Some years ago now, I wrote about self doubt this way:
“The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting… I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.”
The post was, and remains, insanely popular. It consistently has the most hits per year. People often mention it to me when they meet me for the first time and I have even seen it stuck up on the wall of student offices and kitchens. It’s a deeply humbling and gratifying experience, as a writer, when your words clearly touch many people. In this post a recent graduate, who prefers to remain anonymous, reflects on the experience of leaving the Valley of shit. I think it captures the strange mix of feelings pretty well. I hope you enjoy it and, if you are still in the Valley, find some inspiration and hope.
I announced my impeding PhD thesis defence to a friend with these words. And yet, the feeling was much more complex than just excitement. It was difficult to find the right words to express the intricate mix of fear, excitement, trepidation, and incredulity that I felt.
Most PhD students endure various phases of doubt, during which the prospect of defending seems very remote, and perhaps totally out of reach. Some named these phases “The Valley of Shit“. PhD lore and wisdom has it that all students will cross it sooner or later. It is then time for them to demonstrate their determination in face of hostility. It is supposed to end one day.
But some of us get stuck in it for a long time. Sometimes for so long that we may begin to think that we will never go out of it, that we have managed to fail our PhDs in a very special way.
I certainly thought this.
I stayed in The Valley for a very long time. Most of my PhD, actually. This lead to me considering quitting for a year and half. Even after my supervisors convinced me to finish it, I still wanted to quit academia. In the Valley my appetite for science, my curiosity, and my motivation drowned in the dark stinky water that surrounded me.
But this post is not so much about The Valley, it is about the feelings that I unexpectedly experienced at the end of my PhD, while I was getting out of the Valley. Perhaps these feelings define what it means to leave the Valley. I want to share them in the hope that it may bring a tiny light to some of the lost wanderers.
With my best non-native English speaking awkwardness, I wrote my friend:
“Something great happened in the last month, which I had not expected. I got excited about science again. Cool, eh? I am still plagued with doubts about the future, but I am considering the idea of doing a postdoc again.
More importantly, I am having fun writing up my thesis chapters. I already wrote a first draft of two chapters. Writing the second chapter was challenging, but I actually had fun doing it. This experiment has been a huge heap of stress during the whole of my PhD. There was always something stressing and time consuming in the future: getting the plants, keeping them alive, transplanting them, measuring the thousands of them, analysing the data, writing the paper. It was always a huge daunting task in the future. And now, the worst is suddenly in the past. The analysis is not quite finished, but the preliminary one is solid enough for a PhD dissertation.
I read some papers, both some very inspiring ones, and some… not so good ones. It motivated me. To be more inspired. To try to do inspiring work. To write better articles than the bad ones.
This was good news. The passion for science, the curiosity, the challenges for the brain, the discovery had been pretty much one of my main personal drivers. I have invested more time into science than in anything else. If I look at the past ten years, I think that these were the most consistent drivers I have had. That is, before the past two years… And losing them left me empty, and lost. Not only because suddenly, it felt as if I had no future, but also because there was nothing else to replace them. Hell, that was not pretty.
I am not sure what will happen next. But I get pleasure discussing science with people again, and I have fun writing. Actual fun. And I can begin to picture myself interacting with people, collaborating with scientists again.
More than that, I got the feeling that my brain is working again. That it is clearer than in the past year or two.
I still have a long way to go about gaining confidence, perhaps it will not be enough to get me to carry on in the field, and I know that it may go down again in one month when I will be exhausted and stressed and everything. But I am enjoying it right now.
I am even going to apply for a post doc.”
A couple of months later, I defended my PhD with honours.
I did not go back in the Valley during the end of the writing, nor during the preparation of the defense, despite the highly stressful moments that I had (accurately) anticipated.
In contrast to many students, writing the thesis was perhaps the part of my PhD that I enjoyed most. After years of struggling, I suddenly had a cerebral and organisational breakthrough. It took time and was occasionally frustrating. Of course, I had to finish analyses on the go (who does not?). But everything was faster because I felt that I could do it (or at least, quitting was not an option anymore), and because it was fun.
It was, all things considered, a much unexpected unfolding of the end of my PhD.
Several fellow students told me that seeing me experiencing motivation again, and managing the end of my PhD much better than the rest of it, gave them hope for their own PhD. And at least one of them experienced a similar relief after going through an ugly Valley of her own.
May our experience bring you a tiny speck of hope.
Editor: How about you? Are you still walking the Valley of Shit, or have you passed through into the sunlit fields beyond? Would love to hear your thoughts and reactions in the comments!