24 Sep

riding the research degree roller coaster

Earlier this month, my three year PhD anniversary slipped by without celebration. It was a bit of a double edged sword. Peers that started at the same time as me have either submitted or are gearing up to do so in the next couple of months. This reminds me of how far I’ve still got to go and I feel a bit shit that I haven’t kept pace with them. Which is absolutely ridiculous, because they are full time PhD students, and I’m a part time PhD student with a pretty demanding job and three years of my candidacy left. And I’m not all that far behind them. So I had mixed feelings about the three year mark. On the one hand, I’m happy that I’ve managed to stick close to a full time pace, but on the other, I’m anxious that I’m not where I wanted to be at this point.

It’s those mixed feelings – the ups and downs – that I want to focus on here.

I am a proponent of slaying the PhD myth. When people talk about doing a PhD, they talk about it as being an emotionally intense, intellectually exhausting beast of a thing that sucks the life out of you. I have always said it doesn’t need to be that way… or, at least, it doesn’t have to be that all the time. My experience is that it’s actually possible to enjoy your PhD and to have a good experience of it, even thought it is, at times, tough. I don’t want to invalidate other people’s narratives on the PhD experience. It is bloody difficult and I understand that we all experience it differently. But for me, it’s been okay. I think this might have something to do with the fact that I work full time and so my PhD effort has been compressed into pockets of time. When I’m work-working intensively, including during semester when I am committed to teaching, I’m mostly able to muffle the nagging guilt that tells me I should be working on my PhD because I know I don’t have any intellectual effort left to give to it. But when I’m in the middle of an intensive PhD-working period, the guilt rears its ugly head and I spend my time riding the rails, in and out of periods of productivity, anxiety, progress, paralysis, insightfulness, in-the-groove-ness, and desperation.

I think the reason there is so much angst around the PhD is the level of investment PhD candidates have in their work. You might have done a study with 20 interview participants before, but translate that same study into the PhD environment and the angst grows exponentially. Part of this angst comes from the fact you’re going to be examined on your work, so you really need to think about how you’re conducting the project and how you document it. Part of it comes from the sustained investment over a substantial period of time. Part of it comes from the knowledge that you need to make an original contribution to knowledge – oh, the pressure! Part of it comes from the scale of the thesis – it’s pretty daunting to think about writing a 70,000 to 100,000 word thesis.

For me, the big angst point is time: I am time poor because I have a busy full time job, I have a habit of saying yes and hence of overcommitting myself in my professional life (and a work ethic that means if I say yes, I’m going to deliver), and I have family commitments. I’m not the only one. I know many people who juggle commitments and carve out time for the PhD. But it’s lack of time that feeds my angst more than any other factor. I also struggle with keeping everything in my head. So many ideas, so many trains of thought, so many different paths to go down… I get overwhelmed by trying to capture all of this and make sense of it.

It goes in peaks and troughs, this PhD journey, both in terms of my output and in terms of my state of mind. If I had to give an average indicator of my PhD mood across the course of my candidature, I think it would be something like ‘mildly anxious, but mostly ok’. The anxious part is mostly me angsting about lack of time, and the angst is generally manageable. I haven’t had the crippling bouts of anxiety you hear about when people talk about their candidacy, I don’t hate my topic or my thesis, and I’m pretty confident I can actually do the research. While my method, the scale of the project, and the disciplinary focus might be new to me, I’ve done research before and I know that eventually I’ll come out at the other end with my self mostly in tact.

That doesn’t mean the troughs aren’t hideous. It just means they aren’t all that frequent and they’re balanced by peaks and plateaus.

Troughs vary in depth and intensity. The toughest one I’ve been through was right before my confirmation of candidature. My confidence hit an all time low. I was working on refining my confirmation document (which is essentially introduction, lit review chapter and method chapter) and I was utterly convinced I wasn’t going to pass and that my project was ruined and completely unsalvageable. I put my niece to bed one night and she wanted me to stay in the room til she went to sleep, so I lay down on the floor and listened to her breathing and silently cried my heart out. For a long time. Long after she was asleep and I crept out of the room. I pulled it together, got the document in, and had my confirmation seminar, but the plummet impacted on my seminar. I’ve never been so nervous giving any presentation in my entire life. In the feedback, a panel member highlighted my nervousness and observed that it took me half the presentation to find my stride, and she was right. What I learned from that experience was that I need to work on my ability to view my thesis objectively, and I need to ask explicitly for feedback that helps me to get an objective view. It wasn’t really until after my confirmation seminar that I got my shit sorted and got my confidence back on track, and notably, this coincided with putting my PhD aside for a couple of months.

That was a pretty extreme trough.

Right now, I’m in a really tight stretch of the roller coaster, where the peaks and troughs and sharp corners and loops de loops are lined up one after the other. It feels like I’m living out the whole PhD ride in a compressed time period.

Last week I had some really tough PhD days. I was working on something that I shouldn’t have still be working on – it should have been done a week ago, or maybe even last month – and so I was panicking about my timeline. To make it worse, the panic is accompanied by a distinct lack of motivation. This state rolled in on the back of four super productive days and a feeling that I’d turned a corner. Then I chucked a U turn and went back round that corner. The overwhelming sense of unease came back with renewed intensity. I was talking to my mum about how much I’m looking forward to finishing my PhD because I want to escape the nagging guilt, and as I was talking, my stomach lurched and I felt physically sick about it. Then I realised what I’d been working on for the last 10 days or so was actually a false lead, and that I needed to backtrack in a big way. Cue meltdown, right on the edge of the PhD ledge.

After a day full of I-can-do-it-no-I-can’t-yes-I-can-no-I-really-can’t-nope-I-still-can’t-but-wait-surely-I-can-no-I-absolutely-cannot-do-it-I’m-done-and-I’m-quitting, I faced the facts, admitted I needed to redo this last phase, wailed about it to my chief ledge buddy, took her advice, and came up with a way to move forward. I decided I would just have to swallow the fact that I was going to have to traverse the same ground again (because the efficiency fiend in me does not like wasting time). So I came up with a plan, wrote it out step-by-step, and then I had a day off.

Right now, I’m back on the ascent. I haven’t regained the lost territory completely, but I have set myself up to do it, and for the rest of the week, I’ll keep plugging way at it. I feel more in control.

But I’m a realist. I know it won’t stay this way, so I need a strategy to manage whatever comes next.

Last week, someone shared this quote with me:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. -Henry Ford

Let’s just meditate on that for a minute.

That, my friends, is what I call a truism. It resonated with me and it inspired me to write a blog post about how powerful it is to believe you can succeed. So I I started writing this post last Thursday, and I’m just now finishing it up, after dipping in a writing it over the last few days. The reason it didn’t get posted last week was that I hit the bottom of the ‘I’ve done it all wrong and need to start again’ trough while I was writing it. So I lost my positivity. I lost my capacity to assess my own capability, because that happens in a trough – you lose your objectivity. I was living out Henry’s assertion, but I was living it out in the negative.

I learnt something in the last five days. Well, I learned lots of things, particularly about how not to do grounded theory analysis. But the most important thing I learnt was this: It’s not that I can’t do it; it’s just that I couldn’t see, in that moment (ok, moments), how to do it.

There’s only a slight shift in thinking here: going from thinking I can’t, to thinking I can’t see how just now. But it’s an important distinction, because one of the fastest way to get out of a trough is to channel energy into thinking you can conquer this beast. Once you’re on the way up, you start to see the way forward. And when you can see the way forward, it’s much easier to keep thinking you can do it.

One thought on “riding the research degree roller coaster

  1. perfection… and since “the growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement” [Karl Popper], a questioning approach is an essential (and positive) approach to any academic journey. Questioning “how”, as you have discovered, will serve you well in all aspects xx

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