On being down (and not quite being ready to get back up)

There are different ways to be down during a PhD, Masters, or postdoctoral fellowship. You can be down in terms of writing time, just struggling to get words onto a page; you can be down in terms of your mood, feeling low and tired and unable to carry on. You can also be down on your luck, if data gets lost, supervisors change institutions, or funding applications fall through.



I am currently down. I have two blog posts half-written that I cannot seem to finish. I have two papers that have come back from reviewers with mainly positive comments, and suggestions for fairly minor and quite manageable revisions. I have odds and ends that need doing. But even though all of this is actually quite manageable in size and scope, I just cannot seem to do anything. All I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Bones’, and maybe check my email from time to time and send a response or two.

I am worried about this down-turn in my desire to be productive and energetic about my research. Because, while I have all these little manageable things to do, there are much bigger things waiting: a book that needs to now be written, an edited to book to finish putting together and finalising, a mountain (no I exaggerate not) of raw data that needs to be catalogued, organised, coded and fed back to research participants before year-end. I am worried that if I keep lying on the couch, I will not only lose the will to do the small things, but the bigger things will stall as well.

I remember feeling like this during my PhD, especially towards the end of each of the three years, as I took time off over Christmas and then struggled to get going again in the new year. I am trying, now, to remember how I got myself up then, because I am battling with feeling unable to really get up now, and also wondering if I want to get up. The work waiting is SO much. I am not finding it easy to take my own advice, and just get up and going again.

What do you do when you have lost your work mojo? I tell myself: just do it. Just sit down and do the revisions. Just sit down and finish the blog posts. Just sit down and work. But then I open my email, and fritter away my mornings sans children with silly things that are not getting my work done. Interestingly, I don’t feel as ashamed of this down-turn and what can only be described as laziness as I have in the past. Perhaps I am finally getting better at being kind to myself? Maybe. Perhaps I really am just tired, and my body and brain are recognising that I do need a rest, and they’re taking it. Either way, the mojo is on hold, and while I am not terribly shamed by my non-productivity of late, I am still worried that if I don’t un-funk myself soon, I will get stuck for longer than I can afford to get stuck.

I am sure I will now, as I have in the past, get up. Downs are certainly part of the journey – any journey – as we seldom travel along flat and easy paths only. A PhD, a paper, a book – these are definitely full of highs and lows and everything in-between. I don’t have any good advice for myself today. I just have kindness, a mental hug, and a commitment to at least open one of the the papers that has to be revised, and make a list of things I have to do to finish it. And hope, hope, hope that the mojo will kick in on Monday.

Finding your way back into your research

I had a long conversation with a dear friend of mine recently about her PhD, with which she is struggling at present. In truth, she has been struggling for a while, and one of the main reasons for this is that she has fallen out of and with it. She is no longer interested in her research topic, and while she has generated rich and interesting data that give her several viable PhD questions to answer, she is battling to find one that will help her find her way back in so that she can press on and complete her doctorate. How can she find her way back in, given that she has been outside of her PhD for a while, and feels an enmity towards it, rather than a feeling of kinship with or interest in it? How can any of us find our way back in to research or projects or papers when we have fallen out with or of them and can’t seem to locate a door or a window to climb back through?

I have, myself, been on the outs with my writing recently. I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a while, not for a lack of ideas, but more because of a kind of ‘Meh’ that has settled over me. I want to be enthusiastic about it, about the paper I have to write before 1 June, about the conference paper due mid-June, about the book proposal I want to write, about the book I am editing with a colleague as we speak, but I am just not. I am on the outs with all of the thinking and writing I have to do. Why, you ask? Well, therein lies the rub: I don’t know exactly. All of these projects are ones I have chosen to take on, and are interesting. They will stimulate and challenge me, and they will all look very impressive on future job applications as well as on the application to renew my postdoc for another year. I not only need to do them, I do want to. In theory. This is a lot like being on the outs with a PhD. My friend, me, you, others – we have chosen to do a PhD, either because we need to or want to or both. But, just because we choose something doesn’t mean that we are always going to be interested in it, or stimulated by it, or excited about doing it.

So, I am asking myself why I have fallen out with all these chosen projects. Am I tired? Perhaps, although given that I no longer have a majorly demanding full-time job which requires me to dress up and leave my house everyday to drive 45 minutes each way, I feel a bit silly being tired. Am I bored? Maybe. I don’t think so. I am still pretty interested in my research, although I could certainly do with some more updated data (all sitting on a flashdrive waiting to be captured and coded). I’m not bored enough to give it all up. Am I just not up to it? No. I am. Really. I think. No, I am. So, what, then? Why am I struggling to find my way back into all of these postdoc projects, just as my friend (and many like her) are struggling to find their way back into their PhDs? Are we tired, bored, not good enough? Have we chosen the wrong project for the right reasons, or the right project for the wrong reasons?

I don’t know the answers to these questions for anyone other than me. But I think finding them and then taking action might be a step towards finding my way back in. If I am tired, then I need to create some space to allow myself a break here and there, so that I do actually feel like I am getting a break from the demands of the writing and thinking. Perhaps, if you are tired, this is something you could do. Not necessarily a physical trip, but maybe more of a mental break, where you can give your brain a rest from obsessing about the PhD or the project you are working on. Mental vacations, where you read slightly (or very) trashy fiction for a week, or pig out on a box set of your favourite series instead of slogging away at your desk every evening, can be just what you need to give your brain a break.

If I am bored, then I need to look at what is boring me and see if I can change or eliminate it. It’s easier to abandon a boring paper than a PhD thesis, but perhaps I could approach it from a new angle, or bring in different data or a slightly modified theoretical framework, or new literature to give the paper new life, and engage my brain differently. Perhaps, if you are bored as my lovely friend is, you could map out as she has done what you have done and what you do know about your topic, and possible trajectories to follow in terms of following all the ideas through. Some may not be as viable as they seem, and some may be much more interesting or possible given your logistical constraints than others. A creative process of elimination and critical reflection with a friend, peer or supervisor (or all three) may be enough to help you work out what you are bored with, and work out how to either make changes or eliminate the boredom from your project so you can get back in and move forward.

If I am not good enough? Well, I don’t know what to do about that. I think I am. I think most people doing a PhD or a postdoc are, but often it’s not enough for others to think this. I have to, you have to, believe it too. Here, I think my solution is to just do the work, small bit by small bit (like this post), telling myself over and over that I am up to it, and that all I have to do is start. As a poster I read recently says: ‘Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try’. So, if you are on the outs with your PhD in whole or part, or with a writing project that is just stuck, ask yourself what it is that is creating the falling out, and see if you can’t at least try to make some changes that will get you moving again in a more positive and productive direction.

My PhD is… How do you represent your PhD to yourself and others?

I follow ‘Shit Academics Say’ on Facebook, and the inspiration for this post comes from a post on their feed (similar to the image below).

PhD students have such a range of experiences of, and feelings about, doing their PhDs. A basic sense of human psychology tells us that repressing emotions and feelings, positive or negative, can lead to people feeling alone, odd, alienated, stuck, and depressed. As Meg Ryan said to Kevin Kline in ‘French Kiss’: ‘Express, not repress!’ So, these PhD experiences and emotions need to be expressed, preferably to those who will listen and be able to offer support, and even guidance or useful help. But, in giving voice to these feelings and experiences, it is worth thinking about what we do say to ourselves about our PhDs and how we represent them to ourselves and to others. If our words can speak things into being – feelings or experiences – then our words about our research can be powerful tools that either pull us down or lift us up.

A quick glance into the world of what people are telling Google Search about their PhDs yields this result:

Screenshot 2015-03-17 15.08.01

Other than the rather fun suggestion about a PhD in dance, the three options Google chooses to autocomplete this sentence with are negative: ‘worthless’, ‘boring’, ‘killing me’. The options Google selected are based (if I understand how this works accurately) on how many times people have typed these words into Google to search for resources or help. Why are so many PhD experiences (if this snapshot is any kind of indication) so negative? Why is the PhD more often than not framed as a long, arduous, lonely trudge, as opposed to a challenging, stimulating and ultimately empowering thing? Why is there not, in the more popular discourses around PhD study, more of an emphasis on what the PhD offers a scholar; the ups rather than the downs? People have done research that answers some of these questions, and I’d like to use this post to offer some of my thoughts on why this might be.

I represented my own PhD in different ways at different points. Early on it was a millstone, a source of great anxiety and stress. Around the proposal stage I felt quite excited as my plans took shape and I could see what lay ahead, even though I was still anxious about whether I could actually do what I was proposing. Writing the theoryology was mostly tough, and I said lots of unrepeatable things about the theory, my PhD and academia in general. I was mostly anxious, with small bits of delight in writing a section that looked and sounded really ‘Dr-ish’. Generating data and transcribing it was mainly tedious, although the analysis and writing of the ‘findings’ chapters was actually enjoyable, because it brought all the theory to life. This is a small snapshot of my representation of my PhD. There was constant anxiety, really (I am an anxious person generally), but over and above this there was exhaustion, stress, uncertainty on the ‘minus’ side, and delight, enjoyment, learning and satisfaction on the ‘plus’ side.

A PhD can’t be all plus or all minus, I don’t think. It takes too long to just be one or the other. Although some of my colleagues have loved their PhDs overall, they experienced tough, lonely and frustrating patches. And those who have had a hard time overall have also had moments, even small, where they have felt enlightened, stimulated and elated, even (think of that call to say the proposal was accepted, or being told a chapter draft is done for now because it’s good enough and you can move on to the next one). But the minuses, and Inger Mewburn has made this point in her writing, are often easier to talk about with others than the plusses – perhaps because of the more general discourses around PhDs that highlight the struggles over the enjoyment.

In some ways, it felt to me at times that I needed to make my PhD more of an enemy than I generally felt it was in order to be ‘in’ with colleagues who were struggling. I did not feel I could sit with them and say, ‘Oh, I love my PhD. I am really enjoying it right now. The writing is going so well!’ when they were saying versions of ‘My supervisor is so distant. I have no support at work. I can’t do this anymore’. I could complain about being tired, frustrated, confused, and discouraged at various points, and I certainly did. But I felt hesitance at representing my PhD in more positive terms in front of certain audiences, especially other students who were having a tough time. I am sure I was not alone in feeling this hesitance and, at times, even talking my PhD down rather than up so as not to alienate myself.

We all represent, and misrepresent, our PhDs in different ways and for different reasons: to fit in, to gain a sense of solidarity, to find empathy and care, to work through what we are feeling and try to move past especially negative feelings and experiences. The issue for me is this: if you feel like you spend more of your time talking your PhD and by extension yourself down, you are almost certainly putting up obstacles to completing your research successfully, and you are probably increasing your anxiety and misery. I am not advocating that you start lying to yourself and others and saying your PhD is fabulous when it really is not. If you struggling, and you need help, care and support, you need to be able to ask for it. But, I think I am saying that (hopefully) it’s not all doom and gloom all the time. There are reasons you took this on, and motivations you have, and these could be framed more positively to focus you on your ‘ups’, for example the learning and intellectual growth you experience, the connections with communities of scholars, either face-to-face or virtually, and the personal sense of achievement in taking on and succeeding at such a challenging undertaking.

If you are battling to see the light, consider starting a research journal: write to yourself not just when you are down and your PhD is boring or killing you, but also when you are up: have had a good meeting with your supervisor, or a supportive coffee with fellow PhD students, or a productive writing day. Talking your PhD up more often, to yourself and others, may help to mitigate against the downs, and may contribute to you feeling less burdened by the PhD, and more engaged by, and in, it on the whole.


Being the boss of your own time

I have recently changed jobs, in that I have resigned from my job and taken up a postdoctoral fellowship at the university where I recently completed my PhD. This was a big leap for me because it meant quitting my first academic job that came with a pension, a proper income, and an access card that kept working year after year because I was not on contracts that kept ending. It also meant leaving colleagues and work that meant a great deal to me, and it meant a change in my own sense of identity as an academic because I gave up work that gave me a particular academic identity and sense of self.

I’m kind of like a student again, with a more student-y kind of income now (sadly), and a more student-y schedule. This latter bit is kind of brilliant. I don’t have to be at work by 9am, and I don’t have to set an example for the colleagues I used to manage by sitting at my desk all day, being busy and focused, and I don’t have to attend any more meetings unless I really want to. I don’t even have to wear shoes if I don’t want to. I fetch my kids from school, and I help them with their homework. I am really enjoying cooking again because I’m not exhausted at the end of every day having rushed around doing far too many things, and commuting a long way to work and back. It’s pretty cool, I have to say.

But, it’s also a challenge, being the boss of all of my own time like this. I am on my own most days. I have no one leaning over me, making deadlines and calling meetings that I have to attend. Only my husband and kids would know if I stayed in my pyjamas all day. It would be easy to watch decor shows all morning, or make ice-cream, or tidy all the drawers in the house rather than write the papers I am supposed to be writing, and transcribe all the data still sitting waiting for me, and the send in the abstract I am still trying to think up. It would be very easy to just let these sunny days at home drift past me while doing very little of any postdoctoral substance.

This week I am working quite hard. But I have some work I am being paid for that has to be finished, and I have big deadlines that have to met and other people to account to with those, so it’s actually quite easy to leave the TV off, ignore the messy drawers and just focus on this work. But what happens when this work is finished, and I’ve been flat out every day for a couple of weeks and I am a bit meh, tired, overdue for a morning of Downton Abbey in my pyjamas? I am not sure I can give myself that morning without it turning into a few mornings, and then a slippery slope of letting days pass by while being less than productive. I know myself too well, unfortunately, to fool myself into believing that I am good at managing my own time all by myself without deadlines and people to account to.

I think this is probably an issue for anyone who is in the position of being mainly accountable to themselves for how they spend their time, and only a little accountable to others. Unless you have a super-duper work ethic that flies in the face of a whole series of your favourite show on a USB stick waiting to be watched, or inventing a new ice-cream flavour, you may have to have some strategies in place to help you manage all this time effectively. This is especially important if you have other responsibilities that claim some of that time, like fetching kids from school, or caring for someone who needs you to be there for them in some concrete way. Making sure that your work time is protected and managed well so that you get the most of out it, and can then give your attention and time elsewhere without feeling stretched too thin, or worried about all the work you still have to do, is really important.

One of the reasons I took up the postdoc was so that I could spread myself a little less thinly; so that I could work on my research and be academically engaged and productive, but also be here for my kids and focus on myself a little more too. But I am aware that all these other things that are not research and work can become so lovely and enjoyable that they could encroach on the work time, making that smaller and smaller, and making it harder for me to feel less panicked about how much I am not accomplishing, and how much I am not writing. I need a few strategies to help me stay on track too – like a work plan I can adapt and adjust as I go, and that accounts for both work and personal demands on my time; people to be accountable to, like seeking out people to write with so that I am not always writing alone, or speaking more often to my postdoc supervisor so that even if she decides not to bug me, I will at least have a sense that someone is keeping an eye on me. I need to surround myself, even virtually, with critical friends and co-travellers, much as I did during my PhD, so that I don’t feel quite so alone and isolated, and so that I can be pushed a little to do some writing that I can share and ask for feedback on (and so I can stop writing out loud to interrupt all the silence!).

Perhaps, if you are also finding yourself the boss of all of your own time, whether for a few months or a year or more, some of these strategies will help you. Perhaps you have some you can share too? I’d love to hear what they are. Right now, I’m going to try to keep going on as I have begun, making my lists and hiding the TV remote from myself. And I’m going to enjoy this sabbatical from conventional 9-5 working life for as long as I possibly can.

Keeping track of your study in space and time

I have been asked to speak to doctoral students at the end of the month at a ‘Doc week’ attached to the PhD programme I have graduated from, where we all come together from different parts of the country to attend seminars, share our progress, meet with supervisors etc. These weeks were a big and important part of my own journey. I am going to be talking about my research journey, focusing in on three areas that were tricky for me, and sharing ‘tools’ that have been helpful. So, I thought I’d do a dry run with one of these tools here: the ‘GPS tool’ to help you keep track of your study in space and time, and to help you stay motivated.

GPS – or global positioning systems – as most people know use latitude and longitude to give exact coordinates of different locations or places around the world. If you have these coordinates and a GPS device or very precise map, you can find your way no matter where you are (in theory at least). I am thinking that this idea could be useful for finding or keeping track of your PhD over time and in space. PhDs can be slippery things, in part or whole, and having tools to help you manage the process and work out not just where you are now but where you have come from and where you are going to can be really helpful. So, I’m going to call this one the ‘GPS tool’ and like all tools, it can be adapted for specific use in your own context.

From iconfinder.com

From iconfinder.com

It’s a really simple idea and it probably works best if you try and check in on your study’s GPS coordinates regularly, like once a quarter or every 6 months. If you check in too frequently, especially in the first year when things seem to be moving more slowly than they do in the final year, you may not feel like you are making very much progress and you may become disheartened. If you check in too infrequently, though, the tool may not be that effective because you may have trouble remembering key details. I think checking in every 3 or 4 months is probably ideal. The idea is to use a research or similar kind of journal, by hand or electronically, and write to yourself about: 1) where you started from at the beginning of the period you are tracking (e.g., January – have draft 1 of theory chapter and interview schedules; written to people re interviews and set them up); 2) where you are right now (e.g. March – conducted 4 interviews, transcribed data from 2, have generated data from documents and observations; have started methodology chapter – 10 pages); and 3) where you plan to go between now and the next check-in (e.g. by May finish interview transcriptions, capture field notes, write further three sections of methodology on data generation). Hopefully, this will show you that you have made progress, even if parts of the period you are tracking have involved PhD neglect and feelings of guilt about this; it will also hopefully give you a more manageable ‘to do’ list on the PhD for the next few months.

Tracking your study’s GPS coordinates at regular(ish) intervals can be helpful in a few ways: it can show you that you are indeed moving, and (hopefully) in the rights kinds of directions; it can motivate you to keep moving; it can give you helpful information to bring into meetings with your supervisor/s, especially if you feel you are going to slowly or are worried that you’ve wandered off track; it can also possibly form part of the narrative you tell your readers about how you have done your study, and could be part of your language of description. The trick, though, apart from keeping these GPS coordinates in one place, and checking in regularly, is being honest with yourself. I battle with this – I don’t want to look bad, even in front of me, and so I often make things seem less dire or unproductive than they (too often) are. If we lie to ourselves about what we’re up to with our PhDs (or not up to), we risk derailing ourselves further.

I find it really tough to make long terms plans, even though I made a work plan for a whole year in 2013. I battle to stick to these and I can’t anticipate all the things that will happen or go wrong, or get in my way. Planning for 3 months seems a lot more do-able, and may well make it easier to be honest without the fear of looking bad.  I think I am going to make this tool a more conscious part of my own forward journey with my postdoctoral writing, starting today. Do any of you have tools like this that help you stay or get back on track?