4.5 Open Water
State(s) of limbo 

Words by Vrinda Chopra
4 August 2021

Relive the moments before submitting your thesis for examination

states(s) of limbo.jpg

Illustration by Jishnnu B

Sitting on my desk, I am vaguely aware of my leg bobbing up and down as I look over my thesis checklist for the hundredth time. I sigh loudly and open the thesis file, lying within easy reach on my desktop, unlike the layers I waded through to arrive at the complete draft, ready for submission. It seems tremendously challenging to cross this final threshold despite all the hard work of wading, peeling, clarifying, and writing. I controlled the fate of the thesis, and now I needed to pass that on to the examiners. It was all too much. The knots gathered in my gut as a clumpy mess. I looked at my calendar – it was indeed the day I marked for submission, the day I had thought the ongoing madness of checking and rechecking would end. 

I take a deep breath to dissipate some of the uneasiness and wipe my clammy hands on the sweatpants, my daily uniform during the pandemic. Another deep breath, and I log into the student portal. Carefully, I begin to upload the various, already ready documents to accompany the most crucial one - the thesis. I remember when it was just a vague idea in my mind in the summer of 2011, which turned into an unmanageable mess as soon as I began writing in 2018. 

As I wait for the documents to upload, I thought back to 2017. I was collecting data, ‘doing’ research and loving every minute of it – reading new material, connecting with people, attending events and having many deep conversations. At the time, being introverted and in a strange country, I thought data collection would be the hard part. I was unconcerned with the difficulty of writing a PhD thesis, having fashioned myself as somewhat of a writer. I smile, thinking of my hasty presumptions. I knew that writing is the reason I feel ridden with anxiety today. It is the nemesis that brought me to my knees, wading through the dark layers of data and theory, often gasping for air, before arriving in clear, blue waters.

When I began writing, unsure and uncertain, I channelled my master's dissertation. I poured everything into a semi-coherent first draft, where much to my current embarrassment, I droned on and on about nothing new, regurgitating my data without clarity or direction. The feedback confirmed my fears, leading me back to where I started, unsure and uncertain. In literal terms, it felt like I just ran up a hillside without really seeing where I was going, and unsurprisingly tripped over my own feet to tumble back down.

Bruised, the thought of quitting had crossed my mind. But not unlike today, I took a few deep breaths, a few days off, before restarting the slow tread uphill. This time, I took the road less travelled, though I drew a more precise map and dropped breadcrumbs of consistent feedback as a safety net. I still tripped up several times, but at least I could catch myself. The metaphorical safety net became more robust, with every fall and cry of frustration – I knew now 'what not to do'. I wasn’t irredeemably lost. I worked on each chapter steadily, feeling momentary relief as I shared it for feedback, of crossing a landmark and being in a temporary state of limbo.

Each round of feedback was intense and encouraged new ways to think – ‘how can you bring your data alive?’ ‘How much of this is opinion versus argument?’; ‘What does it mean to use Sanyal and Roy in the same paragraph?’; ‘How will your narrative and argument weave together?’; ‘You are not building hubris. You're unearthing it’. And slowly, the richness of the internal world of the thesis I saw as a mountainous forest, began to reveal itself, one clearing at a time.

With the help of my wonderful supervisors, I navigated unclear and rugged terrains to arrive at the clearing of my writing. The thesis was ready to submit. So why was I anxious and afraid? Still thinking of the journey rather than submitting. Eight months ago, I was yet to get a single chapter right. Four months ago, the draft was still incomplete, with an unwritten conclusion. Now here I am with the table of contents triple checked. I open Pinterest as I often do to quiet anxious thoughts. Skimming through the collections of lines and quotes from books and poets, one from Amor Towles shines a light on my current state. He says, "our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive and even daunting, but if we persevere, we may be granted with a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment when all that has happened to us comes into focus as a necessary course of events". I reached my moment of lucidity, and I desperately want to hold on to it a moment longer. As I submit, new uncertainties will unfold, of what now, what next? I sigh once again, realising it's time to let go. I press enter.

About Mysticeti's friends:

Vrinda is a social science researcher who just submitted her PhD thesis for examination. She loves yoga and drawing pictures of her engagement with the world, through a camera lens and the written word.

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Jishnnu B creates visualization,  illustrations and immersive narratives