When I started writing this blog, I had already tried my hand at the creation of several; but all had fizzled out. One was going to be a blog about ‘happiness’ (because in the first year of my PhD, awash with love and contentment and the excitement of living in London, I was actually pretty damn pleased with myself; and I actually managed to keep that blog going for a while – ie. more than two entries – before it fizzled out.) Another was going to be to do with the subject of my PhD – because I kept coming across good quotes which made me laugh, or just tickled my sense of humour in a particular way; I kept coming across scraps of wisdom which seemed to have a LOT to do with life, feeling happy, striving for a goal, writing a PhD. I was excited at the thought that, somewhere down the line, at some international conference, I might get someone to introduce me by saying ‘so and so is writing a PhD on XYZ and also has an XYZ BLOG!’ (vain, I know.) That blog fizzled out after just ONE sad little post. It’s a nice idea that you are going to write an academic and fun little blog alongside your PhD, but in reality there just isn’t the time.
Another blog was going to be about cool things to do in London. That one, too, was hard to keep updated. I guess if you are doing actual fun things, you don’t have time to sit there and write all about them; it’s an either-or sort of deal.
At some point in summer/autumn 2011, I must have typed the words ‘I hate my PhD’ into google. The words were there; people had written about this dilemma on forums and in threads. ‘OMG I hate my PhD!!!! What do I DO???...’ – was the general wording I encountered. Kind people had written in underneath, offering advice – these were former PhD students who had felt the pain briefly but had survived, or else the occasional Quitter, who had left a perfectly good PhD programme and who was now very very happy with that decision. What struck me as interesting, however, was that the odd blog I encountered on the subject of ‘hating your PhD’ (and there really weren’t many) tended to include, on average, one post about hating the PhD, and would then apparently… fizzle out. Clearly, the writer had had a crisis, had gone online to vent, had gotten a few comments from the nice people, and had either replied to those or not, as per his/her own fancy… and then had clearly picked him/herself up off the floor and gone on to, apparently, carry on with the PhD, their brief flirtation with the sad students’ blogosphere forgotten. Clearly, it seemed to me, these people were NOT experiencing the same sort of PhD blues as I was – not the pervasive, eternal, sickening, overwhelming, crushing sadness and guilt. They clearly had something I did not have. They were experiencing something I was experiencing, but they seemed to just get it out of the way and get over themselves quite quickly. How?... How?...
I had the idea for this blog sometime around September 2011. (or, rather: I typed up what would become the first post that September.) I was up late at night, staying in a beautiful flat full of nice paintings, somewhere in Europe, about to attend a lovely conference together with a friend of mine (this friend had managed to blag the use of the wonderful apartment for us both while we were there). It should have been a bit of a holiday, even though we both had the low-level stress of giving a paper; still, there was a conference dinner with good wine, there was a drinks reception, there were good lunches and nice people, sunshine, and a new city to visit. I had been forced to tear myself away from PhD composition to go on this trip; as usual, I was in the throes of writing some terrible chapter, full of crappy points and half-comprehended material. As usual, I had spent months worrying and working on it, and as usual, the trip was something which, though planned months in advance, seemed to take me by surprise (‘WHY am I not finished?... WHY am I having to interrupt my work as usual, and take it with me on my trip?... WHEN will I ever learn to finish things ON TIME??...’). The cool trip was just another stick to beat myself with. Staying in the lovely apartment, slightly stressed out both by the conference paper (unfinished, inadequate) and by the impending chapter deadline (unfinished, messy, no idea what I’m doing), I couldn’t sleep. By the third day of the conference, I had struggled to sleep for three nights and was feeling pretty horrible. I prayed to the gods of red wine and strong digestifs to send me off to sleep.
So one night I wrote this post. I wrote some other post, too, which I then did not publish. At some point, I made the blog and put the first post on there (the one which was written in the middle of the night, in someone else’s apartment, sitting in someone else’s study which was decorated with paintings and nice books). The blog ‘fizzled out’, for a while, but then I came back to it; things kept coming to me, I kept having ideas for stuff to put on the blog, which I kind of wanted to write. Some of them I never got around to writing down, but those ideas come back to me, now and again, in a filtered form. For months and months, though, I was hardly putting anything on this blog, and no-one was looking at it (I hadn’t told any friends about it, and of course friends are always a budding blogger’s primary audience. As it was, I had no audience at all.)
Then one day, the God of the Graduate School gave a talk, in which he suggested that it’s good to ‘write stories, including the stories of your own failures’. Find words to describe the sense of your own intellectual vulnerability. All of a sudden keeping this blog made more sense, and I realised why I had wanted to write it in the first place.
Then there was a day when I logged on the blog to say something and I noticed that someone – a real person – had visited it: according to the stats, I had had a ‘page view’! The first one! I was ridiculously chuffed. Someone, out there, had typed the words ‘I hate my PhD’ into google, just like I had done, all those months ago. It gave me a bit of satisfaction to think of this blog as a kind of ‘Sesame’: only those who know the magic formula (‘Open, Sesame’/ 'I HATE MY PHD!') will ever gain admittance. My confident PhD friends, the ones who are on course to finish their PhD, will never find it, nor will my Sibling, nor will my non-PhD-writing friends and acquaintances. Only those who sit hunched over their computer, who have just come out of a meeting with their supervisors despairing and who are googling ‘hate my PhD – what to do?...’ – will ever find this treasure trove of thoughts. This might sound self-centered, but it gave me a little bit of joy to know that this little blog might perhaps play host to a hidden community of PhD students, ones who don’t particularly want to (or feel unable to) take their troubles out elsewhere, but who fancy a little bit of support from others who feel the same thing. And just knowing that someone is looking up the same words as me, and therefore knowing that I’m not alone in this, made me feel better.
Then one day, of course, an email pinged on my mobile phone, alerting me to the fact that someone had posted a comment on one of my blog posts; an amazing thing to have happened. I read the comment and my heart swelled with excitement. Someone out there had read my sad little blog and had liked it!... And in the middle of writing a terrible PhD, which made me feel like the stupidest of all the fools, to know that I was somehow capable of writing something interesting was an amazing feeling. Better still: someone had read my disgruntled PhD chunterings and was sharing my pain.
There were many other days; the day when someone wrote the words ‘love your blog!’ (a cold, hard day in early spring, marred by unfinished chapters and unmet deadlines, but this comment changed everything and made me smile; it was around that time that I found the procrastination book, and the blog posts started to veer towards the useful rather than just the disgruntled.) On another occasion, I opened the blog to see that the stats had gone through the roof; by recommending my blog on their blog, someone (you know who you are) had just snared me over 100 page views in one day. I was excited and wanted to tell someone. I wanted to tell my boyfriend, who was in the other room, that I had written something and people were actually READING it. But I kept quiet and I told no-one. This was my secret blog and I liked keeping it a secret. This blog wasn't for showing.
Sometime after first starting the blog, I actually did show it to a friend; I had written something slightly tongue-in-cheek, I thought, sort of self-deprecating in a funny way. I was proud of this little post and I wanted to show it to her. My friend’s reaction was… not what I had expected. ‘Oh my gosh!.... mate!... I hadn’t realised that you were SO upset!...’ – was what she said. This was not the reaction I had wanted. She was supposed to laugh at the jokes and appreciate the gentle irony, not worry about my dodgy state of mind. From then on, I did not show the blog to anyone else (and the friend, I’m sure, has forgotten). I realised that my friends were not my primary market, because they have an emotional investment and therefore cannot see this blog for what it really is: a place where I write stuff, because some interesting words and ideas have come to my mind and I want to have a go at putting them down; those words do not necessarily say stuff about me, as much as they do about my fancy for composing, for arranging them down on a page to read back to myself; words which, just by being written, make me feel that little bit more amazing.
Anyway. It has been nice to have a place to vent, and also to record useful things (write down the titles of books, so I won’t forget them; jot down advice that people gave me, so that I know it’s here and I can run across it again). Most of all, it’s been really nice when people have commented and told me that, for them, it’s been helpful seeing someone else struggle with the same thing. For me, this has been gold. I wonder if this is the sort of thing the God had in mind when he said, [doing a PhD means that] you have an intellectual treasure that no-one else has, that no-one can take away from you. He said: learn to cultivate a rich interior life. This, to him, was the wonder of doing a PhD: the rich, interior life which becomes yours, the thoughts that come to you, the deepened understanding of other people and cultures, which are just some of the things you gain when you’re doing a PhD. He said: the PhD is a transformative process. Something happens to you, something changes in you for the better, when you do a PhD.
… Speaking of which, I should now get off this blog of joy and do some work. Aaargh. Aaargh. Useful comments from supervisors about my introduction and chapter yesterday. Must stop being lazy now, and actually do some work.