In The Zone

My last blog post was pretty gloomy, and led to lots of people asking if I was okay. That wasn’t the intention of that post – but thanks to all those lovely people who reached out!

Good news is that things are going much better. That bit of Fear really gave me a kick up the proverbial and made me just sit down and do stuff. So now I’m what I like to call ‘In The Zone’, which has many benefits, but also its problems.

For me, being In The Zone is being (reasonably) focused, able and willing to get up, sometimes go to the gym, get breakfast, sit down at my desk, and being prepared to stay sat there all day. And often most of the evening. And then doing the same thing the next day. And the next. And over the weekend. Even the Bank Holiday weekend (I’m not bitter about that at all.. nope).

And really, that’s probably what most people expect of a PhD student, that constant pressure to be constantly working which I’ve fought against for the last almost 4 years. I’ve tried hard to keep my evenings and weekends free, but now it’s crunch time, and stuff needs to get done, so something has to give.

Sacrificing my free time isn’t one of the problems I was talking about, though – I always knew that would need to happen at some point. The problem with this phase of working is getting too stuck in your own head. You’re in there, just you, all day. I work mostly from home these days, so apart from the other half getting home in the evenings, I rarely talk to an actual face-to-face human. So you’re trapped in your own mind, talking to yourself (sometimes out loud), focused on the task at hand, and just working. And this is great! You get lots done, you feel good at the end of the day, so good you often continue working.

But it’s very easy to stay up there, in your head, when it’s time to come out. Like when your other half gets home and tries to have a conversation, and you respond with mumbled, half-formed sentences (sorry, Josh). Or when you meet friends at the pub on the one occasion you let yourself free of your study-prison, and all you can do is stand there wide-eyed and smile manically at the many people and noises and colours of the world outside (sorry, friends). It can be really hard to dismount your own brain for a bit and engage with the world, especially if you know it’s only for a few hours until you have to work again. But it’s important to try. Last night I gave myself an evening off to recharge and went to the Science Museum Lates, which also served to remind me of all the cool science and sci-comm going on out there, and why I kept at this sodding PhD.

So although The Fear was pretty scary and really not welcome at the time, through writing about it here and getting lots of lovely people saying lovely supportive things (along with a long weekend in Amsterdam), it has been enough to push me into what is rightly the most productive part of my PhD. But if you find me wandering around in the outside world, muttering spidery-sounding words and cowering from the bright sunlight, please shoo me back to my study.



Fears of Failure

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post, and though that’s mainly due to being snowed under with work in a mad dash to get things done before Christmas, it’s also partly because I’ve been going through a couple of emotional PhD rough patches. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts during these difficult times, in the hope that some of you can relate and we won’t feel so alone. Bear in mind that I am talking about myself and my thoughts a lot in this post, but I know that my fellow PhD students, wherever you may be, will likely have felt or be feeling some of this too. 

I’m in my final year now, and although that comes with some relief (“the end is in sight!”), it obviously comes with a lot of pressure, too. This added pressure seems to make all these little niggles that I usually have anyway become more pressing, and more crippling, meaning I become less productive in my work, and there’s added pressure because time slips by, and… you can see how the cycle goes.

The main thing is that I feel increasingly like I’ve entered this PhD by accident, like I shouldn’t be here. It’s a classic case of imposter syndrome, which I know tons of graduate students get (and many other students and people of all kinds, I’m sure). I know I was a good student at undergrad level, I worked hard and somehow managed to achieve impressive amounts of work in short time frames. Our research projects at undergrad were short, and I work well to tight deadlines. I can happily pull several all-nighters and work silly hours for limited periods of time to get lots done. With the PhD, it doesn’t really work like that. You can self-impose deadlines, but I am just the worst at sticking to them.

Because I’m at the same university where I did my undergrad research, and I’m working in the same group, my supervisors already knew me and in my head, that’s extra pressure. I look back on the old me, saw how much I achieved, and think my supervisors must be so disappointed in me now. Although I have been assured that this isn’t the case, it still doesn’t stop me thinking it. As the end of the PhD draws nearer, and I come to realise that I won’t be producing a ground-breaking thesis (and really, who does?), it’s all the more reason to think I’m a failure.

And that’s just the thing. When I’m in my low periods, I’m constantly thinking that I’ll never get this PhD done – I’m a failure, so why even bother trying? It’s a nasty cycle of mental self-torture which just eats away at my confidence. Pulling myself out of that is hard. And when I do manage to surface, I then struggle with motivation, for some tasks at least. I have a perception that certain tasks are going to be difficult (for example, writing and debugging certain bits of code to analyse my data), and I try to put them off – I’m scared I will fail, that I won’t be able to do it, so I procrastinate by doing other, easier tasks. It’s still productive, but I know really I should just jump right in to the task I’m putting off; it’s inevitably never as bad as I make it out to be.

I also have a real problem with accepting when things are ‘good enough’ and not ‘perfect in every way’, which is how I would ideally like things. Sometimes this plays to my skills and things I enjoy (I LOVE editing written work – but that’s for another post!) but mostly it’s quite crippling. I know that this is a common problem with scientists and researchers, but that doesn’t make it any less hard to let go of that piece of work, or that data collection that is ever-so-slightly flawed. Science isn’t perfect, it’s meant to be improved upon, and that’s something I often forget.

By sharing some of my thoughts I get when I’m at my lowest points in my PhD, I hope that I’ve made some of you feel less alone. These feelings are very common in graduate students, but nobody talks about them. There’s a pressure to put on a brave face, especially as (academic) jobs are so competitive – you don’t want any weaknesses to show. This article tells one student’s story (admittedly much more extreme than my own), and discusses the rife mental health problems in PhD students – and so much of it is because people feel they can’t speak up.

I guess this post is just my way of unloading my own feelings, and a plea that others do the same – if we were all open about how crappy PhDs can sometimes be, I’m convinced that the overall PhD experience would be improved. Because really, it’s pretty good – flexible hours, freedom to work on stuff that interests you, chances to network and improve transferable skills for future careers, opportunities to travel. It’s pretty peachy. But sometimes it’s hard to appreciate all this when you’re locked away in a mental battle with yourself. I thought by this time in my PhD I would be super-slick, confident, totally independent – but I’m not. Everyone, at some stage during their PhD, will feel those little seeds of doubt begin to grow, and I hope that by sharing our difficulties, we can pull up those weeds before they take over.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: Taming Monsters