PhD Fear (a personal account)

This post is by Elaine Campbell. Elaine is an Associate Professor at Northumbria Law School, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She is particularly interested in interpretative qualitative research, using story and narrative as a sensemaking tool. Elaine is due to submit her Professional Doctorate in Law in March 2019. Elaine’s thesis will explore her lived experience as a university law clinic supervisor through an autoethnographic lens. She can be found at @alawuntoherself and alawuntoherself.com

At 2.24pm on 6th June 2016, after a morning filled with panic, I plonked myself down at my kitchen table and wrote this:

I’ve got PhD Fear. I’ve had it for three days now, and there’s no sign it’s toddling off to find someone else to haunt. It’s always there, like a software programme quietly running in the background of my mind. A strange combination of lively moments of panic and levelling moments of stillness, I find myself overcome with the thought of completing a PhD. A PhD which I love, by the way.

I wonder how I got here. 

Image by @sebastian_unrau on Unsplash

Since 2015, I have written 8 journal articles, numerous guest blogs and media pieces, and presented at 7 conferences. I run my own blog which, through a public vote, was shortlisted in the UK Blog Awards. I got a mention in The Guardian. In July/August I’m delivering 3 international conferences papers. And I’ve got a guest blog, a magazine feature and 4 journal articles in the pipeline. Oh – almost forgot – I’m giving my first keynote at the end of the year.

I don’t say this to show off or make anyone who might one day read this feel inadequate. I’m saying it out aloud to prove to myself that I have a track record in managing my time, alongside teaching, admin and other projects, and producing pretty good stuff.

It’s not like I haven’t started the PhD. I’ve been immersed in it. I’m doing a Professional Doctorate, an enquiry-based project exploring my role as a senior lecturer in law. I draw on my lived experience and place my personal narrative at the forefront of my research. In short, I write about myself. Confessional tales, of which this is one, help me to figure out what I do, how I live, and invite readers to feel, think and respond.

Maybe it’s the size. Metaphors like ‘insurmountable mountain’ get used a lot in PhD student circles, as do comparisons to dragons. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of my PhD as Everest and start comparing it to my guinea pig Valentino. He’s quite small, in the grand scheme of things. And he doesn’t breathe fire (as far as I’m aware).

Maybe it’s that I’m terrified brain and fingers won’t work together to spill the good stuff into the thesis. I construct flowing sentences that sound really impressive in the cocoon of my brain, but, well, a bit rubbish when I try to let it out on the page. Perhaps letting it out is the only thing I can do right now. And later, when I can see it all there in front of me, I can polish it up.

Maybe it’s the time. I don’t have long. I’m almost in year two of a three year programme. The clock is ticking and before we know it December will be here. What will I have done by then? Something? Something that makes sense? Something that has rigour? Something that is good enough? Even while I’m writing this, I’m half whispering to myself ‘you could be reading… you could be drafting that conference paper…’ Perhaps something is good enough and I need to trust myself to keep chipping away at it bit by bit.

Maybe it’s the balance with family life. There’s a part of me which dreams of chucking it all in. I’m jealous of friends who do the 9-5 and spend evenings with their children. I worry that my sitting at the computer during ‘downtime’ will eradicate personal relationships, that the PhD will always be the priority. Perhaps I need to give myself time limits and book holidays in advance away from PhD-land.

Maybe it’s all of those things together. Panic and stillness. Dreams and reality. But what’s important is to face the fear. Stare it in the eye. Show it you know it’s there. Write a blog post about it. And then calmly ask it to move on.

—————————

Since I wrote this, time moved on. I moved on. I delivered those three international conference papers. I wrote those journal articles. And then I had a period of sick leave due to a really nasty bout of depression and anxiety.

For almost four months, I didn’t touch my PhD. My numerous lever arch files were banished to the back bedroom, underneath the spare bed (you know, the place you put things you want to forget). But I sought help, looked after myself, and eventually went back to work. And I slowly picked up the PhD. And I slowly started to write.

Reader, I’m due to submit in March 2019.

I think this is the point where I’m meant to say “see, there’s light at the end of the tunnel”. Or, “and now I face every day with confidence – no more PhD fear for me!”. But that’s not how it works. I still have days when I have absolutely no idea why I am bothering. And moments of utter devastation, where I convince myself I’ve written a whole load of garbage.

Sometimes when we go through a difficult period, we’re expected to adhere to a narrative that says the bad times are behind us. Onwards and upward, not peaks and troughs. But peaks and troughs are part of life, and they’re certainly part of the PhD ‘journey’. And they’re okay. And they will pass. And they might even come back again. And they’ll move on.

Thanks for sharing your inner thoughts so generously Elaine – how about you? Have you experienced the PhD Fear? Interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Related posts

The Valley of Shit

Leaving the Valley of Shit

The Swamp of Sadness

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26 thoughts on “PhD Fear (a personal account)

  1. Thanks so much for this post Elaine,
    I completely relate. I’m in year 3 of a 3 year programme also in the UK and to be honest I think I’ve spent most of the second and this year lurching from one manifestation of PhD fear to another. Most recently it has very definitely been the one you’ve just described. I explained it to friends as what I imagined drowning in quicksand must be like -moments of abject terror and frantic flailing around (usually producing a page or so of genuine dross or eliminating even more paragraphs from my already pitifully thin thesis) interspersed with a sort of numbness or paralysis: staring at my screen immobile whilst feeling an eerie sense of calm resignation over my sorrowful wasting of time and certain dismal outcome.
    I am now 2 months (and 4 hours!) from my planned submission date and tentatively feel like I’m making some progress albeit still acutely aware that this was the point I had intended to have shipped my near perfectly composed thesis off to my wonderful senior academic friends and supervisors to review and critique for me, ready to start polishing edits, having spent at least 3 weeks looking at nothing more involved than tidying my references, so I could come back with fresh eyes to the final polishing of my masterpiece! I genuienly believed that fairy story too!!
    Suffice it to say I’m still writing and I’m still not convinced that I will manage to submit on time. But- I have no doubt in my mind that I WILL submit and what I submit will be ok -not great, certainly not a masterpiece, but not awful either.
    Without a doubt self compassion is the biggest lesson this process has taught me and I think anyone who gets through the serial valleys of shit. I wish I could share with my non PhD friends how precious this time is, even the periods of self doubt /self-loathing /terror etc. Ok, maybe not all of those. But genuinely i think -ironically- being able to spend this time in such self indulgent revelling in a subject I’m ridiculously passionate about is part of what pushes me back to the valley of shit – it certainly has been the case for me that not wanting to sound like a complete [insert appropriate slur here] I’ve consciously avoided frequently going into great detail to my loved ones about how privileged I feel every week to be doing this. Instead, I have moaned about how I never thought I’d find writing so difficult and my fear that I’m missing painfully obvious concepts and links and “just not getting it”. Also very true But a very one sided account if my experience. So as a result I think I’ve almost talked myself into shoving down all the positives and inflating the negatives.
    I’m sorry this has turned into almost a blog piece of it’s own -but I just wanted to reach out to say thank you, well done and good luck. Keep going, I think you know deep down that you can do this, so keep acknowledging the imposter syndrome as the untrained (unwanted) pet that comes free with the PhD. Probably not as harmless and loveable as your guinea pig but nowhere near as terrifying as a dragon either.

  2. This was so fantastic! These words resonate with me- fear of chapter 6- my final chapter! Discussion chapter- what’s to discuss- yes I think my study proved what I thought would happen but how to discuss it! Anyway this has been very helpful! Thank you!

  3. I can sooooo relate! I’m done with my program and I still have those bouts of fear and panic. Why did I do that? How do I repair those relationships that were on ice during that very very long doctoral journey? Sigh. Chin up. Onward and upward to me and everyone else who’ve been here/are here!

  4. What can you do against the feeling that “whatever you do it is not interesting enough to constitute a phd matter”. When you loose interest in everything, in reqearch. Bad feeling. I know the fear of not being good enough for a phd is behind this. But reading this post makes me worse. If with all you cited about your work (having written that much papers, taking a blog and every other activity you cited) and you have this feeling of not being good enough, I feel less than not good enough, I feel more unworthy than I was before I read this article. You see, I cannot resolve to write that paper about which I am procrastinating since a long time.

    • Same here. There is no use comparing as we all want different things in lige. Not everyone can handle all that writing and work. Neither could the author of the article, but she had to burn out in order to realise it. In my case, I have been through some personal setbacks, struggle with pain and managing my energy and am faaar behind on submitting my PhD. Haven’t been to a conference in years. At first I felt I should toughen up and that all other activities had to yield to make time to catch up with the PhD. This was not a good idea. I was heading down a dark path. I decided to actively turn my perfectionism not to the PhD but to finding balance and showing myself that doing a PhD does not require a burn out. A balance of work, rest and fun, friends/family is the best for me. I have found who I am again. I still get paralysed with the fear but I have something to balance it. The self-competitive ‘the more the better’ in terms of articles and ‘the PhD has to be the best you’ve done so far’ which are impllicit in PhD programmes now, are so toxic, as they make you compare with others and lie to yourself. It’s important to remember that you can hop off the academic merry-go-round and that not everyone needs to be top of class in order to get a job. A burn out is a sign that many many personal boundaries have been crossed and I am trying to break the academic taboo and say; I am choosing for my own well-being over my academic accomplishments. If the university doesn’t want me after this, then we are not good partners. Still, after years of being observed critcally by others (supervisors rarely say what’s good, only point at improvements, and other people just want you to finish), I am unable to shake the internalised panic. I will hug the little guineapig, feed it some distracting kibble, and set myself down for another small victory of getting a small writing task done for today.

  5. Is there a structural problem if so many of us feel so inadequate? Surely on average, perceptions of capacity should be correct. If not, some change in institutions are needed, rather than we at greatest vulnerability being required to adapt to a pathological situation.

  6. Thank you so much for articulating so well exactly how I am feeling right now. It is such a perfect description that I have just sent it my husband, who right about now, I suspect, is wondering why he married such a colossal bitch and what damage my moods might be doing to our children.

  7. Thank you Elaine, I view the PhD as a rollercoaster with some days of excitement, some of fear and yet others of tranquillity. My biggest rock of support is my writing group. We tune into each other’s moods, fears and celebrate triumphs. Yes, our work is important but our mental health is paramount. More and more I have questioned the wisdom of a three year PhD, especially when we are writing articles, blogs, conferencing and doing fieldwork that doesn’t go to plan. It takes time for ideas to ferment and grow. Somehow the three year target seems to internalise the neoliberal environment we inhabit rather than our passionate wish to make a difference in the world.

  8. Thank you, Elaine, for articulating this so well. Right near the end of a PhD now, and have been through so many moments of ‘OMG, I cannot do this!’ Now I realise that I can, and indeed nearly have, done it, but the rollercoaster seems almost obligatory for so many of us. I realise that life continues regardless of PhD deadlines, and have been immensely grateful for the support of those around me, including the university. I’ve been managing a chronic health condition and have had ups and downs. Family members have been ill, some have died. One thing that kept me going was the passion with which I approached the project in the first place, and that passion has continued throughout. I was absolutely determined to finish and nothing or no one was going to thwart me! Particularly my own self-sabotaging habits!

  9. I have been constantly afraid since the end of my third year (8 or 9 months now). I operate on what I call ‘the shitstrate’, where running below every moment of my life is a basic level of fear and anxiety that keeps me from enjoying anything, and in fact pops up to remind me – “oh look, here is something that would ordinarily make you happy but guess what it’s not going to”. So yes, I would say that I have experienced the PhD Fear.

  10. Hello Elaine and Inger,
    Knowing how commonplace it is to encounter fear is reassuring. The feeling of not trusting your own instincts or ability to make something worthy of your efforts is par of the course for artists and candidates alike. So being an artist-researcher means that there is a double dose of the Imposter Syndrome. The fear is real and debilitating. The way to move through that uncertainty is to rest, have self-compassion and then try and do something, anything. Small steps are enough to move one forward.
    Bridgette

  11. I felt this a lot. After I finished my PhD (well, byt the time I was onto corrections!) I was doing paid research at uni and I got a lot more engagement and encouragement from my team-mates than from my supervisors and felt a lot better. I think we all need quite a lot of encouragement in research, because it’s a lonely and critical furrow and it’s easy to lose confidence entirely and panic in the dark. Unfortunately that doesn’t go away after graduating. Need to find research cheerleaders.

  12. I tried to get out of my PhD twice before I started. Both times my supervisor persuaded me to carry on. I remember talking to him about my concerns, and he told me ‘imposter syndrome’ was very common and not to worry about it, which helped me relax.
    5 years after completion, I feel pretty ambivalent about the PhD – glad I did it, but wish I hadn’t.

  13. Brilliant Elaine and thank you for your candour. It’s how we all feel. It does make me wonder though: does it have to be this way? Why is it considered OK to suffer – physically, emotionally and mentally – during thesis production? For something so based in intelligence, it’s not very intelligent (or loving) of us to have constructed such a difficult process.

    • I ask myself the same question every day Victoria. Alison Lee described PhD trauma as a ‘badge of honour’ that supervisors can walk around with. Therefore they assume that unless you are suffering you are not doing it ‘right’. I’d love to believe there is another way, but even my students (who I diligently care for) have crippling moments of fear and anxiety. It’s definitely a systemmic problem.

  14. Thank you for sharing. So true. Your piece is sure to inspire and support the many students that follow in your steps. I love your honesty, in a world of pretence.

  15. Gosh, this describes exactly how I’m feeling right now about my PhD. I have just entered my third year, and the expected submission date of July 2019 (when the scholarship runs out, i.e. no income) is hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles. I had an article rejected (not revise and resubmit – totally rejected) at the start of this year, and it completely knocked what little confidence I had in my ability to write. Imposter syndrome is a nasty little devil that sits on your shoulder, whispering in your ear that you just are not good enough….it went full-noise after the rejection. I couldn’t write anything for 4 months. I seem to have developed a fear of the thesis itself. Thank you for writing this piece, it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who is struggling with PhD fear.

  16. A little late in the day, but I wanted to thank everyone for your comments. The blog came out in the run up to my wedding so I wasn’t able to respond to all of your comments individually (although I read them with great excitement and interest!). I’m pleased the blog resonated with so many. I’m also happy to be a warning sign – I did too much, too fast, and I burned out. The brightest of flames, my burnout went high and wide and I thought it would never end. Now, I try to give myself some slack. I strive for ‘good enough’, especially where the PhD is concerned. The fear comes back (I had a moment a couple of days ago…) but if the responses to this post have taught me anything it’s that we have a wonderful community and we can face these things together. On a personal note, I loved that so many people picked up the guinea pig reference and ran with it! Valentino sadly passed away a few weeks before this post came out but I am so very happy that he will be immortalised in writing forevermore. All the best.

  17. Pingback: The top 5 #phdemotions | The Thesis Whisperer

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