Octopus, Snail, Eagle – a 101 on how to write a PhD

Having just finished writing my PhD, I decided to celebrate by writing something silly and fun for a change. Octopus, snail, eagle are the three animals that have followed me and shaped my working process throughout the PhD. They are mental animals as well as metaphors for the different phases one inevitably goes through. So, to everyone who is contemplating taking on this great academic challenge, let me explain the process of writing a PhD along these three animals. 

Octopus 🐙

Before starting to write, I researched how other scholars had approached writing their dissertation. (A good tip, by the way, because learning from other people’s mistakes and gathering their words of wisdom helped me a lot during the more difficult phases.) In one explanatory video, I stumbled across a hilarious metaphor which stated that “writing a PhD is like wrestling with an octopus”. To me that saying instantly made sense. The eight arms of the octopus had already occupied me for four years at that point. There’s simply always something to do! (Not surprising, since as an octopus’ eight arms will always keep your two arms busy.) Amused by the mental image of me trying to wrestle with an actual octopus (and seeing as the according emoji is really cute), it immediately became my mantra animal. So, every time I had a bad day, I simply imagined myself patting my octopus on the head: “tomorrow is another day!” 

The first, and arguably the longest, phase of a PhD is dominated by the octopus. Identifying your topic is a seemingly endless task. Writing up, dismissing and rewriting your initial thoughts, ideas and concepts as well as grappling with terminology, theories and the sheer mass (or complete absence) of other writing is tiresome. The same is true for selecting your methodology, conducting fieldwork and trying to sort both your data and your thoughts during analysis. Most university’s bureaucratic structures do not make it easier for you either. So, the octopus is in fact a monster with eight arms. For me, to keep this monster in check was easiest to accomplish by making it my friend. Instead of being angle, I chose to be kind, patient and forgiving with its daily caprice. Try it! Imagine a little, pink octopus instead of your workload; look at it gently, smile and say: “It’s alright, tomorrow is another day!”

“Small progress is progress” and “inspiration exists but it only comes to you when it finds you working” are two other statements, which have helped me to cope with the many challenges, disappointed expectations and personal pressures while writing a thesis. Being born and raised in the mountains of Tirol, I imagined my PhD like a hike on a really tall mountain. Only slow and steady steps will bring you up there. And in between you need to rest – because otherwise your body might not adapt to the lack of oxygen. Accordingly, I was not surprised that the last few miles were actually the hardest. Instead of the final-sprint motivation providing me with an extra kick, the air was thin, my body tired and I felt like I might never reach the final peak. But I did. And then, my octopus bid me adieu.

Snail 🐌

Unfortunately, I have to tell you, after you finish the first draft of your thesis, your work is far from over. As Stefan Zweig reflects on his own writing in ‘Die Welt von Gestern’, perfection does not come from a diligent first draft but from a ruthless cutting and reformulating of everything – every paragraph, sentence and word. My own metaphor for the same process was always that of a whiskey. I do not drink blended brands (are they whiskey, really?) and I only acknowledge double and triple distilled liquor. Like a whiskey, also writing gets better the more one reduces it to its essence. What is less known, though, is that this process is slow. Super slow!

After crawling to the mountain peak with an octopus on the back, one might think that at least the downwards path will be easier and quicker. The opposite is the case. This is where the snail comes in. When I read normally – say, a novel – I can easily cover 50 to 100 pages in a day. Even academic articles I can read diligently and yet at great speed. However, when starting to reread my PhD, I only managed 20 pages the first day and 16 the second. With 250 pages to go, I quickly got demotivated. When my brother found me in my exasperation, he enquired about my progress. I said to him “I feel slower than a snail!” to underline my great impatience. To my surprise, he leaned back in deep thought and then responded in wit and wisdom: “Well… a snail might be slow, but it does move and it leaves a trace.”

This image made me laugh and think at the same time. Indeed, as I was slowly moving through the pages of my thesis, I was leaving a trace behind – in the table of contents (where I finally added the page numbers) as well as in the actual text, which grew better and better every time I read through it. Suddenly, thinking of a snail did not make me angry but happy. Instead of focusing on my slow progress, I cheered my snail on. At some points, it even felt like my snail had crawled onto a turtle, as it was moving in much faster speed – at almost 40 to 50 pages per day. With this slow but steady progress, I eventually reached the point upon which I was satisfied enough to hand over my thesis to someone else.

Eagle 🦅

Once the point is reached at which you are no longer hesitant to show your work to someone else (or when you no longer know anything about your own topic because you are so lost inside, you only see trees instead of the whole forest), the snail has to bid you farewell. Instead, the eagle will be your companion for the last stretch. Like an eagle flies high in order to oversee the whole horizon, your first order of business is to create distance between you and your work. Go out, do sports, read a novel (or write a funny blog post about octopuses, snails and eagles). Do anything but deal with your thesis while others read and prepare their feedback for you. 

Whenever the others are ready to discuss your work with you, you can return to it. But also here, the eagle is your guiding animal. Instead of moving through the work from top to bottom again like the snail, you fly over it only punctually diving down (like an eagle upon seeing a mouse) to fix something here or there. 

Sometimes, depending on the size and amount of your changes, it can make sense to return to the snail one last time, to make sure everything works as a whole. If you do so, make sure that the priority and focus is on cutting even more and on assuring that the top fits to the bottom and to everything in between. If this is the case, congratulations, you are ready to hand in! Your octopus, snail and eagle are celebrating with you.

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