The funny thing about self doubt is that it immediately separates you from other people. Statements of empathy ring hollow, and at worst supportive voices turn into ones that mock. When you start to doubt yourself, the only person who you will listen to is yourself. What good are the voices saying that you can do it, when the bigger one inside you – the one that makes your decisions – is telling you that they’re wrong?
This is how I’ve been feeling, by and large, since mid/end summer. I had been happily trundling along with the PhD, writing, discussing, generally enjoying my life as an ‘intellectual’. Then I came crashing down to reality. The bricks weren’t far behind. My plan was to be submitted by now, and probably on to my third journal article, whilst revolutionising my field and introducing groundbreaking pedagogical techniques. I was supposed to be like good Will Hunting, except with formal training behind me. A supervision about my last draft would put that idea to rest for a while!
Just in case any of my supervisors are reading this (at least one of whom follows me on Twitter, where I publicise these ramblings) I want to say unequivocally it was nothing they did which brought this on! It was more that the discussions we had about my work brought me into a harsher reality than perhaps I’d been living in. Of all the things people could say about me, that I’m not ambitious isn’t one of them! What this meeting head brought into sharp contrast was the Matt in my head (let’s call him ‘normative Matt’) and the Matt I actually was/am – a PhD student, with all the PhD student flaws.
My self doubt upset me. For a while it paralyzed me and made me question some of my life choices (I’m nothing if not dramatic). It was made worse by the fact that I love academia, and I’m determined for it to be my career. If you doubt your career dream, don’t you doubt your species-being, just a little bit? As is said here, if you’re a phd student you’ve likely been a high achiever your entire educational career. All of a sudden, if you’re lucky, you’re just another student. Reconciling my ambition with the elements of my academic self that still need work (I.e. 99% of them!) has not been easy. It’s not over.
I am still a functional human being, which is useful. And I can still bring myself to write regularly (in fact, whenever I’m not doing teaching work). Yet every time it comes to submitting another chapter and pressing send on the email, I feel a bit ill. That feeling is lessened now that I have a friend look over my structure and syntax (to at least partially validate me/assuage my fears! As well as provide things to consider), but still it lingers (cue Cranberries lyric).
Anyway, today I feel like I may have turned a corner. Not least because my brain feels like it’s done all the overanalysing it can. Secondly, I think I am probably finally acclimatising to the life of a PhD student in their final stages, and the life of an academic in general.
I cannot expect to write a perfect PhD, so I need to stop trying. Nor should I want to, since it’ll be read less than a self published ebook on the history of toilet brushes. I also cannot please everyone. Nor should I want to, unless my aim is to produce the most sanitised, banal piece of work in history.
My PhD is my life. All the clichés about never letting go of it in your mind are true. I’m very lucky to have such a happy and fulfilling life outside of my PhD; otherwise who knows what kind of socially awkward recluse I may have turned in to! More than anything, when I finally submit this ball and chain, it would have been my life for over four years – so I’d better bloody be proud of it, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it!
I’ve always ‘known’ these things (one of the first bits of advice I received was that I’d better really love my subject, because I’ll hate it by the time I’m done with my PhD), but I obviously wasn’t ready to accept them as true until now. I think (read: I bloody hope!) this is what has given me the ability to write this post.
I think the PhD needs some reforms (maybe I’ll say what in another post if I feel the urge), but I’m much happier to admit (and perhaps even advocate – maybe.) that it is an important rite of passage. There may even be some similarities with those training to be counsellors, who themselves must be counseled.
The PhD hasn’t taught me (yet) to necessarily have a thicker skin, but It has taught me to take experiences, feedback and so on into context. With any luck, it has taught me to be a better academic, which I will be able to prove through passing my PhD and landing that dream job.
If anyone wants to hire me after reading this, that is!