The loneliness of the long distance thesis writer

A friend of mine tells the story of her first day as a PhD student with equal parts amusement and horror. One day she had a busy life as an academic, working with a wide range of students and colleagues, the next she was a PhD student who just had to hand in a thesis in a couple of years. The lack of structure triggered something of an identity crisis.

She realised that she was having a crisis when she stood in front of the mirror that first day and literally didn’t know what to wear. Should she ‘dress down’ and become more ‘studenty’? Or continue to dress like her professional self? In the end she trotted off to uni determined to take her cue from the PhD students she was sure to meet.

Imagine her surprise when she fronted up only to find out she had no office to work in. Even stranger still, no one at the university could tell her who her fellow students were, or where they might be found. One person suggested that she might find some at the library. She wandered the halls in confusion until the staff at the faculty desk suggested that perhaps she might like to work at home.

Of course, my friend was not the kind of person to put up with this state of affairs and set about building community herself, but that’s a whole other story for another post. The point I want to make here is that undertaking PhD study can be very strange and very lonely.

It’s not until they are gone that you realise how important classmates are. Even if you didn’t get on with everyone, your classmates were an anchor in the vast sea of the university. For one thing,ย  they helped you in little ways: usually someone would tell you if class was cancelled or if the lecturer had offered an extension. If you want to have a beer after a Friday class, there was usually a bunch of people heading to the pub. At the pub you could indulge in some therapeutic moaning about the boring lectures and difficult assignments.

When you are a PhD student this sense of community can be tenuous. Of course, some of you lucky readers will work in the bench sciences and have a ready made community of people working on the same or similar projects. You might land in a large open plan office – which is becoming a popular way for Australian Universities, who are cognizant of the problems of isolation, to house the PhD student cohort. Some of you reach out on twitter, facebook and even this blog to find others like you. But being around people is only part of the solution to the loneliness of the thesis writer.

The thing that surprised me most about PhD study is how powerful the sense of being alone can be.ย  Many times it felt like no one cared about my thesis but me. As I wrote in my post on PhD rage, while my PhD was of great importance to me, to others it was just something I was doing with my time. On dark days, the days when I stopped believing in it, the whole thing would seem a bit pointless. As an aside, this is one of the many reasons why supervisors are so important – as back up believers!

Even on the up days I could still feel estranged from others. Sometimes I felt like I was bursting at the seams with fascinating insights I was dying to talk about. But it was terribly difficult to get anyone, other than my supervisors, to take more than a casual interest in them. Some people really did engage of course – and they have my grateful thanks. My sister, my office mate, my Actor network theory group all took the time to have a conversation about what I was finding out and – more important – do some wondering about it with me. Their interest seemed, in some strange way, to validate and give meaning to my PhD student existence.

We shouldn’t dismiss these feelings of loneliness and alienation in ourselves as ‘just whining’ because they can have real consequences. Barbara Lovitts writes about them when she explores the shockingly high attrition rate amongst American PhD students in her book ‘Leaving the Ivory tower’.

In her interviews with non completors, Lovitts was struck by how often people blamed themselves for their inability to finish a PhD – rather than, for instance, their supervisor or the university. There was a tendency for students to turn these feelings of alienation into feelings of inadequacy. Part of the reason students leave their studies, Lovitts claims, is ‘pluralistic ignorance’: a failure to recognise that the students all around them are having similar feelings and problems, partly because there is not much contact between students or opportunity to air the feelings.

So what can you do? I suppose I can only encourage people to talk about the feelings with others and look for opportunities to engage. Luckily, in many universities there are plenty of possibilities: peer writing circles, workshops, online courses,ย  lunchtime seminars and all the rest. Even if you don’t think you need to participate, the social contact could be seen as an end in itself – and it will help you to work out that PhD dress code ๐Ÿ™‚

Thanks to @pedagogyofpop for suggesting this week’s topic

18 thoughts on “The loneliness of the long distance thesis writer

  1. M-H says:

    I tweeted this, but I’ll leave it as a comment as well: doing a PhD can be incredibly lonely. Someone once told me that it felt like she had been locked in a cupboard and no-one remembered she was there. The upside is that It makes you a lot more self-reliant, I think, and you have to learn to rely on your own judgement.

  2. db says:

    New to your site and really think that you are providing much more nuanced and sound discussion than 99% of academic advice columnists, so thanks for doing what you do.

    Can I give the flip side of this as a humanities and social sciences phd student: working on a bench sciences PhD where the project, team, rules and social norms were determined in advance would be my idea of hell. Becher’s work on the disciplinary differences in research was very useful to read in understanding why at our end of the spectrum it is a lonely enterprise (I’d like to see all that ethnographic work on academe given to students instead of generic PhD coursework). What the scholarly community is waiting for – as if they are really waiting, but you know – is not the answer to some pre-determined problem like curing cancer, but whether you have something to say and can ask interesting and rigorous questions in relation to some international community of practice.

    I think there’s a certain kind of socialisation (or lack of!) required to be someone who wants to find one’s professional community in some group who are widely dispersed around the world rather than in the people around you. It is an enterprise that requires a serious ego. It would probably be good if this was talked about more, as you point out universities are not so much a community of scholars but (as a wag friend once put it) a group of highly diverse researchers bound by shared grievances over parking.

    Thanks again for all the wisdom you are sharing on the site!

  3. Brad MacMaster says:

    As I struggle through this solo journey, I am informed, encouraged, and entertained by your helpful collection of nuggets of wisdom. Congratulations on the effectiveness of your efforts. I look forward to the prospects of more posts on maintaining one’s direction, clarity, motivation, and sanity throughout the PhD process.
    … / Brad

  4. Jim Scullion says:

    I’m new to your blog, and I’m very impressed. This post chimes absolutely with my experience as a PhD student and it’s so good to know that it’s not just me! Please keep up the good work.


  5. Bonnie Graham says:

    I have not arrived at the PhD process yet and frankly, am not sure I am ready for it. You see, I am still a masters student and at an online university to boot. Loneliness has already set in and I am a little over halfway through the program. However, to gain some perspective on this process of dissertation writing, I ran across your article and I am quite impressed.

      • Bonnie Graham says:

        Thank you, I will take this under advisement if I decide to go on. Right now I am just tired and wondering WHY I even started! LOL
        I mean, my grades are great and I have made many friends but now I am just not sure “why” it is important anymore. I am 45 and have raised both of my kids (who are both in college). My husband is retired and all I have ever been is a stay-at-home mom. I wonder if I should have just stopped at my Bachelors, gained some work experience and then came back for a masters. Well, too late now! ๐Ÿ™‚ I must finish.

  6. AS says:

    I cannot agree more with whatever has been said. I still haven’t managed to quit Ph.D and have enrolled for the current semester. And with each new day, I feel increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. I haven’t met my supervisor in days and don’t intend to either as he is either extremely busy or not around; either way its not of much help. There’s no research group at my institute either, at least not in the field where I work. I feel terrible, really.

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