Happy new year everyone!

I don’t know about you, but during 2020, I often felt like a helpless bus passenger being driven towards the edge of a cliff by incompetent politicians and powerful business interests. I feel this way about climate change all the time, but the pandemic made the feeling so much worse. All through 2020, my anxiety level was way off the charts. It made everything, including work, difficult.

I expect better from 2021, but a lot of these anxiety inducing problems are not going to magically disappear. I’m wondering how best to prepare for the year ahead and I don’t think making a bunch of resolutions is going to cut it.

(If you are relating right now, read on, but please be aware there is a content warning coming up.)

I hate the feeling of powerlessness and the anxiety it breeds. Medication helps a little, but I have to spend a lot of time and energy just trying to calm the f*ck down. Because calming the f*ck down is just something I must do to stay employed and married, I have a range of Strategies. Mr Thesis Whisperer, bless his heart, bought me a sun lounger so I can sit on the back deck and practice my therapist-prescribed mindfulness. I needed my sun lounger this summer, especially after Covid reared its ugly head in Australia early in the year:

While I’m a fan of the odd bit of mindfulness, one of my main strategies for managing anxiety is to spend a lot of time carefully imagining the worst. I know this Strategy sounds counter-intuitive and I look forward to sharing it with you, but first, a caveat and a content warning.

Although I’m an expert in PhD study, and highly experienced at working with stressed out people, I’m not a mental health expert. I’m speaking here about my own experience and what works for me.

My Strategy may not work for you – in fact, it may even be harmful. I recommend anyone who suspects they have an anxiety disorder seek appropriate medical help. (I feel privileged to have access to top notch mental health support at ANU – your uni should also have people who can assist).

And feel free to click away right now if even reading about anxiety makes you anxious (yes, this is a thing and no, people can’t just ‘get over it’).

One way to counter anxiety is to look for what you can control in any given situation. As my twin sister’s therapist once said: ‘calm is control’. Thinking about the worst case scenario, very carefully, helps me stay calm. If I have imagined all the terrible things that can happen in advance, I can prepare for them. If the worst does happen, I will know what to do. And in the meantime, I can stop worrying so much. Even if I’ve only imagined a way to respond and taken no concrete action, I can tell myself “you’ve got this”.

This self talk is important because, for me, anxiety fuelled thoughts can trigger Rumination.

As it’s been explained to me, Rumination is basically being trapped by intrusive thought patterns. The thoughts are peculiar to a person and often based on their life history. Rumination can take the form of fevered imaginings of disaster, that play like a movie in your head. (And the movie is an endless loop, repeating over and over again). Extreme Rumination is horrible because you experience emotional reactions to events that haven’t happened. Even mild rumination will block out more useful thoughts and make work difficult.

Why does this worst case scenario thinking strategy work for me? I think about it like this: I am much more likely to survive a plane crash if I’ve counted the rows between me and the nearest exit. At the very least, I will set out in the right direction when the smoke and flames arrive.

My baseline of anxiety helps me easily imagine the worst at all times. As a result, I can usually see trouble coming WAY before most people do. I’m quite proud of this side effect of my anxiety and would like to take a moment to thank all my anxious monkey ancestors who ran up trees at the first sign of trouble. I’m sure their more relaxed friends and colleagues told my ancestors to chill the f*ck out too – just before those same relaxed monkeys got eaten by lions.

This vivid imagination, tuned to the worst case, is a kind of superpower but, like all superpowers, it must be used carefully or it can damage you. One way to creatively channel your anxious person superpower is Planning.

I suck at a lot of academic-y things, like diary management and referencing, but I do pride myself on my planning ability. Making plans gives me joy and my obsession with planning tools is the secret of my career success. For instance, in How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy) I documented my writing PLAN to deal with the problem of writing 60,000 words in 3 months. This plan worked beautifully and I finished my PhD program early. In fact, the success of this plan convinced me to start a blog 10 years ago. (You’re welcome!)

Unfortunately, not all PhD problems are solved so neatly. As someone once said: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. But a good plan doesn’t have to be elaborate. In fact, elaborate plans tend to fall apart in a crisis anyway. 2020 had a way of hitting us sideways with ‘unknown unknowns’ that defeated some of the best planners in the world:

The unknown unknowns cannot be fully anticipated, but you can use the first sign of trouble to think up on the spot contingency plans.

For instance, at the start of the pandemic, Mr Thesis Whisperer helped me make an excel spreadsheet of pantry staples to get us through any self-isolation periods. The sheet has neat formulas: I enter in how many of something I have on hand and it tells me how many more I need to buy. Unfortunately, as I write, the ACT has closed the borders and cases multiply in Sydney. But I am calm. I have activated my household lockdown procedures. As Douglas Adams would say: I know where my towel is.

The human capacity for creativity is why we have survived so many crises as a species. Your creativity can help you make vague contingency plans for a range of ‘known unknowns’. These are things you know might happen during your PhD because people tell you about them, like:

The ‘known knowns’ – the obvious day to day problems – are easy to see, but worth dwelling on. You’ll have your own list of course, and family and work will dictate most of it, but I want to point out some cultural and technological ‘headwinds’, specifically:

  • Role ambiguity: this is when you are not sure about the limits of your responsibility, which makes doing PhD work intrinsically difficult. We ask people to be independent in their PhD work, but give them a supervisor who is responsible for quality and progress, which sets up an unavoidable conflict. Role ambiguity is the fundamental difference between doing a PhD and doing the same work as a paid research assistant. Who is the ultimate arbiter of quality and progress in a PhD when the student is meant to become the expert? Even supervisors and students who get along well can and do struggle with this problem. Role ambiguity is a complex idea that deserves a whole post of its own, but suffice to say the stress it can cause is associated with a range of poor mental health outcomes.
  • Project uncertainty and ambiguity: I wrote a lot about this in my post While you scream inside your heart, please keep working.
  • Email!! ok, you might not get as much of this as I do, but it’s easier to write an email than that journal paper. A concrete, easy reward is always seductive and it’s easy for email to drain your productivity through a thousand tiny cuts.
  • Addictive social technologies: delete the Facebook app off your phone and you will see what I mean (screentime on my phone told me I got 8 hours back in my week!). Those tech companies have invested millions to hijack your attention for money. Being able to effectively manage your time on social media has become such a crucial skill we teach a 5-week course on it at ANU.
  • A hierarchical environment where some people’ have more control over time than others: your university can impose deadlines on you, but you have limited ability to make your deadline into a shared problem with your supervisor. If your supervisor is taking too long to give you feedback on drafts you can’t make them do it quicker – heck, even the head of the school or the Vice-Chancellor would have trouble ordering an academic about. Autonomy is one of the key pleasures of academic life and we guard it jealously. I’m not saying it’s right – just pointing out the problem is there and it is way bigger than you.

So, how do you  plan for things you can’t control? What do I mean by ‘adopt an alert posture’?

A simple strategy is to imagine very specific problems and ask yourself what you will do if these things happen. For example, here is a list of questions for putting a thesis together for submission:

  • If I go over the word limit, how will I cut 20,000 words from my dissertation? Thinking about this problem might encourage you to more carefully define the scope of work so you don’t end up with lots of excess words. But I have good friends (hi N!) who swear by ‘writing long’. These people see the word count as a creativity killer, insist they must catch ALL the ideas and claim they cannot work any other way. And honestly, who am I to judge? The writing process is mysterious and deeply personal. You do you boo – but if you like to ‘write long’, at the very least learn some editing strategies so that you are not tearing your hair out at the end trying to get this thing under your university’s word count.
  • What will I do if I don’t get useful – or timely – feedback from my supervisor? If your supervisor has been tardy returning drafts in the past, this is unlikely to change – especially if they are on holiday or a sabbatical. There are creative solutions to this problem, such as finding other readers, but trying to locate and persuade such people to work on your draft when you are close to the deadline is not advisable. You will need to cultivate these relationships all through your candidature. Think of a Plan for that.
  • Have I built in enough time to write all these chapters over again if I have to? I think it was Howard Becker who said ‘there is no such thing as writing, only rewriting’. What he meant was, it will take much, much longer than you think to go from rough draft to final version. For this reason, I push my students to have a rough draft one whole year before they have to submit. Yes – really. [later addition: since this bit seems to be causing anxiety let me clarify! What I mean by ‘rough full draft’ is that you know the shape of it: a chapter outline of what will go where, a ton of messy words in each chapter to be edited and clearly identified gaps (that are not gaping holes). The minimum time I recommend getting to this point is 6 months prior to submission].
  • What will I do if my document gets corrupted when I try to compile it because it’s so big? Most people underestimate the technical difficulties of dealing with 100,000 words of text and references. I’ve documented my scary experience with EndNote right before I submitted my thesis. Don’t be me – do a few tests first.
  • What if the person I want to copy edit the document is not available? Trust me, the good ones will be gone if you leave it to the last minute. You can use Grammarly of course, but you will need to build in many hours of extra work.
  • What happens if I can’t get copyright permission to use this image? A dissertation is no longer considered ‘fair use’ in Australia and the UK so you will need to seek permission to use images you don’t own. And yes, that image or diagram that you copied and altered still needs copyright approval.
  • What if I can’t publish work in my thesis that I have published somewhere else? You signed a copyright agreement to publish in that journal, remember? They now own your work. Technically, you cannot include that text in your thesis now. Most have provisions for dissertations in the fine print but it pays to check!

…and this is what it looks inside my head pretty much all the time – hard to sleep isn’t it?

Again I stress: this post is drawn from my experience. Your mileage may vary. I hope, for some of you (and not just the anxious types) these worst case scenario questions are a creative prompt for making some plans. My fellow anxious people: if you feel you can turn your anxiety to good use this way: grab a piece of paper and try to write down 20 more about other aspects of your thesis, like data gathering. This list will help you dream up a few contingency plans to use in an emergency – or help you think about how to avoid the problem in the first place.

Remember, calm is control: just count the rows between you and the exit.

Looking forward to the next year of blogging and a less shit 2021!


PS: Comments are still off and will remain that way for the foreseeable – you can talk to me on the socials. All my handles are linked in the right-hand menu.

PPS: A big THANK YOU to everyone who bought my 2020 ebook The year of living Covidly for charity. On the 2nd of January I donated the first tranche of $464.07 to UN Women Australia – here’s the receipt:I’ll donate more as it comes in. Thanks for helping me make something so positive out of a shitty year – I appreciate all of you!

Related on the Whisperer:

Hear me explain project uncertainty to my co-host, Dr Jason Downs, in our semi-regular podcast here, or go to the On The Reg podcast page to subscribe through your favourite player.

While you scream inside your heart, please keep working

The academic fitbit?

Unhelpful PhD advice

Endnote vs… everything else

Other links:

Some papers on Role Ambiguity

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