Some time ago I wrote a post called “The Valley of Shit”, which has become one of the most popular posts ever. Briefly, the Valley of Shit is a state of mind where your thesis seems terrible, awful, bad. Walking though the Valley of Shit is a ghastly business because, well – it smells. But every Valley has an end, as I pointed out in the post, and eventually you will emerge from the towering walls of brown stuff, hopefully with a PhD in your hand.
Someone on Twitter, I forget precisely who, suggested I do a follow up post called “The Mountain of Happy”. I can never resist a good title, so I logged in to wordpress, created the post and dashed off a couple of lines:
“The mountain of happy is the opposite of the Valley of Shit”
“Something about dizziness or altitude?”
A lot of other things.
As a result the post sat, unloved, in the queue for many months.
In one sense this this is business as usual for me. At the moment I have exactly 37 half written posts sitting in the queue. Some posts are just placeholders for ideas and nothing more. Every now and then go in and clean up the queue, but I could never quite bring myself to delete the Mountain of Happy post. Occassionally I would open it and end up staring at those two lines for ages before realising…I still had nothing.
Then I started to worry.
Deleting the post would be an admission that I had nothing nice to say about the PhD process – which just isn’t true. I wouldn’t spend my life’s work helping PhD students if I thought it was all so terrible. But it worried me that I seemed unable to write a positive post about the PhD experience. Did it mean I really the ‘mistress of misery’, as my boss sometimes calls me?
The post started to feel like a sore tooth which I was putting off extracting until the other week, when I visited the Queensland University of Technology to give a keynote at the Creative Industries student conference. The talk is one I’ve given a couple of times which explores the emotional complexities of the PhD experience via my sad addiction to romance novels.
During question time at the end a student in the audience, Kirsty, made some interesting comments about struggle. I encouraged her to write a post about her thoughts, but thinking about the nature of struggle suddenly gave me a way to finally write this post.
If I had to list the three moments of my life when I stood on top of the Mountain of Happy they would be, in this order:
1) Seeing thesiswhisperer Jnr’s face for the first time
2) Marrying Mr Thesis Whisperer
3) Walking across the stage to accept my PhD testumur from the Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.
Those three brief periods of delirious happiness only came after a period, sometimes extended, of struggle.
Pregnancy was not easy for me; I spent 9 months struggling with the inaccurately named ‘morning sickness’. Like all young couples, Mr Thesis Whisperer and I struggled initially to adjust to each other before we got married. And the PhD? Well the PhD was the definition of stuggle. I spent a lot of time in the Valley of Shit, but the day I got the degree, and stood at the Top of the Mountain of Happy, all the angst magically dropped away.
Christopher Booker claimed there are only seven basic narrative plots in literature, all with different kinds of struggle. In a story, struggle can provide the backdrop against which happiness can be experienced more fully. Certainly academic work, particularly scientific discovery, is so often framed as some kind of heroic story where the researcher struggles towards knowledge.
Consider the the discovery of H. Pylori, a simple stomach bacteria, plays in stomach ulcers (a topic close to my heart because I got one during my PhD). The way this discovery is recounted in the media often echoes the plot types Booker talks about. Throughout the 20th century, German researchers tried in vain to get the scientific community interested in the idea that stomach complaints were not nervous complaints, but diseases with bacterial origins (Tragedy). Australian scientists Dr Marshall and Dr Warren did a series of experiments and testing regimes (The Quest) and discovered that a single strain of bacteria, H. pylori (The Monster), was responsible. Dr Marshall (our hero) deliberatly infects himself with the bacteria to demonstrate the efficacy of antibiotics (overcoming the monster). Fame, fortune and Nobel Prizes follow – your classic happy ending.
There are numerous other examples of this type of mythologising: Marie Curie, Einstein, the discovery of penicillian and so on and on. There is less of it in the humanities perhaps, but we certainly still find ‘heroes': Foucault, Derrida and the like.
There is no inherant problem with mythologising, but I think we need to be careful of framing all academic work this way. While struggle itself can be a good thing, productive of discovery and change, I would argue that excessive struggle, to no purpose, is not. But in the end I suppose, you can stand on top of the Mountain for Happy for a little while. Once you have admired the view and basked in your accomplishment there’s really not much else to do up there. Eventually you must trudge back down into the Valley, where all the really interesting stuff happens.
What about you? If you could tell the story of your PhD would it be one of stuggle? Can you tell the story in another way perhaps?