Ghosts of PhD Past

I make little secret of the fact that I was enrolled in a PhD previously and withdrew. There was no single reason for this, although financial, relational, progress and personal factors were all involved. I put it down to a whole lot of Life happening and thought I had put it all behind me. When I started this one I had a feeling that there may come a point where I would need to confront things that got in my way last time, particularly the personal stuff which for me is mostly about me or my work not being good enough.

Today Thesis Whisperer posted on some research she’s been doing on why people quit the PhD and will be presenting at a conference on quality in postgraduate research. I read some of the ‘should you quit your PhD’ posts she links to a while back, recognised the discussion, nodded sagely and renewed my determination that Things Will Be Different This Time because I Am At A Very Different Point In My Life Compared With Last Time.

Reading Inger’s blog post has helped put a few pieces of the puzzle together, both in terms of understanding that previous experience and my current process of developing a different perspective on where I am now. I am somewhere in the chaos and messy place in the research process. Last time I didn’t really grasp that and I was lost in the chaos of research that mirrored the chaos in other parts of my life, and it was too much for me to claw my way out. I was amused to read that the stated reason is often financial because it is easier and more socially acceptable to acknowledge than many other contributing factors, because that’s precisely what I did. It was and is hard to say all the reasons why I quit last time

Inger goes on to discuss themes in the comments to the ‘should you quit your PhD’ post. These include the ‘resilience’ narrative, the ‘chaos’ narrative, and the ‘ambivalence’ narrative. To be honest, the resilience narrative grates on me, too, so thanks to Inger and Megan mentioned in the ‘next day addition’ at the end of the post. I can be the biggest Pollyanna at time but not at the expense of recognising that some things are simply hard and it doesn’t help to try and force inane optimism in the face of it, which is what I see in a lot of the ‘resilience’ type comments. “You’ll be okay,” “just keep working at it, it’ll come right,” “trust the process” … This does not cheer me up, this pisses me off. If I am in The Valley of Shit or some variation of it then these just sound like platitudes and spectacularly unhelpful. It is really hard to appreciate and reframe the chaos as ‘research mess’ to be worked through, and I think this has some close relation to the ambivalence narrative as well. Finding the most helpful response to the narrative of the moment is as crucial for the PhD as it is in counselling or therapeutic work. So many parallels …

I am around the point this time where the wheels fell off last time, at least in terms of chronological progress, so seeing this post pop up now has been entertaining to say the least. This has been a big part of the reason these thoughts and feelings have become very present and turned into what I have named (and externalised, good social worker/counsellor that I am – still) as the Ghosts of PhD Past. The howl has been getting louder as I got closer to the ‘anniversary’ (thanks Primary Supervisor for naming that). In effect, this is the ‘anniversary phase’ in only a chronological sense. There is so much that is different that comparisons are only superficial. I’m not sure that my narratives fit any of the broad types Inger identifies, but I can see it weaving in between.

What has helped? A little bit of lots of things. Reminding myself that I am here and now and not back then. I know a bit about mindfulness practice^ from my previous work, and using that to stay ‘in the now’ rather than listening too much to the siren song of the Ghosts and drowning in remembered griefs associated with the PhD Past. Sometimes it’s doing tasky things like reorganising tags in my reference library or making a contingency plan to deal with the stuck point in my fieldwork. Sometimes it’s actually doing the self care stuff that everyone says is so important for work/life balance and are often terrible at applying. The confidence issue? Not sure about that one yet and I’m not sure whether that one has a solution as such. Will have to come back to that one.

At least I am more surfing the dark waters across the void rather than falling in and drowning. Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor.

 

^ This is a specific application of mindfulness in the context of dialectical behaviour therapy and being present in the ‘here and now’ instead of being distracted by thoughts and feelings of the past. There is a pretty good and easy to read summary here. It has similarities with more general mindfulness practice and meditation, but is a distinct practice.

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