By Madeleine Arber
I am well into the second year of my three-year PhD investigating the effect of chemo-brain on breast cancer patients and survivors in terms of cognition, self-control, and quality of life. Well, I was until I had to make the difficult decision to terminate the project.
Unfortunately, the injuries inflicted (i.e. forming the relationships needed in order to submit an ethical form outside of the university) were not compatible with life (i.e. submitting the dissertation on time).
As much as I loved researching my project and wanted to continue, I would not have been able to keep my head above water financially beyond the third year should I have continued. This was a difficult decision to make, as there is a certain grief comes with having to let go of two years’ worth of hard work.
It is difficult to describe to people outside of the research world what undertaking a PhD is like. It is perhaps even more challenging to try to express to family and friends the complexity in making the decision to end your project. They will see it as a large quantity of time lost on something that did not get off the ground.
For me, however, this was not just about two years of work. There is a relationship between the student and the project. This is something that takes up most of your waking hours (and sometimes some of your sleeping ones). It surrounds you and your thoughts and develops alongside you over time (like a fine cheese). Your project becomes a part of you.
My project somewhat defined who I was as a person. I was the individual introduced at friend’s parties as the PhD student studying… [insert old project here]. It was a fun little fact about me that served as a talking point.
The end-of-project realisation was not something I recognised suddenly, but rather a slow, painful, and stressful decision I eventually came to understand. The project was a dead horse I had been attempting to revive for months because I was in denial. It was the worst break-up I have experienced so far.
Sadly, I did not get to wallow in my own sadness for long (i.e. eat ice cream for breakfast in the bathtub – delicious and not so nutritious!). I have to rebuild Rome from the ground up with a deadline in sight. Fortunately, my supervisory team had a back-up plan that would allow me to submit a dissertation on time.
Nevertheless, even with a back-up plan in place, taking on a new project still has redirected me back to a beginning of sorts. I feel slightly unsteady on my new feet (i.e. project) and I have lost the ‘elevator talk’ skill (the ability to explain your project within the time frame of an elevator’s ride) and babble endlessly; but I have a direction.
I am not quite out of the water yet… but I will submit, more or less, on time. I have hope that the work I started was not for nothing, and that another student may complete it at an appropriate time.
I wanted to share my story for anyone else out there who may be going something similar.