The Five Emotions of Thesis-Writing

A while back, one of my labmates claimed that there are only five permissible emotions at a scientific conference: Nervous, excited, preening, jaded, and overwhelmed.

I think there are also five emotions that one can experience while writing up a thesis: Despair, frustration, irritability, relief and robot. “Robot” is the state I am aiming for most of the time. It’s what I feel when I’m working effectively, a sort of detached contentment mixed in with cheerful bleeps and bloops whenever I finish a computation. Oh, but sometimes it’s more a sort of detached grouchiness mixed in with curmudgeonly bleeps and bloops whenever I figure out what exactly is wrong with someone else’s work. The ability of “robot” to blend what would otherwise be entirely distinct emotional states into a blurry haze of work is one of its primary charms.

I just finished a draft of the review paper that will also be my first chapter. I’m not sure it’s complete – I’m pretty sure it’s a felony in several scientific jurisdictions to write the review I am writing without discussing a really trendy form of crystallized methane ice for at least a couple of paragraphs – but it has acquired a certain glossy semblance of adequacy. Which is good, ’cause there’s an April 1 deadline to get this shi superior work of brilliance into a special issue of Marine and Petroleum Geology.

Anyway, regular blogging should resume… eventually.


  1. BrianR wrote:

    “Despair, frustration, irritability, relief and robot”

    I would have to replace irritability with another positive one … let’s say “joy”. These times are few and far between but distinctly different from relief. Sometimes a day-long period of relief would follow a fleeting moment of joy (when I thought I came up with something novel, only to realize that idea was published 20 years ago, but I feel relief that at least I figured that out).

    Irritability is a constant background emotion.

    Despair and robot are good ones for sure … good times.

  2. Maria Brumm wrote:

    I only feel robot or relief when I think I have come up with something novel. Maybe this is why I don’t want to be a real scientist when I grow up.

  3. anonymouse wrote:

    I think you left out cold, paralytic fear.
    Especially if you are doing any modeling. ;)

  4. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Unspeakable dread! Lovecraftian creeping horror! I can’t believe I left out the shapeless horror that lurks in the deep, what an oversight.

    Brian’s right, “irritability” has got to go.

  5. The Urban Scientist wrote:

    Despair…I relate to that. I’m abd and I’m suffering from severe despair, depression, much like the 5th level of purgatory — one must just accept the purging…submit to it. Only prayer can help speed up the process.

    Prayer Requests, now. Thank you.

  6. Chris wrote:

    I’ve been experiencing despair for the last week or so. Looking through my results and shuffling them around so they’re presentable. At times it brings that Lovecraftian creep to full reality. I’ve experienced cthulhu-like horrors when organising data and thinking “hang on, that’s not what I’ve been saying it was all along..”, only to later realise that I’d double guessed myself. That’s the only joy I’m getting right now – the odd occasion when I find out I’m not wrong…

  7. Silver Fox wrote:

    Is there any room for something like numb or total and complete burnout? Thankfully those moments (days?) seem to be cured by exceptionally good sleep. I like what I’d call quiet joy – maybe that’s contentment or zen or your ‘robot’? If I get too much joy – it can rapidly deteriorate into a manic state. (And I’m just thinking of any work where someone might want to pass some kind of – aargh – judgement.)

  8. Lab Lemming wrote:


    This makes me want to paraphrase the robot in The Empire Strikes Back.

    “But Sir, the odds of successfully navigating the review process are 235,912,103 to one against!”

  9. IanR wrote:

    I agree with BrianR – there were moments of joy, no matter how fleeting. Now and then you realise why [whatever it is you’re working on] is so damn cool. And there’s that sense of triumph that lasts a few hours or days between the point when you submit your “final” version to your advisor and the point in time when s/he gives it back to you covered in comments and corrections.

    But at least there’s this to look forward to when you are done. (No, that’s really too cruel…DON’T CLICK THAT LINK!!)

  10. Matt Wedel wrote:

    Now that someone else has brought up Star Wars, I am contractually obligated to point you to this post, on how finishing the thesis feels.

    Good luck with the climactic battle.

  11. Maria Brumm wrote:

    Urban Scientist, does your institution accept payment for indulgences?

    Silver Fox: Exceptionally good sleep? What’s that like?

    Thankfully, I have an answer to “now what?” – it involves a lot of beer.

  12. Andrea Grant wrote:

    Ha. I am also thesisizing. Where would the sort of subdued panic that I feel fit in? It’s beyond just “heightened anxiety”, but it’s not full fledged, gibbering, eyerolling panic that precludes actually working (although that beast rears its head now and again). I had thought sustained panic was an oxymoron….

    Oh, and do constant, “is this an ulcer”-style stomachaches count as an emotion?

  13. james wrote:

    I have been wondering a lot latley about the emotion “love”. is it an actual thing? is it not our will to be accepted? I myself wish that love is actually THE REAL DEAL, but can we truly be sure that its love? is it not just familiarity or companionship? loyalty? I don’t know? can a willing, inquisitive mind answer me this?

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