54

In short: I am starting my fourth year of PhD, and my funding is running out in roughly ten months. I could use some advice about how to make the most of the time I have left, in particular to make sure I deliver something coherent and I am employable afterwards.

More context:

  • During the past three years, I have struggled with personal issues (breakup of a long-term relationship due to moving away for the PhD), poor lifestyle choices, and discipline problems, all impacting my PhD research.
  • The result: after three years, I still haven't finished writing the manuscript of my main project, a project I don't like at all because it was half-baked since the beginning. What makes it harder to swallow is that I am 100% responsible for this situation.
  • My supervisor was understanding at first, and started becoming stricter and stricter over time because of the lack of output. This in turn caused some other problems (stress, loss of sleep). Recently we had a discussion where he told me he would not let me finish my PhD, because otherwise I'd need 10 years to complete it and he can't afford to pay me for such time...
  • I reached the point where I am completely disgusted with what I am doing and I am seeking a way out. My only problem is that I'd like to make sure I am employable. So I figured my best bet would be to try completing the PhD, no matter if it is imperfect / incomplete.
  • Since I have only ~10 months left (roughly 10 because I could probably survive a few more months with my savings) to make up for the last three years, I'd like some pointers about how to make the most out of it, without going completely insane. To be more specific, I guess I am looking for advice about efficiency (both in professional and personal life), how to be more stable, how to make strategic choices and set priorities when there is a lack of time.
  • 46
    "he told me he would not let me finish my PhD" -- are you both on the same page about this 10-month plan? I agree an imperfect PhD is better than no PhD, so if there is a path to a PhD, you should go for it. But if there is no path (and you are sure of this), it's better to realize this now, and focus your energies on your upcoming job search. – cag51 Oct 29 at 19:33
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    Perhaps worth remembering that practically all PhD theses / dissertations are "imperfect / incomplete" :-) – Flyto Oct 29 at 22:07
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    This sounds very similar to where I was a few years ago. I went to see my doctor and was diagnosed with depression, took a "short break" from my PhD and never went back. This was absolutely the correct decision for me (not saying it necessarily is for you) and I'm much happier now. There are other options but doubling down on a failed strategy probably isnt one of them – Richard Tingle Oct 29 at 22:37
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    @TheGuywithTheHat No one is making a diagnosis but it doesn't take a medical professional to tell if a limb is chopped off, and nor does it for an adult who has experienced depression to remark, "Gee, that sounds like depression. Maybe seek help." – 8protons Oct 29 at 22:44
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    Do you have the option of submitting your work as a Masters thesis? – gmatht Oct 30 at 7:09

16 Answers 16

106

To be honest, from your description I would be less concerned with finishing your PhD and more concerned about your mental health.

You should probably talk to a mental health professional or GP, and then worry about this. The chances that the road to a PhD would be forever closed for you is reasonably small, but if you don't take care of yourself the impacts can be significant.

  • 13
    Also, possibly the university has a program for psychological aid, at least there should be one professional you can talk to once. – Mefitico Oct 29 at 18:20
  • There is a fine line between stress and a mental health concern, but don’t give up. If you believe you can cope, go for it. Believe that it is meant to be difficult, and that you can get through it. Difficult doesn’t just mean “scientifically” difficult. – Alexander Kartun-Giles Oct 31 at 15:19
  • Succesfully completing the next 10 months will probably do wonders for the long-term mental health, so, they aren't exclusive. – Mast Nov 1 at 11:05
  • Two cents: (1) "There is a fine line between stress and a mental health concern." Right, but a professional can tell you where you are. There's IMHO actually no line between the two, and professional aid can help even with "bare" stress relief. (2) Succesfully completing the next 10 months will probably do wonders for the long-term mental health. Sure, but (and I don't say it's the case of AtLoss) pushing it can do harm as well. – yo' Nov 1 at 15:48
43

You cannot make up for the last three years in ten months; perhaps you can salvage something: Try to devise a plan to produce a thesis in ten months.

3-6 weeks: You presumably have sufficient material to write an introduction. You presumably also have sufficient material to write about any related work. (If relevant, you presumably have sufficient material to describe the context, e.g., mathematical background.) Even without all the material, you should be able to write those sections in 3-6 weeks.

This will leave you with around forty weeks. Meet with your supervisor to discuss what you should prioritise to finish your thesis within that time frame.


As per other answers, your mental health must be a priority. I won't expand further, because I'm ill-equipped to offer mental health advice.

25

In your current situation it seems you should not even think about it. You walked a hard walk already for the last years and it took a mental health toll already (insomnia etc.). You won't suddenly be another person that can take the same toll, triple down on motivation, discipline and actual output. Especially not when you're already in a weak position on all fronts, i.e. health, relationship to advisor, current state where the advisor thinks substantial work is needed.

You should

  • Look for and implement an exit strategy (either restart another PhD with a topic you like or publish what you have and look for a job that fits you, as research assistant, in industry or elsewhere)
  • Take care of your mental health, before you start your next job: Give yourself some time to take a deep breath, decide what is most important, where and how you want to live, adjust the exit strategy accordingly

Remember: Doing the same thing over and over again in the hope the outcome is different is... ... so you need to change at least one variable. Changing yourself takes time and you likely tried that for the last years, so it's time to change your context.

P.S. This assumes substantial work is necessary for a submittable/passable PhD and it's not just the write-up that is missing. Clarify that status with your supervisor, but him saying he would not let you finish because it would take too long, seems to indicate there are huge chunks missing.

23

My only problem is that I'd like to make sure I am employable. So I figured my best bet would be to try completing the PhD, no matter if it is imperfect / incomplete.

Hi,
if your only concern is your career/job, here is my story for you:

I am one of those who quit their PhD. I gave up after 4th year!

Because it was way too much stress, without funding, with 4 kids. I had enough of it. The professor had the same views about me (which your professor has about you). I was considered totally unreliable, useless, directionless and lazy.

So I prepared my CV, talked to a lot of friends who are working in industry. Only a few of them were interested in advising, even fewer were willing to help. And one of them actually had discussed with me about what kind of person his company was looking for.
After 2-3 months, he arranged my interview with his boss. I started as a part-time employee with 3 months contract.
I did really good during that initial contract (because I knew if I fail this will be the end of the beginning), and got the job which I held for next 6 years.

Don't forget that a PhD can make you over-qualified for many jobs.

Re-activate your personal contacts, talk to people you are willing to change and move to a practical job.

Don't end-up being caught in this never-ending PhD whirlpool.

  • 4
    I did the same! Although it was incredibly painful to let go of the PhD at the time, I'm much happier and healthier for it. Invested 5 years in the degree, took 2 years to get over it and move on. Getting a great job helped the most. – BAD Oct 30 at 18:12
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    I know a significant number of PhD candidates who never completed (including the cleverest man I know). It's a bit of a killer if you want a job in academia of course, but much less of an issue if you want a job in industry. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 31 at 8:19
8

A few remarks:

  1. Getting a job takes time and some level of focus. You would need to write a good CV and cover letter, and be prepare to customize both for each job you apply. Then you should also train for interviews, and go for a few trial interviews in jobs you don't really want (this avoids being too stressed/nervous on a very important interview). So if you want to salvage your PhD, looking for a job right now is not what you should be doing. Half-assing a job search will not get you far, and will likely make your mental heath worse.

  2. Apologize to your advisor, recognize that you are at fault for the lack of output in case you haven't explicitly done so. You will need his support and some level of his approval if you want to defend your thesis. In many places, you won't even be authorized to form a committee unless your advisor says so.

  3. Make your financial plans as of now, and start saving money! Do your math to find out how long you can live without the stipend you have now. Once you've done this, pre-warn people that would be willing to help you, something like "Hey dad, I'm doing my math, and I have 10 months stipend yet, plus I'd have savings for 4 months after that, then I will have no reserve funds and might need some extra months to finish my thesis, is there any chance you could help me then? If so it would ease my mind very much, and I'll do my best to repay you once I get a job.". The key here is to show that you are planning ahead and not calling in a moment of desperation. The person you ask is likely to deny at first, don't push too much, but check later if there is anything you can do. Make sure to promise you'll repay the person. Write up a contract if you ask anyone who's not family, and offer at least 4% yearly interest. Then, check how much extra time you'll have.

  4. From 10 months, I'd expect you should be able to extent your deadline to 18 months. This is much more reasonable. Once you've done this, and you have your planning done, talk to your advisor. It's important for him/her to know that you are aware of the load on your shoulders, but that you now have a much more feasible deadline. This should make him a lot more cooperative.

  5. Don't forget to clean your house regularly, talk to family and friends every week, get enough sunlight and do some exercise, this is basic stuff to prevent mental health issues, which is something you cannot afford to fight with right now. Try to get at least one consultation with a psychiatrist just to check on status for red flags.

  6. Once you get on track (i.e. when you always know what the next step is and how to start it), you won't dread the work anymore. I've been there several times: You get to new place where you always need to ask people about basic stuff, or started a new project with technologies I'm not familiar with and don't have people to guide me. It is very demotivating, but it's just the pain of kicking-off at unfavorable conditions: It goes away if you insist enough. Keep this in mind.

  • and you have your planning done → this. If you come with a workable 18 months plan where you actually show some milestones (progressive ones such as number of pages per week, and static ones such as "all measurements finished by March 15") you will be much more credible. – WoJ Oct 31 at 6:03
7

Yes, you can complete a PhD in 10 months if you work really hard. I had a 3-year funding for my PhD project in a Western country and managed to write a very good PhD thesis by working on my PhD project only part-time, about 25-30% of my time. I spent three years, but the effort I actually invested was equivalent to about 10-12 months of hard full-time work.

Postdocs usually publish quite a few articles per year, while PhD students usually publish 1-3 articles in the entire period of their PhD project. Think about that.

Advice about efficiency:

  1. Ensure you are in good mental shape each day. To do so, sleep and eat well. Set strict boundaries for yourself about this. In particular, always go to bed in time and remain in bed no matter what until the dawn. This simple trick almost instantly resolved my sleep problems. If you have any addictions (e.g., gaming, drinking, etc.), just stop them cold turkey. If you have any obsessive thoughts about your past relationship, do not "feed" those thoughts by consciously thinking about your past relationship. They will go away on their own.

  2. Plan your days carefully. When you make a plan for a day, allocate as much time to your PhD project as possible. During the time period allocated to the PhD project on any particular day, do nothing but your PhD work and do not succumb to any distractions or temptations to do something else.

  3. Make a detailed strategic plan how to complete your PhD project.

  4. In your everyday work on your PhD thesis, set concrete goals to be achieved by the end of each day. To achieve those goals, you can set sub-goals, etc.

  5. Do not be hasty and do not be a perfectionist. Just calmly do your job each day like a professional. Do things step by step. Any great accomplishment is made of small steps. You just need to divide your work into small steps and to make those steps. As simple as that.

  • 14
    Staying in bed when you can't sleep can increase anxiety about sleep and make it even harder to sleep. A standard medical recommendation is if you are in bed but have no urge to sleep, you should get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy. It is recommended that you keep the same sleep schedule every day though, so that part of your advice is good. Also saying "just stop [any addictions] cold turkey" suggests you don't understand what an addiction is. If it were that easy, no one would be addicted to anything. – Kat Oct 29 at 20:22
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    References would be nice. As it now stands, thiS seems like opinoon. – Thomas Oct 29 at 20:42
  • @Kat But it worked for me. Perhaps it depends on the exact cause of insomnia. My experience is that once you are completely resolved not to get up before the dawn, all subconscious urges to get up disappear and you will eventually fall asleep because you simply have nothing else to do, I had a terrible insomnia, sleeping 2-3 hours per night and sometimes not sleeping at all, and I cured it with the above approach in a few days, regaining 8-hour sleep. – Sandra Oct 29 at 20:56
  • @Kat Simply stopping addictions cold turkey worked for me. Perhaps my addictions were not strong, but I was addicted to gaming and some other things. At some point I simply stopped gaming completely and set strict rules concerning other things. I think the key is to be fully resolved. Once you are resolved, you do not even need willpower, because you just know in advance that you will not succumb to any temptations if they arise, and because of that knowledge they do not even arise. This is my personal experience, and it is similar to what is written by Allen Carr in his book. – Sandra Oct 29 at 21:13
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    The addiction part seems like a great solution for poverty, do you hate being poor? Just get rich. – GaboSampaio Oct 30 at 16:58
6

Get out of there, as soon as possible, focus on improving your mental and physical health, then make a plan to restart your career. No amount of PHDs or jobs is worth your sanity.

If this argument ain't convincing to you, let me put it in other way.. the longer you stay this way the more expensive, time consuming and emotionally draining will be to fix your health issues.

4

I read Christian Rodriguez' answer and was going to post this as a comment, but it was getting too long.

I have suffered from depression before myself; however, I don't think quitting a PhD should be the automatic path, just because you may be experiencing some depressive symptoms. That implies that we should always quit everything the moment things start 'getting tough'. Feelings of failure and inadequacy that would accompany quitting can also have an impact on mental health/self esteem, not to mention a potentially significant impact on your longer-term future.

My advice is that you need to weigh up the situation with your mental health and whether you think you can push through the hardship and finish the program. The answer really depends on how serious your mental health problems are, which is something only you can assess; however, a mental health professional would be able to provide valuable guidance and advice.

However, you should expect that the stress and depressive symptoms are probably not going to improve much until you are out of the situation that is causing them (if they are being caused by a particular situation).

2

It seems you are most concerned with being employed, but do you mean being employed at a university (after your PhD) or in the industry?

If you mean being employed at a university (as a professor) I think a PhD is mandatory (correct me if I'm wrong). So in this case you kind of need to complete it.

If you mean being employed in the industry, assuming you have a Master's degree (before your PhD), you should be able to find a job I think. You can try to apply for jobs now, and see if you get hired. If so, you could quit your PhD if that is possible (you seem to be really unhappy with it).

I'd say put your own wellbeing first

  • 2
    Even if the OP wants a job in industry, it's not going to look great if they dropped out of a PhD program after 3 years. At least, it will prompt some questions, which the OP should prepared to address. – Time4Tea Oct 29 at 19:27
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    I've hired someone who dropped out after three years, and worked with some other very well respected colleagues who had done the same. Yes I'd probably ask about it, but it wouldn't be a major red flag. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 31 at 8:23
2

I spent 6.5 years on my Ph.D. and finally got it this year, my suggestion to you would be setting up the deadline and prepare for the worst-case as well. Having the deadline will always make you more stressful and might crash you by making you panic, so you need to tell yourself what the worst-case would be and make sure you can swallow it, for example, not being able to complete the Ph.D. and, even worse, have to spend more than a year to get a job. Knowing or preparing for the worst-case can somehow relief your stress.

If you feel like you need to seek professional mental health assistance, go for it. Otherwise, talk to your professor and make a reasonable plan with him, and then work hard on it, I think you will be heavily relying on your professor's help (brainstorm, revise your paper, etc) and professors tend to be busy, so, make sure you have a clear chatting/working schedule with your professor and try not to waste time on scheduling or waiting. Seek help from your labmates if possible.

Try to analyze the factors that are blocking you, change them if you can. Try not to blame others cause there's not much you can do to change. Always make time for some weekly exercise and take enough rest to keep yourself mentally healthy.

I found some really valuable suggestions here and I know that it is sometimes difficult to make a change, all I want to say is, Ph.D. is totally not necessary for your life unless you want to stay in academia, and, if you do want to stay in academia, stuck on sth you do not like is not a good way. You might want to consider to restart a new round.

Bless you.

2

I think you should search for a job, it will solve all your worries and improves your mental health. if you get the job first then you will never think Ph.D. for job, you can still continue with your job funding as a passion so your 3 years you spend in pursuing a Ph.D. will not get waste.

your purpose for the Ph.D. is just to get employed, I think there are many other options to get a job without a Ph.D., Ask friends & relatives to help you out in getting a job, send them your resume. I know you don't have funding that is why you can't do business but I will say you can at least look for small start-ups plan on google, maybe you can do something.

There are many remote jobs & freelancer jobs available online. I think you also having enough knowledge to become a tutor.

about your mental health, I will say do not worry about qualifying Ph.D. is the best approach to start with, just think how to get the job. yes, think like you will give your best to the Ph.D. within the remaining time and look for the job, if you get the job you will get the funding and you can do Ph.D.

1

I agree with many of the sentiments above. I had done the research for my PhD over a several-years period, but finished writing up the dissertation in about 10 months. Remember, that this is only possible with your advisor's cooperation (or finding another advisor, if that's possible in your situation). (I am in the US.)… As said above, the PhD may or may not be useful, especially if you go into industry instead of academia. People rarely call me "Dr" these days ….. I'm glad I got it, but your situation might be quite different. As they said above, your health is much more important!

1

Yes, it is possible to save a PhD in 10 months. It's tough work, but you can do it if you give yourself the chance to clear your head and re-prioritise, if you change the way you handle downtime, and if you have a small sprinkling of luck.

I'm going to get some heat for this, but I can empathise and I would regret not sharing this with you if it meant it could help. This is all from experience and any points I'm going to make are purely anecdotal, a little bit brutally honest in places, with a little bit of dry humour in places. It's the first time I'm sharing my experience like this, and it's a bit of an essay but I hope it helps anyway.

My Experience

Out of a staggering coincidence, 10 months how long it took to get my thesis done - the end of the final month being the hard deadline. Here's the Gource animation of my git commits to prove it. Making matters worse, I only actually started making real progress in the last month, as you will see, and pretty much everything I had written before that was either majorly rewritten or removed, so for all intents and purposes it was a lot less than 10 months. For complete shameless honesty, two days before submission I had three git commits, with commit messages "kill me now", "WHY?", and "F*** THIS S***". Six commits later, my commit message was "OMG I'M DONE", before the final commit: "oops, forgot the declaration". Yeah, that happens.

I'm not proud of leaving it so late to get started on formalising my work, and I had slightly different reasons - I took on a C++ job during the early stages of my PhD (it grew from a bit of consulting work into a full time role quite quickly) and that took over most of my time, leaving me physically and emotionally exhausted. In the last few months this made it even harder, because it gave me the temptation of an easy out (sidenote: I'm still working there, and I love it - all that has changed is the letters by my name).

General thoughts

First of all you need to take a short break of a couple of weeks to gather your thoughts. It sounds crazy, right? You're stressed out by a looming deadline (i.e. you're human) and a break makes it WORSE, right? No. You need to focus on your mental health, get some exercise, get some nature into you and imagine how it'll feel to be able to do that one day without stress looming over you (or, at least, stress of the PhD flavour). Towards the end of this break make your decision on whether to continue your project based on the old trick - flip a coin to determine the outcome, and if the result disappoints you then turn that coin over. I bet you any money that your choice will be to continue.

The points about the supervisor are unfortunate. My supervisor was a superhero - extremely patient, fought my corner, and generally a really nice chap. However, this is the time when it's rather natural for students and supervisors to drift apart somewhat. They are no longer responsible for your 'supervision' as such [citation needed], although they should certainly be there to provide guidance if you ask for it. If your supervisor isn't playing ball, then it isn't the end of the world - it's the examiners you have to worry about, and although your supervisor does coordinate things with them, he won't harm your chances. If anything it sounds like he wants you to prove yourself, and you have plenty of time to do that.

I can wholeheartedly say that any advice about getting N pages done per week or writing X section in Y amount of time is to be taken with a pinch of salt - if you're anything like I was, you'll have periods of very little progress and periods of extreme productivity. In my experience, planning regular incremental steps will demolish your motivation when you fail to reach one of those artificial milestones on time. Case in point - if you look at the animation I linked to above, you'll see that I had long periods of inactivity or only minor modifications, and bursts of activity every so often (particularly September. My final deadline was the end of September. No, I didn't do the whole draft thing. That's for sensible people).

You have done a lot of work and you have specialised in a certain field. You might not feel like it right now, but you have done things that no one else has, got excited about something that a fraction of a percentage of the world's population is able to even understand, and the next step is to share as much of it as you can in one coherent document and to try and trick readers into feeling that excitement too.

I'd suggest not writing your introduction first. It's the hardest thing to get right, and the best and easiest way of doing it is to get your content down first and then figure out the best way to introduce it. Many people abuse the intro as a content filler, and as a way of raising the reference count into the stratosphere, but if anything this can detract the reader from the main content. If that's your thing then go for it, but IMO the best introductions are those that give a rather specific overview of the state of the specific area that you're going to present.

Pointers on productivity

So let me end this rant with a few suggestions if you decide to take this further.

  • If you don't already adopt a project planning methodology, do so. The simplest option is to start a Trello board. Install the app. Put it as a widget on your front screen on your phone. It will be your life from now on. Don't go crazy on the planning, though - don't spending more time micromanaging your thesis than DOING your thesis, though if you do then you're in for a fantastic career in management.
  • If you don't currently use version control, do so. Obviously I'd recommend Git if you're running a LaTeX project. MS Office offers version control if that's your thing.
  • You will have periods of low motivation. That's guaranteed. Use them to your strength. If you aren't feeling up to adding new content, there are plenty of house-keeping things to get on with that are essentially brainless - improve formatting of existing content, add acknowledgements and the declaration, play around with the title page, create some figures. If you're feeling pretentious, find some corny quotes to put on each section. You're going to need to take procrastination to a whole new level.
  • University libraries usually store previous students' PhD theses. You have every right to access them. Think of some people in your field who completed their PhDs at your university and get some inspiration from their work - how they used graphics, how they formed their introduction, how they broke down their sections, how they concluded their work. Maybe they added toy examples of certain problems and demonstrated their solution, and maybe you like that idea and want to do it too. There is nothing to be ashamed about by getting inspiration from others' work. That's what science is all about. But, obviously, limit that to just inspiration please.
  • Think of everything you've done so far. Which part of it do you feel is most important? That becomes the motivation of the entire thesis, and everything else leads up to it. Choose a plan of attack early.
  • At all times keep a dream in mind of life post-thesis. This will help you more than you can imagine.
  • Get feedback from colleagues. Not so often that they consider you a chore, but don't go it alone and end up going down the wrong path.
  • Start a routine. It doesn't have to be a good one, but I'd at least advise (a) a regular eating place - NOT IN THE SAME BUILDING AS YOUR DESK, (b) a regular number of hours sleep, (c) dedicated time with people who you like and who can put up with you being a shell of a human being for a while, (d) a music playlist that provides you with a sense of continuity while working, (e) regular water breaks.

On that last point, my routine certainly wasn't a good one. In the last month I made sure I had at least 5 hours sleep, my regular eating place was Burger King, my dedicated time with people never really happened, and my music playlist was 20 dubstep and EDM tracks I liked on constant and endless repeat, and my 'water breaks' were a six-pack of redbull during the thesis day shift and beer for the thesis night shift. Again, not proud of that, but it worked.

In terms of your mental health, that is your utmost priority. If the stress makes you want to quit and become a park ranger, that's fine and normal (IMO and IME). If the stress makes you angry or upset about anything other than your thesis, quit and become a park ranger. It's a hard and fast rule to live by.

  • This really is an excellent answer. Good enough to break SO rules about commenting :) – my.back Nov 15 at 14:53
1

Don't listen to them! Some people really need to be stressed out to start working hard. You did not waste 3 years, you were unconsciously preparing your thesis. Now is the time to start writing it. You can do it, trust me, page after page. Archimedes spent months trying to solve his problem, but it took him one bath to figure it out. You only have 10 months, so even if you fail, you won't waste much time anyway. Just don't think about how much time you have left.

0

It is possible. That is an answer to your question. It will require writing 5-10 good pages a week steadily for about half a year, and a good part of revision.

It can be done. I am not saying it should be done.

0

If your adviser does not think you're going anywhere and you are disgusted with the job you're doing, I don't think investing 10 more months makes sense. Chances are you will still not have finished your PhD.

So, like other people have said, I would take a long walk or a week's holiday doing something completely different. Lie on the beach, sailing, whatever relaxes you. Let go.

I think you'll decide that you are not going to finish this PhD. As responses here indicate: you don't need a PhD to find a job. In many fields it's not even a recommendation to have one.

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