13 Aug

what to do when you have a case of the doubts

The doubts (n)
A condition commonly found in PhD candidates. Symptoms include: an inability to have anything even remotely resembling confidence in one’s work; heart palpitations; a constant feeling of having missed a critical piece of literature; inability to make small decisions (including, but not limited to, choosing a word to describe a tiny piece of data); an overwhelming sense that one does not have any findings worth reporting.

Earlier today, I found myself staring at the 956 unique codes I’ve generated in my initial coding of a handful of interview transcripts. Just staring. Blankly. With absolutely no idea what to do next. I had the doubts, in a big way.

And it wasn’t the first time.

I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve for treating the symptoms. They’re not cures, though I know there are two cures in existence. (The first cure is giving up, but then you end up with a different kind of doubt. And the second is graduating. The treatment of symptoms ultimately leads to the second cure.)

  • Keep a cache of your own work to hand. In particular, you should have at least one piece of writing that, when you re-read it, makes you think, ‘Shit. Did I write that? I actually sound like I know what I’m talking about!’ Mine is an essay I wrote on Lacan and art history. Completely unrelated to what I do now, but an excellent example because I read it and have absolutely no idea how I ever managed to write it. See self? I can do difficult things.
  • Go back to the data. When I look at my data I think, ‘Oh! My participants are awesome and they have such interesting things to say and they do such interesting things’. And then I know I’m going to have findings and I’m just being silly and getting stuck in the details.
  • Crack open the textbooks. Today I got out one of my favourite methodology textbooks (aside: I have a favourite methodology textbook. That’s up there in my list of phrases I never thought I’d say) and re-read the chapter on coding. Which reaffirmed that yes, it’s difficult, but I’m doing it properly (if there is actually a ‘properly’) and I’m doing okay.
  • Stop. Take a lunch break. Have a nap. Get a massage. Today I did all three… Sort of… I stood at the kitchen bench and scoffed cold leftovers, had a 20 minute power nap, and knocked off at 4pm and got a seriously intense remedial massage – you can’t doubt anything other than your pain threshold when you’re having knots ironed out of your back.
  • Call on a ledge buddy. If you’ve ever had the doubts, you will also be familiar with ‘the ledge’. It’s that place you inhabit when you’ve got the doubts in the biggest possible way. Every PhD student needs a couple of ledge buddies. These are people that know what it’s like to be out on the ledge and they know how to talk you safely off it.
  • Tell everyone you know you’ll have a thesis by Christmas. When you’ve run out of people to tell, tell yourself. Just keep saying it til you’ve spoken it into being. Or you’ve told so many people you’ll never be able to live it down if you don’t actually get it done. Whichever comes first.
  • Cultivate your own stubbornness. Committing yourself to doing something by a certain date is powerful in itself, but it’s even more powerful when you’re as stubborn as I am.
  • Watch Big Brother. Just cause.