Painful last lap to a master's degree

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

One of the good things about doing your master's in your 30s is that you are not too hung up about results.

Having worked for more than a decade now, I've come to realise that paper qualifications don't mean everything. They certainly don't indicate a person's ability in a job.

Yup. That's what I should have told myself two weeks ago.

Instead, for a few days I was half-dead in my school library, buried under a pile of academic books, journal articles and pages after pages of my notes.

"Must… write… perfect… dissertation.., I was muttering to myself while in a daze, in between poring over reams of news articles and South-east Asia trade figures.

I had, for the last 12 months, tried as far as possible to live up to the "academic results aren't everything" mantra, particularly after seeing how younger classmates - many of whom have little work experience - sometimes obsess over grades.

I won't be the first person to say this, but the value of an education isn't just how many readings you do, or the grade that you get at the end of each term.

With that in mind, I had tried to see as much of Europe as possible in my year here. I've attended talks and forums around the UK. I took days off essay writing to prepare for a non-school related presentation at a conference in Durham.

Then last month, 10 days before my dissertation was due, I left London for a week to join a cultural exchange programme with a family in Northern Ireland. A few friends thought I was mad, but I felt these opportunities don't come along often.

When I returned, however, I was struck by dissertation hysteria.

I can't really explain why but I became uncharacteristically frantic about my final assignment, even though I had already prepared my structure and written up more than half of the text.

For a newspaper journalist used to daily deadlines, 10 days is practically a lifetime, even if academic writing is more tedious and time-consuming.

But doubt started creeping in when friends and family began asking why I hadn't handed up my dissertation yet. It's nice that they were looking forward to my return home but, "Huh, still haven't finish ah? Later fail then you know", is really unhelpful for a student trying to cough up a 10,000-word essay.

Things began escalating from there. The dissertation morphed from being part of my master's - as I've always seen it as - to being all of my master's, since it was the one thing standing between me and my degree.

From being the last pebble I needed for my rock collection, it became the pebble I might accidentally drive over, causing my car to overturn and burst into flames.

So that week, I began camping in my university library. I was writing, analysing and editing. Then re-writing, re-analysing and re-editing. Thanks to the unnecessary stress I was putting on myself, that essay died and got reincarnated about 20 times.

As time ticked down to the deadline, I also started spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing over tiny details. I was imagining worst-case scenarios, all because I missed something small.

Forgot one citation? Fail. Spelt name wrongly? Fail. Used wrong font size? Fail.

Then I started sleeping less. Partly because I felt I should spend more time looking through the essay, but partly because every time I tried to sleep, I would have nightmares of my scholarship officer, my tutor, my mother, my neighbour and my dog, all lining up to slap me for wasting a year in London.

During my most desperate stretch just before submission, I went 36 hours without sleep.

The first 24 hours of that period actually passed quite quickly because I was staring at my computer screen so hard.

Fatigue kicked in hard after that though, and once I went past the 30-hour mark, it got scary. One part of me wanted to sprint to the finish. Another part was terrified of introducing errors. All this happened in between me praying that I wouldn't keel over and die on my keyboard from sheer exhaustion and become the front page story of the Daily Mail.

This is ridiculous, I was angrily berating myself at one point. I've survived being tear-gassed and almost getting stampeded in riots in the course of my work as a journalist, yet here I was, being strangled to death by an essay.

But somehow clarity descended after that, just as inexplicably as panic overtook me previously. Perhaps there was only this much madness my mind could take. Like a runner getting his second wind, the fog in my brain cleared and the big picture was visible once more.

For amidst my heady rush for the big trophy that is the master's degree, I had missed the other prizes that were waiting for me: A final gathering with my London friends. A trip around Europe with a buddy. Seeing my friends and family again in Singapore. Bak chor mee. Nasi lemak. Teh tarik.

With that in mind, I calmly gave my essay a final scan, shut down my laptop and plonked my tired but satisfied body in bed.

My essay and I were good to go.

chengwee@sph.com.sg