Over a year into a pandemic that we all thought would be over in a couple of months and I am still adjusting to this new lifestyle we have been forced into. I honestly thought that, by now, I would have created some habits – after all, I have heard many times that it only takes 21 days to create one. Maybe I just haven’t found any habit that I want to maintain. It’s already hard enough to keep my daily motivation going when there is not much to do.
The truth is that it has been a year full of changes for me. I saw how the world was succumbing to a global pandemic from Latin America, where the coronavirus took a bit longer to reach. I ran away from my internship to seek shelter in Thailand, where the days were filled with supermarket trips and… what should have been thesis writing but wasn’t. In fact, it took me over six months to accept that life as we knew it was not coming back and I needed to find a strategy to deal with the global pandemic and thesis writing. It also took me a while to realize that my thesis was not going to magically write itself while I slept.
Writing my thesis is a very lonely process, exacerbated by the fact that we were not allowed to write in pairs per Sino-Danish Center regulations. Wait… I had to deal with a lockdown, social distancing and writing my thesis alone at the same time? And from a foreign land? How was that girl who loved going to cafés to find inspiration, swim in overpriced huge mugs of cappuccino and spend all her SU on ham & cheese croissants going to make it?
That is what my blog post is about today. A reflection on what – undoubtedly – was the worst (longest & shortest at the same time) semester of my academic life.
In a no-covid world, I should have handed in my thesis by September after deferring for 3 months already. The reason I signed up directly for the second hand-in was because we were supposed to be physically in either Denmark or China for the thesis defense, and my plans were to stay in Buenos Aires till the end of July.
As for all of us, life had other plans. I went from “Oh My God, I can’t believe my partner is arriving in Buenos Aires in less than two weeks” to running around the airport in Bangkok trying to find cash to pay for my yellow fever vaccine – otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed into the country that I was already in – in less than four days. I was a pioneer of this vaccine passport! Just not the one I am longing for now (please, Denmark, give me that shot already!).
Coming back to the topic, I suddenly saw myself back in our tiny apartment where two working-from-home grown adults are too much for our tiny little table that had to serve as a desk, dining table and card games table. I remember spending my days looking at Steve’s determination. He would wake up early, get a coffee and sit at the desk from 9 to 17 with a short lunch break. How did he do it?
I needed my morning coffee, mid-morning coffee, ciggy breaks with friends, iced coffee after lunch (or instead of) and maybe then I could start being productive.
Months went by with no major changes in our situation except an alcohol ban that lasted for over a month, as if lockdown wasn’t hard enough. My supervisor kept asking me to write an abstract so as to find a direction for my thesis, but how dare he ask me to find a direction for anything when I just felt so lost. Additionally, every time I sent him what he asked for, he would push me to the point where getting a master’s degree was no longer something I wished for.
Summer came and with it, my plane ticket to Spain. Once at my parents’, my mom tried her best to create a home office space for me and my sister… in the middle of the living room, the room where my dad watches TV and where the whole family naps, has lunch and dinner.
Researching how export controls work while watching the news on how many new cases Spain had recorded in the past 24 hours was no piece of cake. And so… I decided to leave my thesis for when I was in Copenhagen. The first day I arrived in the city, I went straight to CBS library to find inspiration, books and who knows, maybe a guru to tell me the magic recipe for succeeding in writing a thesis alone. No surprise here when I tell you that my thesis did not happen while I was in Copenhagen either.
Thus, when my supervisor called me in mid-August and said “So… have you thought of postponing your thesis until December?” I thought “I have no choice, do I?”. But it’s okay, three more months to write the best thesis possible.
By now, you might already know my pattern when tackling my thesis. I was a negationist. But not of Covid-19 or vaccines… of my thesis. I refused to open the Word document, do research, even refused to think or talk about it. If I didn’t mention it, maybe it would go away. Life had other plans for me, again. I received a call one afternoon for a traineeship at the European Commission, where I would telework but from Brussels.
I could feel my thesis judging me when I accepted and started packing immediately. And then I arrived in Brussels in early November, on a rainy afternoon, at my Airbnb hosted by a woman who not only spoke no English, but also left “for a weekend trip” and never came back. And then this was it. This was the moment. My moment. The moment my supervisor had been waiting for the whole year: I was determined to write my entire thesis in 3 weeks. I was in a complete lockdown city, filled with rainy days, no friends and no work. Completely alone in a two-story apartment and completely alone in Brussels. It was now or never.
And so, I finally created a routine for those 21 days I had left. And by now you might also wonder… how? How did I go from 7 full months of procrastination and frustration to writing a 90-page (cut from 120 pages) thesis in which I developed my own theoretical framework and covered 30 years of American policy? Let me tell you. Sit back and enjoy.
I started out by setting different alarms during the day when I forced myself to do lunch and dinner at the same time every day. I only ate a warm meal once a day to avoid procrastinating in the kitchen with the excuse “let me cook something yummy”. My alarms were as follows: 11.00 to wake up, 12.30 for walk + coffee, 17.00 for food and 19.30 for supermarket trip if needed. I am not proud, but I showered very little during these days.
In the morning I would slowly – very slowly – wake up, wash my face and clear my desk. I would wash all the dishes from the day before, tidy up all the papers and set it up near the window so I could get some natural light. When this was ready, I would change my clothes to something comfy but not so comfy that I would crawl back into bed and sleep. At 12.30 everyday sharp I would take a long walk to my ultimate favorite coffee place in the world.
If Brussels has given me anything, it has been discovering this truly amazing café in Place Jourdan, near the EU institutions. Getting there, waiting in line, getting the coffee and going back would take me approximately 1 hour. Once back and with a happy body filled with coffee and croissant, it was time to sit down and begin my day.
Now, please don’t judge me for beginning my day at almost 2 pm. Because I would stay up till 4 am every night. A total of 14 hours of daily thesis work. I followed my friend Christian’s advice: just write. Write everything. Write, write, write. It is easier to cut down and correct what you wrote than to stare at a blank page. Beginnings are always the hardest. And so, I wrote. And I wrote for hours, any useful information I found > wrote it down. Before I realized it, not only had I reached the minimum page number (60 in my case), but I was too close to the limit (90).
Once I saw some progress and I had knowledge on the topic, I truly enjoyed writing the thesis. I could see my motivation flourishing again after the long hibernation. I also realized how I am way more productive during the evenings. When everything was dark, streets were quiet and so was social media.
Some days the routine got interrupted for a supermarket trip. I had a fixed grocery list that consisted of snacks and Red Bulls. Not very healthy and there were days I would drink 4 Red Bulls. It is definitely something I don’t recommend to anyone as a habit, but it was needed for me at that moment and so I did.
My supermarket trips were a blessing because they were the only time I allowed myself to be social. It was always the same friend, my friend Ana whom I have known since the day I was born – literally, she came with her parents to visit me at the hospital the day I was born. We would talk while I did grocery shopping, share the frustrations, and gossip. It was refreshing, and in that way, I felt less lonely and, most importantly, I would feel safer walking alone on the streets of a not-so-nice neighborhood in Brussels.
What else did I do to cope with loneliness that proved to be useful? I shared my pain on Instagram. When I finally shared the Instastory that I had handed in my thesis, I got reactions to my stories from many people I wasn’t even aware were following my thesis adventures… it made me very happy. How many of you had to go through thesis writing during lockdown? And how did you cope?
Please do share, healthier routines than mine are welcome, just in case I decide to write a PhD someday and another person somewhere eats a bat. I need to be prepared.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my thesis progress… I sure did enjoy the 12 I got!