Aberystwyth’s Old College (ashamed that I had never in my 4 years in Aberystwyth had visited).

Congratulations Dr Sam Nicholls!

dr sam with the lovely chromosome tie on the morning of his viva

…Little did I know, I was about to embark on my PhD journey.