Saturday, 18 May 2013

Flogging the Dead Horse

Feeling a bit sad this morning, as I realise, not for the first time: I don’t like research. I don’t like it, I am not excited about it, I… I just don’t like it. I have been to many seminars on ‘Managing your Motivation’, I have sought out many Gurus and Masters and tried following all sorts of advice. I’ve seen a therapist. I’ve read countless books about PhDs, motivation, meditation, concentration, WHAT HAVE YOU. I’ve done so much brainwashing to my poor old brain. Maybe I should just face facts: I don’t like research, and maybe I shouldn’t be doing it…

This depresses me slightly, because: if not research/ academia, then what?... I have been hankering after some kind of academic post. ‘You shouldn’t do that’, the Lover told me. ‘You don’t LIKE doing this.’ ‘But I like the teaching’, I proffered. ‘Yes, but that bit is for people who like doing THIS’, he said, indicating my laptop, my papers, and my PhD, hopelessly spread out on the bed, still stalled at revisions of Chapter 2. (my very realistic schedule said I should be on chapter 4 this week. But despite making a schedule, and despite making it so realistic that anyone should be able to stick to it, I just… haven’t.)

That conversation arose out of another conversation: I had confessed to him that I had spent the better part of my morning making a very silly, personalized gift for someone very dear to me. (the gift was a sort of silly ‘newsletter’, with lots of in-jokes, designed to make that person laugh. She knows I had the idea of making one for her and sending it to her, because I once threatened to do it and she laughed and laughed; I couldn’t bear to leave it ‘not done’, so one day I just stopped putting it off and did it.) I sat there, yesterday morning,  at my desk, with a concentration which afterwards astonished me, and I wrote funny things and I cut and pasted silly pictures, and I imagined this person receiving this silly gift and reading it and bursting out laughing; I could picture which bits she would find hilarious, I knew what would tickle her sense of humour and why. I knew she would love it. And afterwards – the whole thing took maybe from 8:30 to about 11:30 in the morning – I looked and looked at it, I put it in an envelope and went out to post it, and as I walked around a pretty bit of my local area to clear my head, I couldn’t help thinking about this thing I had just made, and all sorts of thoughts kept occurring to me, and I couldn’t help but think ‘damn it, I could have put THIS instead of THAT. That would have been brilliant. … Oooh, d’you know, what would ALSO have been good…’ Ideas just kept coming and coming to me. And when I got home, I just looked at my little work of art again and again. I basically couldn’t help but feel really bloody pleased with myself, for having created something which someone else will enjoy. It occurred to me: God, there MUST be some kind of way of transposing these kinds of positive feelings onto the PhD. When I get into a creative project of my own, I can literally sit there and work on it for HOURS. I could have sat there all day and made this silly little thing really terrific (the only reason I didn’t was because I do have a PhD to write, and essays to mark…). I thought, maybe I should tell the therapist about this.

So later, I told the lover what I’d been doing, and how happy it made me feel, and how I wish I could feel as excited and pleased with myself – and feel the same urge to stare at my own work and love it – when I’m doing my PhD…. And his response was along the lines of, I get the feeling that you need to be doing stuff like THIS (pointing to my silly project, which I had lovingly photocopied and taped to the wall above my desk) rather than THIS (pointing to PhD). He has seen me get excited about my own little projects, or slightly more serious arty projects which have been commissioned by other people. He has seen me stay up at night for hours and not mind, he’s seen me forget about everything and lose myself in the task and concentrate on it intensely, until I finally notice that my legs ache from being in the same position for ages, that there is a very cold piece of toast on a plate next to me which someone brought me hours ago and I forgot all about it, and that somehow four hours have gone by, during which I have not moved, and not looked up once from what I’m doing. And he has heard me say, several times already, I’m sure, I wish I could feel like this about my PhD!... There must be a way!...

There have been a few occasions when I have been excited about my PhD. Like when your brain makes a sudden connection and you have a great idea and it makes you sit up and go: Oh! oh! OH!... (I wonder what the neighbours upstairs were thinking.) There HAVE been a few times when I got really excited, wrote down a good idea, and felt really pleased with myself. But most of the time, it’s just me, at my desk, trying very hard to steel myself to do half an hour’s work on this thing, bribing myself with promises of treats and exercise and breaks, reminding myself that this is My Choice, telling myself that I Can Do This… Most of the time, I just feel like I’m trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. And I never sit there thinking to myself, oh, God, I reeeeeally need to go and get on with something else now… but go on then, I’ll just reread my ‘chapter 1’ just one more time, because it’s just so damn good!...’ yeah, right. I wish…

Maybe I should face facts: I don’t like writing a PhD, I don’t like research, I don’t like writing about books. I love making beautiful things which are all my own creative work and which will make people happy. I don’t like writing books about books, which will then be criticized and appraised by someone (‘it is not clear why the candidate has chosen to cite the work of XYZ…’ ‘The candidate should be aware…’ ‘More careful attention should have been paid to…’ ‘We would have liked to have seen more of…’ – oh God, I just don’t like it. I don’t care, and I don’t like it.)

This is a bit annoying, because: if I don’t like this, then I should get out. And that means starting at the very bottom of some other career ladder. That means I have spent three – no, wait: four – years of my life, getting a professional qualification which I now won’t use. It means starting all over again, and … asking myself the question, all over again: what to do with life?... (I’m a bit sick of starting again; I’m a bit sick, too, of asking that question. People pose it to me it often enough, and I NEVER HAVE THE FOGGIEST as to what to tell them.)

‘You’re such a great teacher’, I remember one student once telling me, somewhere around the third year of my PhD; ‘you have such a lovely way with people.’ That was the main reason why I carried on entertaining thoughts of working in academia. But the more ‘careers’ workshops and talks I go to, the more I see: number one on your CV is research, number two is teaching. These jobs, and the fun bits that come with them, are, then, perhaps not for me.

And the lover is right: I should go away and do something I actually care about, do something I really love (however terrifying I find this idea), and not mind starting at the bottom, and not think that it’s too late in my life to do this, because it isn’t.

Still have to somehow do this annoying PhD, mind. And I have just spent the better part of an hour debating with myself as to why I don’t want to.

Anyway - thank you, blank computer screen, for taking all this down. And thank you, fellow PhD-haters, for reading it. 


  1. OMG...Every post of yours is like a duplicate of what i feel..especially the 18 october diary entries. I am so glad that there is someone who is like me because if feels like everyone in my department is in love with their research or are good actors. I could never share my feelings with anyone. I hate my phd too. I feel trapped and stupid. I feel like I know nothing too. Everyone who came before and after me have carried on with their life while my life has been in a limbo from past 4 years. I have not been able to sleep from guilt. But I am still not motivated to do anything about it. I have been with a guy for 8 years in a long distance relationship and now all I want to do is get married and just kiss goodbye to this lonely life..But I still procrastinate. I feel like a looser all the time and I feel like everyone else is smarter than me. I open my facebook and all I see is posts of everyone either getting married or having kids or getting promotions..I am so sorry for writing so much but you have no idea how close I am to your situation and I just felt that I could finally bring it out without being guilty about it.

    1. hi! THANK YOU SO MUCH for commenting. it makes me feel better too when people say they're going through the same thing. and long comments are welcome! :)

      here's what i think might help you:

      - have a holiday. take a week off doing ANY PhD, because you sound exhausted. go visit your boyfriend, or your mum. Or just stay at home and have a week of lie-ins, dinners with friends, mucking about, coffees, swimming, cinema, gym. tell your supervisor 'I am having a week off. is that OK?' (i get the feeling supervisors would be astonished if they knew how little holiday time we allow ourselves. mine asks me things like 'so did you go away [for easter]?' and my PhD-addled brain thinks 'what does she mean, 'go away??' does she not KNOW how much WORK i have to do?'...) what would your perfect day be like? go and live it. seven times. i definitely didn't take enough holidays over my PhD and i just ended up mentally tired. you feel like you can't leave your work, but you CAN. in a few months' time, you'll think, why didn't i just take that holiday? DO IT.

      - when you go back to your PhD, don't do it for more than 5 hours a day (even less is recomended - people say 3 hours, the book says 1/2 hours...) Do it, say, between 9am-2pm, and then stop. just don't sit there torturing yourself all day, trying (and failing) to work. it's what i used to try and do and i wish someone had stopped me, and told me how ineffective this is; it's not working, it's just the most ridiculous, long-drawn-out procrastination. I was just making myself miserable and tired, and wondering why nothing was getting done.

      - Prioritize fun things. i get the feeling that the people who are on love with their research (and we all know one) are just a bit better at enjoying their free time, so they go back to their research refreshed. whereas many of us less confident mortals get trapped in thinking that we haven't worked enough, and therefore don't allow ourselves to stop. but i've noticed that my most successful PhD colleagues tend to stop working in early afternoon. they go for a walk, or a swim; they meet someone for coffee, they do things like sit in bookshops and read newspapers and have good chats, and just generally zone out, and have TIME OFF. they wonder what they'll have for dinner... i used to think 'how do they find the time? i wish i could do that!' - then i realised: you JUST DO IT. just have the afternoon off. i know it's not always possible to have an entire afternoon off, because other life stuff gets in the way; but you CAN have a cut-off point for the PhD. get up earlier than usual, set a cut-off point (midday? 1pm?), choose a small bit you can get started on, do as much on it as possible, and then stop. tidy papers, leave the house. go to a bookshop cafe and space out with a good coffee and a newspaper. relax. feel superior to all those people with jobs, those poor things who can't just finish their work for the day and do what you are doing. you're not getting paid loads of money, so don't work all day. again, I WISH I HAD THOUGHT OF THIS EARLIER. it would have made me happier, and i would have got through exactly the same amount of work. you don't like your PhD, so don't let it define you. be defined by what you do for the second half of each day!... :)

      - lastly, talk to someone. go to your Uni's counselling service. just do it. you get several beautiful, self-indulgent sessions of 55 minutes each, during which time you get to pour out some of this stuff to a sympathetic person. you will feel better. anyway, best do it now while you're a student and it's free. leave the overwhelming sadness festering til you're a 'grown-up' and then if you want therapy, you have to pay for it, and i hear it's expensive.... makes good sense to just go, non?...

      GOOD LUCK!

    2. Thankyou so much for your advice. I have tried counselling and for me it works for that particular day and thats it. The next day I am back to my same old cycle of not working and then being guilty at night. There are weeks when I work like a robot and feel proud about it but then I slip back to my old ways. I could spend hours on something thats not at all important phdwise but just hate working on my stuff. Some days I am on fire and somedays I could care less if the whole place caught fire. Then I go back to thinking if not this then what and everytime I get the same answer that I would be even more miserable at any other place.What I realized from your advice is that I have to be myself. I constantly judge my rate of success in the program based on what others have achieved and how many hours of work are put in by others. Most of my collegues are 9-5 robots and I wake up everyday telling myself I will be like them but I cant. I just realized that I cant do it their way. i am going to do it my way. I am not going to be guilty about the hours of work I put in as long as I am efficient. I am going to take a different route beginning today.I know its gonna work. And by the way I am going off this weekend to see my boyfriend. I am an international student away from family and just lonely which i think is contributing to my misery big time.But I am going to try and make this work...Thankyou so nine.....

    3. wise words indeed! :) you know, it sounds like you are doing fine, you just seem to have slipped into a pattern of being a bit negative about yourself, and not celebrating your efforts enough. ('some days i'm on fire' - that's amazing! you should make a note to yourself in your diary on those days and write down HOW HARD you have worked, so you can remind yourself that you DO work well! I AM NEVER ON FIRE!)... as for those days when you're not being efficient - give it a go, try a half-hour, but beyond that, don't force yourself - have somewhere to go, like a local swimming pool or a cafe, and just give up on working and go have fun. there's no rule that says you need to do eight hours every day. (ps. read the procrastination book!)

      being away from friends and family is horrible - I really sympathize. writing a PhD isn't exactly a job which gives one a roaring social life. my advice - plan lots of weekends with them, but also explore your local area, have afternoons off and go see things, enjoy where you live. it'll be over all too soon!

      and do see a university counsellor again - even if it only offers a temporary high, at least that's a few hours when you feel better, and that's something! talk about the loneliness, the writing, ask for advice!

      so: be nice to yourself, celebrate every tiny little achievement, and try and make the process of writing as pleasant as possible... and remember, other lonely PhD students are only ever a message away! X

    4. ps they also say: if your method of writing is not working, try something very different. pull a piece of paper out of the bin and try writing on that. if you write on a computer, try a yellow pad. it actually works - it helps you get unstuck. now go write your PhD, and please wish me luck too (deadline looms and I am climbing the walls). WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER... (sort of...)

    5. You will be fine..I am sure you will be..Have fun with your writing.You will have that degree in your hand before you know.

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  3. I decided to go into a PhD program because I want to teach at the collegiate level. Doing research has been so very painful thus far. There are very few models for the type of work I want to do, and nobody seems to want to help me get there. I'm feeling pretty despondent about the whole thing. But I have a lot of work ahead of me (2 years). Sigh.

    1. If it's been way too painful, then it sounds like you need to lighten the massive burden that you are carrying. Here's some good advice which a Guru actually gave me at the start of my PhD program and which I ignored (because I guess I just thought, yeah, but I don't see how I can do that) : it's better to do three hours' work a day on your PhD every day, than to try and do eight hours a day and find yourself exhausted. Another Guru (Neil Fiore, in his book 'The Now Habit') has written: if you are stuck and you struggle with your work, do not work on your project for more than twenty hours a week. do not work more than five hours in any single day. promise yourself that you will NOT work more than five hours in any one day. fill the rest of your day with enjoyable things you actually really WANT to do. Your work project will soon seem less painful, because it is not taking up all your time, and it is not stopping you from enjoying fun things.

      So I ignored Guru No. 1, and I came across Guru No. 2 very very late; but even now, this advice helps me stay sane. Plan a fun thing every day (exercise, dance, fun projects) and have a cut-off point in the day, after which you stop working. I hope this helps you. It's only a PhD. GOOD LUCK!!