The Mountain of Happy

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”

and

“Something about dizziness or altitude?”

… and then I sat there, staring at the screen. Realising I had nothing more to say, I saved the post and moved on to other things.

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?

Related Posts

The Valley of Shit

“The Process”

26 thoughts on “The Mountain of Happy

  1. NPR just did a piece about the cultural understanding and perception of struggle in learning (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning)
    As a PhD student struggling to write that darn dissertation, my greatest source of angst is the lack of support! When I reach out and ask for help, I get it from my faculty and academic colleagues. But, if I get mired down and forget to ask for help, the struggle overpowers and overwhelms me.
    I appreciate that you see struggle as both a positive and a negative.

  2. Sometimes (oftentimes) the mountains are great, views a plenty, great travel companions, great guide, well prepared for the hiking…other times it’s wet and climbing is drudgery or worse. But when the guidance is affirming, confident and confidence inspiring, then i’d rather be doing nothing else. This creates a problem because finishing the journey holds less appeal. Life back in the shire seems a very mediocre experience. Post doctoral submission blues…

  3. I kind of like what I do as a PhD. I get to play with kids all day (or, as my department puts it, “collect data”), and I don’t mind the writing so much. Sure, I would rather move on to the next idea than to keep ruminating the same old study I ran 3 years ago, but when it’s done then that brings about all kinds of fun stuff – especially, other smart people’s reactions to my ideas, which brings more ideas and more reasons to play with kids. I’m strongly considering just skipping the whole stressful tenure-track thing and do another PhD when I’m done with this one :)

  4. I attended a seminar of yours at the ANU and you mentioned the Manchester University Good Practice Guide in relation to scholarly prose. I haven’t been able to find it. Could you give me a more detailed reference please so I can locate it.

    Many thanks

    Vanessa

  5. I believe that I have another way to look at this issue. In light of ‘the mountain of happy’, I have decided to call this ‘the paradigm shift’ in honour of an incredibly craptastic self help course I did once.
    I have spent my whole life training to be an elite musician and due to not being quite good enough, quite lucky enough, quite calm enough… whatever, this did not come to pass.
    For years when I looked in the mirror I saw ‘failed musician’. I started teaching and always saw this as being the default option for failed musicians so the mirror view became ‘teacher, failed musician’. As time passed other good things came along but failed musician was always there, so ‘mother, wife, veggie grower, home owner, teacher, failed musician’.
    After a while I began to see all the complexity, beauty and variety of effective teaching and this lead (eventually) to my PhD research.
    Now when I look in the mirror I see ‘mother, wife, veggie grower, home owner, teacher, researcher’ and I do not see ‘failed musician.
    Now with the sensibleness that comes from being almost 40 I can see that I may never get the academic job of my dreams but this doesn’t actually matter in terms of my self-identity because that has changed forever. So I view this alternation of ‘mountain of happy’ followed by ‘valley of shit’ from within a profound change of identity.
    And I bet I’m not the only one?

    • Damn, that’s some great almost 40 year old maturity action Elanor! What you said really resonated with me. I used to see ‘failed architect’ in the mirror for a long time. It was only when I decided to relinquish all my black designer clothes and embrace the inner teacher that I became professionally happy… Ooh – I feel another post coming on now. Thanks :-)

    • Great reply! I think we all have a failed someone inside, perhaps that is why is so difficult to complete the PhD. The fear of failure is the biggest burden. We just have to remember Beckett and definitely fail better, because eventually, as Eleanor just said, all the failed ghost will dissapear.

  6. Hi Inger,
    I love your blog and it always leaves me with plenty to think about, and often to implement in my own PhD studies. I do agree with this post – struggles are interesting, moments on the mountain of happy are wonderful before you get bored and head back down to the valley again… but I wondered how rare it is to actually really enjoy the PhD process when you’re in it? It’s not easy (and no one promised easy), but I love it. Doing my PhD is even better than I thought it would be (and I have wanted to do one for about as long as I knew what they were). I’m 1.5 years in, so the gloss of early days has worn off, and I’m deep in chapter writing and publication mode, which is not glamorous at all… but how amazing is it to spend each day learning something new? I have so many questions and it is beyond wonderful to be able to find the answers (or the start of new questions). I love the intellectual rigour of academic research. It’s exciting to present ideas to academic audiences and see new ideas take shape in the discussion that follows. And the sheer indulgence of having the time to find out what you want to know. And to write about it, and re-write and learn to communicate more effectively and engagingly. It’s humbling, because there are so many talented people in the world and you can only know a small facet of the world (we’ve come a long way from the Renaissance!). But it’s inspiring. I don’t spend every moment of every day doing a happy dance – no one does. But this experience is exactly what I wanted. I wonder if we sometimes aren’t clear enough about what the PhD experience is to people who think they might like one (two essentials, I think, are self-motivation and humility), and whether some of the challenges (I have a great supportive school and excellent supervisors, which I think sadly *is* rare) are exacerbated by the impression that this must be a hard, hard road and a PhD is a bit like an apprenticeship – you have to do your time and it’s not supposed to be fun. It’s not fun like a swim at the beach. It’s fun like bushwalking – hard, sometimes painful, but every moment is full of interesting things to see and think about, and there’s always an amazing view around the next corner.

    • This is lovely to read! I think it is good to remember how privileged we are. Getting to spend my time thinking and working in an area I’m passionate about. Pretty lucky really!

  7. I’m glad you posted this Inger – the more recent posts about quitting PhDs and saying a big ‘Screw you!’ to the thesis have left me feeling a bit negative, and stressed about the fact that my experience, which has been totally positive so far, could become unbearably horrible. I absolutely love my PhD and my topic, have great, fantastic supervisors, and despite the stress I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m just about to finish my first year, so I know the valley of shit is there waiting for me, but it’s good to know the mountain of happy is waiting for me as well.

  8. I only had moments in the Valley, but the Hill of Happiness was always shrouded in clouds.

    My problem throughout the thesis was self-doubt and an inability to get the support I needed. I stumbled across a link between my work on oral cultures and the purpose of Stonehenge and similar sites around the world. Quite happy to be shown the error of my ways and get back to my original (lovely) topic, I approached our archaeology department, as did my wonderful supervisor repeatedly, but they wouldn’t talk to the old biddy from the English Program who thought she’d solved the Great Mystery. I desperately needed to know what i had missed, being certain that i couldn’t be right. I gave up the contract offer from my publisher on my original topic – very hard to do as a writer – and wallowed in the mire of self-doubt for four years to take the risk.

    My supervisor then took the risk of inviting very highly respected archaeologists to examine, knowing their tick of approval would be worth gold to me, but that they would also be reluctant to pass such a radical thesis unless it was solid. I got their ticks three weeks ago, and permission to use their names. The archaeologists wrote very long reports giving exactly the advice I had been seeking, which will serve me wonderfully for the future. Minor changes and it is all through and I have passed.

    So from the heights of the Hill, I sent out my first proposal to the top of the academic publishing list on Tuesday, quoting from the examiners reports. I got a reply Wednesday morning (yes, the next day!) to say they were interested and asking questions. No idea if it will result in a contract, but if they are interested, then those further down the list will be too and I suddenly feel confident it will be published and I will research and write on this topic for the rest of my life.

    Love my PhD to bits!

  9. Totally relate to the valley of happiness as I also walked across the stage to accept my PhD testumur from the Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. My children cheered loudly (very loudly) which made some people laugh. But they didn’t really know just how special this was, my children did as they lived the journey with me and knew just what this meant. My PhD journey was largely spent in the Valley of Shit and my was there a lot of it and to this day I am still not sure that I have cleaned it all up as it seems to linger with certain things bringing back the memories. So to even think of what the story of my PhD would be is too painful…so that will have to wait until another day.

  10. I’m really loving my PhD journey now, especially after submitting my ethics application!

    But speaking of awfulness, I hope you don’t mind I deviate a bit from your topic. I got a question that has bothered me for some time – I seem to get the idea that Australian PhD programmes are less prestigious that the ones in the US. In my brief encounters with some American lecturers in my uni, they seem to insinuate in subtle ways that Aussie PhDs aren’t that rigorous than the ones they’ve got… I’ve also seen in other posts and heard from friends doing postgrad elsewhere saying that Aussie PhDs aren’t that competitive in the international market (e.g. US PhD degrees are preferred that ones earned from the UK or here).

    Do you think that’s the case? Any insight? You probably have a half-written post on this :)

    Phil

    • My American examiner certainly didn’t say that. He rated my PhD very highly in a specific comparison to those he examines from the US. I’d be very intersted to know if Inger or anyone else has any data on this question.

  11. I completely agree with EzzyOD and Kelly. I dropped from full time work to 2 days a week in March this year so I could concentrate on finishing my EdD. I love having the time to really think deeply about my research. I am 5 years in on a part time degree, and I still feel passionate about my topic, possibly even more so than when I began. I have been so lucky in that I have total control over what and how I am doing it – I have a friend having a completely different experience as her PhD is part of a bigger project and needs to fit their brief. Her frustration at having her research steered in directions she doesn’t really want to go is obvious.
    I have had days in the Valley of Shit this year where I have sat at my computer and cried in frustration and wondered why I was putting myself through this. I also became aware however that everything I was reading on social media about the Doctoral process seemed to be really negative. I made a conscious choice to stop reading a lot of posts, and concentrated instead on the positive ones. I found great books on writing like Helen Sword’s “stylish Academic Writing” which made me laugh and helped me tighten up my own writing. At the moment, I can’t wait to start writing every day, and my 2 days of work just get in the way! (although I’m aware it probably is a good break and I do have to pay the rent!)
    This is not something for everyone, but if it was the Mountain of Happy wouldn’t have quite such a fabulous view :-)

  12. Recently, as I near completion, I seem to find myself being at once in the Valley of Shit AND on the Mountain of Happy. I was trying to explain to someone how at the end of the day I come home dead tired, incoherent and flat looking. But sitting at my desk, I often feel energised, powerful and amazed at the world. Sure, I’m missing out on climbing real mountains at the moment, but I’m getting a view of the world that so few do. I feel like a mountain/valley yo yo!

  13. Very true! It seems that we don’t like to linger on our successes or finished proucts for very long. Maybe because a solved problem is not as interesting as struggling with a shiny new puzzle? Still, the feeling of permanent struggle is not great for the mental health. I definitely need to learn to bask in the sunshine just that little bit longer – even just the little victories (‘Hill of happy’?). I wrote about my own ‘Mountain of Happy’ experiences here http://ksoanesresearch.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/enjoy-your-phd-dont-endure-it/

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