Thursday, 7 November 2013

Finagle’s law, Murphy’s law or Sod’s law?

Posted by Balsam Ahmad

I am finally writing a post for the Fuse blog. It is not the happy one I anticipated, but rather a reflection on one of the worst nightmares for a PhD student. That is a corrupted word file of a PhD thesis minutes before turning it into the final PDF that I was hoping to send to Print Services in the library.

I still remember the day vividly as if it was yesterday. The day that was supposed to be the beginning of the end of a PhD project that took me such a long time to complete. What happened proved to me the accuracy of three laws I knew about, Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives, Murphy’s Law and Sod’s Law. Finagle’s Law says “ Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment”. This is similar to Murphy’s Law that most of us know “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” and what an ‘unlucky sod’ I was. According to Wikipedia ‘"Toast will always land butter side down" is often given as an example of Sod's Law in action’ and ‘being "mocked by fate"’ is another enactment of it.

Now I just want to tell the story for it has many learning points that are maybe of use to other PhD students. Even if there are none, the story in itself is interestingly spooky.

On the 30th of September, I had a plan to integrate the revisions that were approved by my PhD external examiners into my thesis and update it so that it was ready to print. I anticipated this work would take 5-6 hours, which I had planned out of my work for this purpose. Everything was going well and I was pleasantly surprised that even my Endnote file with more than 360 references, which caused me a lot of anguish at times, was behaving nicely. I even remember pinching myself in disbelief that I could finally see an end in sight. After 6 hours of meticulously working through the PhD file correcting typos, mistakes and tidying the formatting and referencing, the disaster struck. In my final attempt to save and update the document everything froze and my whole 400 page PhD thesis turned into one page of footnotes. The strange thing was that it had the same large size as the original PhD file.

I was in utter shock as my whole thesis dwarfed in a matter of seconds literally just before I turned it into the final pdf to send to print. I tried to stay calm though and searched for temporary saved files and for backups. Nothing appeared on my personal folder on the university network drive. I tried retrieving earlier versions but nothing worked. It was 8 pm then and I was anxious that if I stayed at work any longer, I would miss my children’s bedtime so I carried myself home feeling very tearful. I found sharing my status on twitter that evening quite helpful as the messages of sympathy and advice from colleagues poured in.

The Twitter support network kicks in
I spent the next two days emailing and meeting various people in IT and support services across the university. A whole team of 3-4 people worked relentlessly to find backups and recover my thesis file. At the end of the day on the 2nd of October I got the following message from someone in support services:

“Unfortunately we have not been able to recover the content in Word. It is there, but not visible and we don’t know why. You may just have to revert to a previous version of your thesis…let me know how you get on and if one of my colleagues comes up with a miracle we’ll send you a message. So sorry we can’t help you at this time.”
Having lost any hope for retrieving my document I realised that I had to redo the work. It took me a few evenings to complete but worse was having to complete the work whilst feeling so terrified that the same thing would happen again.

So reflecting back now, these are the lessons learnt that I want to share with you:

1. Never trust 100% that saving your work on a network drive is entirely safe. Try to save throughout on a flash drive or a different medium as well.

2. Email yourself with a copy even mid-way through your work. Do not wait until the end.

3. Take regular breaks and never work when tired.

But, like a fairy tale, the story has a happy ending. On the 1st of November I submitted two copies of my thesis to the Graduate School of the Faculty of Medical Sciences. Fingers crossed I will graduate from the PhD program in December this year!

Proof that there is a happy ending to this fairy tale

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