Feelings of Inadequacies

In the last couple of days, several people I know have brought up (separately) the fact that for kids these days there is very much a ‘everyone’s a winner’ culture. I never had that growing up. You won or you lost. You got first place or you got second or you were the runner up. Or you were everyone else that tried hard and didn’t get a ribbon. Or you were 10th in your class. There weren’t ‘participation’ awards. Showing up was not enough; you had to try your hardest. And even if you did, that was no guarantee of doing well. 

This culture of my childhood taught me that hard work was the only way to get ahead in life. Showing up to life was not going to make you successful. You had to work for it. And sometimes you were going to fail. And that’s good. Failure is how you learn. If you are told that no matter what you do is good and okay and you get a shinny ribbon for it, you are never going to want to try harder. You are never going to do better. You are never going to work.

I learned that if I didn’t work, I didn’t get ahead. That understanding carried me through four university degrees. I look at kids these days and I’m not sure if they have it in them to get through life. I’m not sure they have a working culture and a try harder culture built into them.

But I’m not a teacher. I’m not even a parent. And I’ve been told time and again that that means I don’t get to make comments about what’s good for children.

[We’re ignoring the fact I was a child once.]

But what I do know is that the reality of life is stark and brutal. It’s not all participation awards. It’s not all ‘show up and get a pat on the back’. There are times that no matter how hard you try in life it won’t be enough. You’ll fail the exam. You’ll miss the award. You will just not get the thing because there are 300 people trying for the thing and only one person is going to get it. And someone’s going to just flip a coin to figure that out. You can try your hardest; life can still be down to luck of the draw.

I’m not sure they teach that nowadays. But I’m grateful I learned it early on in life. I’m doubly grateful because I grew up with a lot of opportunities and a lot of chances, and a above average IQ. I grew up with good schools and good support systems. But that doesn’t automatically equate to ‘fantastic easy life’. Reality doesn’t work that way.

So I try my hardest in what I do. And I know that sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes it will never be enough. But I know that. And when I do ‘fail’ I’ve learned not to blame myself. If I did my best, then that’s all I can do. Sometimes failure happens anyways. Sometimes you lose anyways. Not everyone wins.

But there’s this one part of a PhD that didn’t mesh with that. That I struggled with all the way through. Because I knew some people were just not meant to do a PhD. Some people don’t have the opportunity and/or the work ethic to do it. Some people aren’t meant for university in general. That’s fine. I wish they told more kids that, because maybe fewer would get to university and flunk out, because they are told all along that you must go. But I digress.

The thing that never quite meshed with my understanding that people do ‘fail’ or leave their PhDs is that, even though I was trying my hardest, even though I knew I might not get my PhD, I felt failure. Constant failure. I felt that I was to blame. I felt that I wasn’t good enough. It was the first time I had tried my damnedest in life and still felt…not good enough. Still felt like I was losing. That I was failing. And I blamed myself.

This perpetual feeling of inadequacy hung over my head for four years. And I know it hangs over the heads of many other PhD students. It’s one of those things we don’t really talk about. The feeling that no matter how hard we try, we’re still not good enough to be here. To be doing this. To get our PhDs. In ours heads, we already feel a bit like we’ve failed, before we ever even get far enough in our PhDs to do any actual ‘failing’.

It’s hard to deal with that psychologically. It’s hard to live with that day in and day out. If you fail at something and you did your best, you can work through that. You will probably still be disappointed, but if you did your best, you did your best.

During a PhD, doing your best never feels good enough. You always feel like you should be working harder (even though you know you can’t). You feel like everyone else around you is better at this than you are. You constant feel like a failure.

People who have never been to university or never done a PhD seem to wonder why doing a PhD is so stressful. Why people have breakdowns or leave their PhDs half-finished. Or end up depressed.

I’ll tell you why. Because feeling like a failure every day is impossible to live with and not suffer consequences. Because no matter what you tell yourself in your head, that feeling doesn’t go away until you are holding your PhD degree in your hand. And by then, you’ve dealt with it for years. And the consequences of it.

This post is not meant to be overly optimistic. But what it is meant to do is to tell all of you people out there doing your PhDs, who feel like they aren’t good enough to do it, aren’t good enough to get it, aren’t good enough to be there, that you most definitely are. If you do your best, that’s what matters. And like everything else in life, doing your best does not automatically equate to success. But doing your best is all you can do, and you need to tell yourself that every day. It’s enough for you. It doesn’t matter what the result is. You deserve to be doing this. You deserve to be there. Whatever happens, work your very hardest every day and do your very best, and forgive yourself for what comes next. It’s not your fault. You are most certainly adequate.

 

Mondays

It’s Monday, and I owe you a blog post.

Alas, it has been a rollercoaster for the last ten days and my emotions are simmering at interesting levels (either boil or off). It makes concentration rather difficult. In an effort to take some time, I ran off to a campground for a couple of days and managed to exhaust myself so much I’m still barely able to stay awake and I’ve been back for 24 hours (and slept for 9). Sometimes ‘getting away’ doesn’t always have the affect you hoped.

But I need to write something, and what better to write about (instead of the post on methodologies) than what to do when Real Life interferes with your PhD.

First, it’s okay to stop. Stop whatever you are doing and access the situation. Is the interruption something that will be a few days long? Or is it something that might seriously undermine the next year or more of your PhD? (Sick parent, pregnancy, severe illness, etc). How long the interruption will be has a big effect on how you should deal with that interruption.

I know people who seem – for some reason beyond comprehension – to believe that if they do not work every single weekday of their PhD life they are doing it wrong. I think we’ve had a lengthy conversation about work schedules already (see here and here), so please believe me when I say that if Real Life interferes for a week or two, just let it. Go deal with your RL issue and then get back to your PhD when you’re in the right frame of mind. A couple of weeks are not going to break you (or your thesis). And if it happens right before a deadline, immediately have a conversation with the people who set the deadline about changing it/moving it. Everyone in academia understands that there can be things that will interrupt research, but unless you are open about it, people are going to assume everything is fine.

If the break needs to be longer (for instance, if you were diagnosed with an illness that needed treatment or surgery), then be very upfront about this with your advisors. Talk to people. Tell them what is happening, what the expected outcome is, how long it might last. It is probably best to take either sick leave (if that’s an option for you) or a sabbatical (which will be an option if you’ve never taken one before). If you are a foreign student in a country, then you need to think about visa issues. Likely, you’ll have to return home because many countries don’t want you to stay if you aren’t a full-time current student, and sabbaticals mean you aren’t technically a student – but taking a break from being a student. Keep this in mind, but if this is the only reason you can’t take a sabbatical, you probably need to access how much time you are going to be away from your PhD. A couple of weeks is fine, a couple of months is going to be problematic. But don’t let that stop you taking the time. For whatever reason you need it.

I know people who have had to take time away, and they worry about ‘getting back to it’. If you are passionate enough to want to do a PhD, you’ll find that passion again, even after a time away. And, in fact, time away may actually help. As I’ve said, I took a short sabbatical from my own work, and it’s the only reason I was able to come back and finish the thesis. I needed that break for mental health reasons.

But whatever part of RL that interferes with your PhD, it’s all right. It happens. You aren’t a failure. You aren’t bad at this. You aren’t a sorry excuse for a PhD student. RL happens. We like to think it doesn’t, because we like to think that academia is RL for us, but being a student puts you slightly outside of the norm, and things do interfere with being a student in a different way than they would if – for instance – you were full-time employed as a professor. Then you can take grievance absences, sick days, sabbaticals, and it’s sanctioned. As PhDs, you fall somewhere outside this spectrum, and you have to realise that although that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to the same sort of thing, you might have to come about it in a different way (take a break from your PhD, instead of a sabbatical, for example).

But a sick mother, or an illness of your own, or the death of a loved one back home are the most important thing. The PhD should come second when these things happen. Just like work would come second.

I am reminding myself of this because I have done absolutely no work in the last 10 days. And that’s okay. I feel guilty because it’s a default reaction, not because I actually should feel bad. I shouldn’t. I’m taking the time I need to and I’ll get back to work as soon as possible.

Guilty as Charged

There’s this thing that no one doing a PhD ever seems to talk about. After you are a few months in, you begin to feel it. It’s there, in the back of your mind, creeping up on you unaware. You firmly believe you’re the only one experiencing it, and that it means you’re not cut out for this. You try not to let it overwhelm you, but the further on you get, the more stressful the feeling becomes.

PhD guilt. I don’t mean you feel guilty for being in a position to do a PhD. I mean you feel guilty about doing everything other than your PhD. Eating, sleeping, commuting, socialising, resting, working. Everything that is not immediately associated with your PhD research is something that your brain tells you you shouldn’t be spending time on. Because clearly everyone else  only focuses on their PhDs. Clearly no one else ever sleeps or eats. Clearly no one else takes a day off. Clearly everyone is at it 24/7. Clearly you are not cut out for this.

Can I tell you? Every single PhD student feels guilty. ALL THE TIME. It also won’t magically evaporate because you submitted your thesis either, but that’s a monologue for another time.

So first? It’s okay. Really, it’s okay. It’s normal. It’s not okay that it’s normal, but it’s okay because it’s normal. Calm down. Acknowledge that you feel guilty, stop thinking you’re the only one, and move on. The guilt won’t go away, but you can learn to live with it in a way that won’t be too stressful. It will rear it’s head at the worst times, but if you know that will happen you can say ‘I know I’m feeling this, I know it’s because of XYZ, I know I can get through it’.

Second, do not let guilt stop you from doing things. You want to take 4 days off and go visit your boyfriend/family/friend? Do it. You need a rest day that is not a weekend? Take it. You want to grab coffee with a friend? Take an extra long coffee break. You can’t bring yourself to work on THIS or THIS today? Then don’t. Feel the guilt, but don’t let it stop you. You cannot do 24/7. You must have time for other things. Tell the guilt to bugger off. It probably won’t, but hopefully you can enjoy yourself enough that it’s only in the very back of your mind.

Lastly, guilt can be useful. If you haven’t worked on your thesis for a week and you feel guilty for not doing so, it’s probably time to let that guilt motivate you to do some work. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Sometimes, just reading an article will temporarily receive the guilt (and stress). Write a paragraph, make a bibliography for a topic, read an article, check out some books from the library, send an email, organise a meeting, etc. Even the smallest things can be enough to get you back on track, and push that guilt to the back burner.

But understand it never entirely goes away. And that’s okay. Everyone experiences it. You are not alone, your are not different, you are not failing at being a PhD student. It’s just something that PhD students experience. It comes from many directions, and some of that is academic pressure to DO THIS or DO IT FASTER or DO IT BETTER or any other form of pressure. A lot of it is from the assumption that every PhD student around you is somehow better than you are and if you aren’t working your ass off, you are clearly guilty of letting the PhD community down by not being good enough. You feel guilty because you believe you should be working solely on your PhD, because that’s what your university considers a perfect student (which is bull, really, because no one ‘only does their PhD’). And some of it is just the misplaced guilt of feeling like you have to prove yourself all the time, and when you are not proving yourself, you feel guilty for letting yourself (and your ideals) down.

I’d say ‘get over it’, but it’s not easy like that. It doesn’t go away. It comes and goes, but it’s never far. And it’s part of being a PhD student. But never ever think it’s not normal.

Divorce Rates (why people stop their PhDs)

I’m lucky. I know I am. I finished my PhD. It was a hard slog and there were weeks I considered stopping, but I didn’t, and I have my doctorate now.

But that does not mean that people don’t stop their PhDs. I hesitate to use the word quit, because that conjures up all sorts of negative connotations. To quit sounds like to fail. And stopping your PhD is not failing (failing your PhD is failing). It’s choosing to take a different path, because you realise the one you are on is not the right one. It’s no different than quitting your job because you know there are better options out there. And we wouldn’t consider that failing, would we?

Why stop your PhD? There are many reasons, and each one is as individual to the person making the decision. But let me list a few of the most common ones, and the ones I’ve actually encountered in people I’ve met.

You might decide to stop your PhD because of academic reasons. By which I mean: you don’t like your supervisor, your department, your university, your colleagues, etc. These are all valid reasons. If you hate your supervisor, or they are never around, or they want you to do different research, those are good reasons to stop your PhD. You might start it again at a different university (in fact, I suggest looking into other universities, if you stop for this reason; one university doesn’t mean all universities). If you aren’t happy with things, give serious consideration to why and what you can change. If you can’t change much, it might be time to look elsewhere, or reassess if you really want to do the PhD.

Another reason to stop is that you don’t like your topic anymore. This does not always mean you will throw in the hat. There are ways to change your topic without stopping doing your PhD entirely. I know people who have done it. I sort of did it myself (post for another week). Discuss this with your supervisor and other staff if you aren’t happy with what you’re doing. Can you change it and still stay in the department? Still keep your funding? Once you’ve figured out where you’re at you’ll know whether stopping is the way to go, or whether changing to a different department/university might work. But there are always ways to change your topic and still do your PhD.

Some people decide part-way through (or earlier, or later) their PhDs that it’s not for them. Sometimes it’s because they realise it won’t advance their career the way they want it to. Other times it’s because they just don’t like doing a PhD. Perhaps they’ve been offered a dream job. Perhaps their family situation has changed. If you simply decide the PhD isn’t for you, or it isn’t the right time to do one, then do stop. You won’t enjoy it anymore and it’s more stress than you need if it’s not helping you in life. I think this is a grand reason to stop doing your PhD and if I’d had the guts to actually stop mine, this would have been the reason.

Another reason to stop might be more along the lines of you just can’t handle it anymore. It’s okay. PhDs are stressful things. They can cause a lot of mental and physical anguish very easily. And it’s hard to get out of it. It’s hard to make it better. And sometimes it’s just too much. I completely understand. I seriously considering stopping for this reason at one time or another, but everyone feels that way at some point in their PhD. I took a sabbatical and realised I just needed a break. That may be the issue. If it is, take a break. If taking a break doesn’t help, give serious consideration to whether a doctorate is worth the misery. Because it can be miserable doing a PhD and I’m of the opinion that nothing in life is really worth the sort of misery that leads to depression and anxiety. They’re very hard to get rid of once you have them.

There are other reasons, of course. As I said, it’s a personal decision, and your reasons are your own. But whatever your reason – or reasons – know that they are valid. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to move on. It’s not failing. It’s not admitting defeat. It’s making the right decision for you at the right time. And once you stop (if you don’t start again somewhere else), don’t worry about people asking you ‘why did you quit?’ You don’t have to answer that. Your reasons are your own and they are right for you. Don’t let other people judge you. And never, ever let anyone tell you it’s a failure to stop doing your PhD.

Feedback and Evaluation

The biggest difference between a PhD programme and, say, an MA, is the lack of constant feedback and the daily obligation to be accountable to your whereabouts and your work. You might go weeks (or months as a part-time student) without talking to another PhD student or your supervisor. It means the onus is on you to do the work. This can be difficult, but what is especially difficult is a lack of regular feedback. There’s no papers or exams with a mark telling you you need to work harder. There is only you.

If you are lucky, your supervisor will expect some sort of regular contact and an update on how your work is going. If you aren’t lucky, you may have to go find this yourself.

But it’s not just your supervisor you can go to. Other PhD students in your department are a fantastic resource. It can be difficult to approach someone you don’t know (particularly if you’re a part-time person), but it shouldn’t be hard to find contacts for other students, at least those you share a supervisor with. If you can find even one person that is your Person, this can make a big difference to getting you through your PhD. If you can’t find one in your own department, look further afield. I found one on Twitter!

When you have someone, or more than one, make use of them as a resource, but also offer to act in the same capacity for them. This may be as simple as setting a deadline and asking the other person to hold you accountable to it. It may be as complex and involved as asking for feedback on a paper or on research you’ve done. If your Person doesn’t have time for such things, find a new person (or another person). It’s good to have more than one, and often it’s very useful to have different people for different sorts of help.

But once you have tracked down someone who can be a good resource for you, exploit them (I mean this in the nicest way possible – and remember they will likely do the same to you). Ask them to read the paper you are writing. Ask them if they will be a sounding board for an hour while you work through a difficult theory or thought you are trying to get straight in your head. Ask them to read over a paragraph you are struggling with. Just ask them. It’s so hard to ask for things when you are PhD student, because you forever feel guilty for needing help and for bothering others. Get over that right now. You can’t finish a PhD completely on your own. You need help and you need support and that means bothering other people. The system works because those other people bother you (or other people). It’s the circle of PhD life.

If you aren’t sure, start by asking for help that won’t take up too much time. Struggling with the wording of a sentence? Can’t quite put into words the theory you’re using? Not sure how something will sound to someone outside your field? You can always build up the relationship to full on feedback.

But other students can be the best source for this, because they want it themselves, and because they will inevitably be coming at your field of study from an outside perspective. It’s why it’s best to get someone who is not your supervisor to read your finished thesis before you submit, because they will find things that you and your supervisor never noticed. Persons can be good for this sort of thing, if they have the time, but often non-PhD student Persons are best for reading whole theses.

But you need to ask for feedback. Everything you’ve done thus far in life has had some sort of feedback, even if that was just a verbal ‘good job’ at the last place you worked. As human beings, we crave this, even if it’s a critique, because it makes us feel good about ourselves and challenges us to do better. You need someone to give you feedback and evaluation of how you write, what you are writing, your research question, your analysis, etc. If your supervisor cannot always be available to do this, you need someone else to help. And even if your supervisor is, it’s best to have a second opinion. Other people will not catch the same mistakes, but they will catch new ones.

So find a Person or Persons. Make friends with them. Offer to support them. Ask for help. Ask them to be honest with you. You don’t want someone who just says ‘great job, sounds fantastic!’ because it probably doesn’t sound fantastic. You want someone who will go ‘well, actually, I think you need to rewrite this, I don’t understand it’. The more constructive criticism your Person can give you, the better.

Near the end of your studies, when you are reaching those final words before editing your thesis as a whole, find a few Persons you haven’t approached before. Ask them to edit, ask them to proof, ask them to comment. Ask people who know absolutely nothing about your topic. Ask people who are not academics, and ones who are. The more feedback you can get and opinions you can hear on what your thesis is like, the better you can make it before submission, and the more prepared you’ll be for your viva too.

How Many Hours, or How Few?

Because timing is everything, someone raised this issue over on the How To Survive Your PhD edX course, and I figured, since I answered it there, I’d answer it here.

I’ve encountered more than a few PhD students from various universities/departments who are given guidelines when they first start. Things like: ‘you should be working 15 hours a week’ (part-time), or ‘this is a full-time job, and the hours should be as such’.

The thing is, a PhD is not a job. Yes, you might be one of those lucky ones that gets paid for it (plenty of us actually pay to do a PhD, rather than get paid for one), but that does not mean that it’s the 9-5 job your parents had. This is academia. In a nutshell, that means there are no set working hours. If it takes you 56 hours a week to do the work you need to do that week then…you have a 56 hours working week. If it only takes you 20 hours to do it, fantastic.

So when your university department tells you how many hours a week they expect you to work on your PhD, treat it as a guideline, rather than a rule. Everyone works differently. In undergrad, I had friends who researched and wrote their papers over the course of one day (the day before it was due) and still got an A. I usually spent about two weeks writing my papers. That does not mean my paper was better than theirs, because I had spent more time on it. Writing, like most creative pursuits, really has nothing to do with time.

[Though practice does make perfect, if you are struggling to develop the writing technique.]

I found that, some weeks, I worked barely 10 hours on my PhD. Sometimes it was because I had work outside my thesis. Other times it was because there was a conference. Sometimes I had duties in my department or on campus that took several days. These things happen. I spent most of my PhD stressed and feeling guilty for not doing 40+ hours of work on it a week. Which is ridiculous, of course, but guilt doesn’t really care about what’s reasonable. It took me until into my 3rd year before I stopped worrying about it, and that was simply because sanity took over. What was the point of lying awake at night feeling bad about the fact I had only done 3 hours today instead of 7, when I could be getting a good night’s sleep in order to do more hours the next day.

Sanity prevails a lot in year 3. Mostly it’s because you just hit the ‘I don’t care anymore’ wall and the only way over/around/under it is to let go off all those things you did in your first couple of years that were useless. Like feeling guilty and worrying about how many hours you weren’t working.

So, my advice to you, from a completed PhD student who worked several contract jobs, did monthly duties in my department, mentored other students, still travelled and took days off, and wrote a bloody novel while being a PhD student: work however many hours you can OR however many hours you need to to reach your deadline. If that means a 56 hour week, well, get cracking.

If it means 15…then take the rest of the day off and stop worrying about it. You’ll be better for it tomorrow.

Adulting

We’ve all heard the word these days. It’s on funnies everywhere, usually involving animals in less than eager positions. Usually with their heads buried in various bits of furniture or looking like their own pet just died. [This is my favourite.]

So what is adulting? Well, it’s a nice made up word that basically denotes what happens when most adults try behaving like adults. You know, doing the boring stuff, like paying bills and working for a living. An excellent resource for those of us (i.e. all of us) who are rather bad at adulting at any given time is the Adulting Blog and the book that blog author Kelly Williams Brown published in 2013. Have a look, because chances are, you need help at adulting; everyone does at some point or another.

Adulting is a fun word that a lot of PhD students have gravitated towards in the last couple of years since it first started cropping up fairly regularly in memes, tweets and on Facebook. I know the first time I heard it I felt like ‘where have you been all my life?’ Suddenly, everything made sense. I had a word to describe all those moments when I felt like an abject failure, and what was more, that other people felt the same way!

The biggest part of a PhD that people find difficult to adjust to is the sense of being alone. I’ll post an entry about that at some point. I found, though, that one of the hardest parts about being on the journey ‘alone’, my own journey, was feeling so detached from all my friends around me who seemed to be fantastic at adulting. Here they were, having children, getting married, buying houses, holding full-time careers, and here I was, reading books, sitting in my PJs all day, eating take away, living in student accommodation, checking FB 20 times a day, etc. I felt like such an abject failure at adulting. And I felt like I was the only one going through that. Like everyone else around me had their life figured out.

They don’t. I’m not kidding; they don’t. And everyone else in your PhD department definitely doesn’t. You are not alone, even when you feel that way. Your supervisor has another student who is feeling just as alone and just as bad at adulting as you.

I am still bad at adulting, but most days I manage okay and really, that’s all that you need. You just need to be okay. I’m still not a great adult yet, having only just completed my PhD. I live at home right now, and I’ve only just gotten a job as of yesterday (and it’s short-term contract only), and I don’t pay bills, or have kids, or a partner. But this is my adulting, and that doesn’t make it any less adult than anyone else. Yes, having a family and working a full-time job has a lot of adulting issues to overcome. So does being unemployed, living at home, and trying to start a career after finishing the hardest thing in your life.

There are so many levels of adulting. No one’s is better than anyone else’s. And no one is really better at adulting than anyone else, they just like to think they are. We all have challenges in life, and those challenges are individual, just like your PhD is.

So my advice is, don’t worry about adulting until after you’ve finished your PhD. If you want to spend the day in your PJs and only write 20 words of your thesis, go ahead. I won’t judge you, because I’ve done it myself. And your friends who are all off adulting won’t judge you either, because they are SUPER impressed you are doing a PhD. And your supervisor’s other PhD students won’t judge you either, because they’re doing the same exact thing you are, in their own way.

Really, the only one judging your ability to adult is you. So stop it.