Probably should start this one with a content warning. I try to be upbeat and helpful, but I am touching on mental health issues here, including anxiety and depression.
If you’d rather not go there today, click away now. Here’s a gif of a kitten before you go:
If you believe the ‘The Illustrated Guide to the PhD’ by Matt Might, your PhD is but a pimple on the face of knowledge.
I encourage you to pop over and have a look at this classic webpage, but basically, Might starts by describing all of knowledge graphically – as a big circle and your contribution as a tiny circle. Then there is a series of images, zooming into the edge of the big circle, closer and closer… finally your little PhD circle is shown fused onto the bigger circle: a tiny bulge on the circumference of the existing knowledge circle.
Like I said, a PhD pimple.
I’m sure Matt Might is a nice guy and means his graphic to be reassuring. What he’s trying to say is gradually, PhD by PhD, the sum of all human knowledge grows. An individual PhD does not have to be groundbreaking. Your individual contribution might be modest, but many PhD pimples, added together, matter a lot.
As a sociology inclined kind of scholar, I have some issues with his ‘additive’ notion of knowledge, but I am not here to argue about epistemology. The idea of being a small, humble player in the grand endeavour of human knowledge is poetically attractive.
It’s also a bit discouraging.
My own PhD was definitely a pimple. It was about gesture behaviour in architecture class rooms. I don’t teach either architecture or gesture. I don’t use the methods I learned in my research anymore. The value to me of the knowledge is maybe questionable on these grounds.
Did the grand circle of human knowledge get expanded? Maybe.
A few people cited it. Some people even told me that they liked it (thanks Megan!). I know how much effort was put into this particular pimple of knowledge and honestly – sometimes I question all that effort. I think of the stomach ulcer I gave myself and the fact that I only have the haziest memories of my son’s early life*. It felt pointless when I was doing it – often.
Of course, no PhD is truly pointless. My PhD enabled me to get here, now – talking to you. For more than a decade, this blog has existed and I know it’s helped many people. But contemplating my PhD against the sheer scale of all human knowledge takes me to dark places. This is why I kind of hate Matt Might’s PhD pimple – at the same time as admiring the humble simplicity of the idea.
I want to talk about the feeling of PhD pointlessness because I think it’s a huge problem, especially now, a couple of decades into the already turbulent 21st century.
A PhD is usually a slog. Occasionally someone tells me they had fun from start to finish, but most of us don’t. There’s the uncertainty of the beginning, where you are not sure where your work fits into this vast edifice called ‘The Literature’. Then there’s the ‘muddle of the middle’ where you lose a sense of clarity and purpose – even if you never fully enter the Valley of Shit. Finally, there’s a grim, grinding trudgy-ness about that final writing and editing work, when you are knee deep in the referencing salt mines. The feeling of pointlessness hovers over the whole enterprise, like a fart in an elevator, making something already unpleasant worse.
The Slog has always been part of the PhD, but it’s an exponentially worse slog today – one, I believe, is accompanied by a deeper, more profound sense of pointlessness.
There are problems of the academy which are of long standing like poor supervision, sexism and racism (and let’s chuck in ableism and ageism while I’m at it). These problems are starting to be addressed, but there is a long way to go. The publications and ranking systems are fuelling a perverse paper ‘arms race’ where PhD students are often cast as foot soldiers, churning out articles that very few people will read. And let’s not forget the financial woes caused by tuition fees, living expenses and the epidemic of uncertain work.
The feelings of angst are only exacerbated by the pandemic, which is dragging on and on. It can feel like the sum of human knowledge is nothing compared to the sum of human misery on display on any number of news feeds. And let’s not forget the spectre of climate change, which is looming larger and larger in our daily lives. My friend Dr Liz Boulton calls climate change a ‘hyper threat’ that is ‘fog like, everywhere’, causing generalised anxiety and action paralysis.
That there is a frightening epidemic of mental health issues among PhD students should not surprise us. The problems of the 21st century are just so damned big. Any thinking and feeling person will be affected by feelings of powerlessness and fear of the future. It’s hardly surprising that some of us have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.
We need to find ways to think and act without being dragged into overwhelm territory. Here are some ideas, in no particular order:
1) Find ways to make the PhD less of a slog: I’ve written before about how the dissertation is kind of stupid and could be replaced with a portfolio assessment. You may not have a lot of choices over whether you do a dissertaion or something else, but you can push the boundaries. Look for role models who make an impact through sharing ideas and knowledge. Don’t listen to people who tell you things like blogging, making Tik Tok videos or podcasts are useless for your career. Tell them conventional academic careers no longer exist and find your own path.
2) Use your PhD time to develop skills that will be useful to you. Academia is not a meritocracy. The person with the biggest pile of papers does not always ‘win’. Winning might only be working a job that breaks you anyway. Embrace creative thinking about what ‘academic output’ might mean. Resist mindlessly feeding the broken publications system with yet more academic papers. Learn new techniques, software packages; try out new ways of speaking and relating to others. Expand the circle of knowledge in new ways.
3) Stop enabling the bullshit university rankings systems: Maybe more for your supervisor than for you, but we all contribute to perverse academic prestige systems by enabling them. Recognise that publishing is a political act. Accept the perverse effects of the publications systems fall on our most vulnerable early career academics. Stop treating the academic endeavour as a score board and your students as cheap labour.
4) Help others: Feelings of pointlessness are ameliorated (at least a little) by connection to others. Find ways to make your local connections stronger in concrete ways, by simply doing things with other people. This means at the very least reclaiming your social life and time with family and friends. If you have time, maybe get involved with your student organisation or become a student representative on an academic committee. Join a local community group, volunteer or participate in a political party. There are many ways to connect if you look for them.
5) Don’t look down: accept that some days, the feeling of pointlessness will be worse than others. Recognise your agency and ability to change things might be limited. Sometimes a feeling of overwhelm means you need to take a break. Sometimes just getting on with the work, even when it feels pointless is the best way forward. Becoming absorbed in the work can help lift the feelings of pointlessness. Experiment to find what works for you.
6) But don’t ignore the feelings forever: if the feeling of pointlessness just won’t lift, seek help. Leaving the PhD is a big decision, but sometimes the best way forward. The feelings of shame and failure can keep people in holding pattern for years. In my experience, this holding pattern can cause long term harm. A professional counsellor can help you unpick your feelings and get find the best path for you.
I’m interested in your ideas of how to make the PhD feel less pointless – but the comments are still off on the Whisperer. If you want to continue the conversation, please reach out to me on Twitter but for now: solidarity.
* While writing this post I asked Thesis Whisperer Jnr, somewhat anxiously, if I was a bad PhD parent when I was doing my PhD, 12 years ago now. He just looked at me like I was a mad person and said ‘What? I don’t even fucking remember you doing your PhD’. LOL!
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