A little content warning for this one friends – I mention my own mental health in the context of talking about the future of the Whisperer. If you want to skip it, I understand and would appreciate you considering filling in my reader survey here. The link will appear again below the explanation that follows.
At the end of 2018 I had a fairly significant mental health episode. I wrote about it here.
Basically, I was so exhausted by 20 years of academia – physically, mentally, emotionally – I ended up spending weeks in bed with all kinds of weird physical symptoms. I fretted. I wondered if I was ever going to recover. I also really scared my family and work colleagues by the speed and severity of my collapse. People begged me to make changes, so I slowed down the posting schedule to once a month and stopped editing and featuring other people’s posts (a significant workload in itself).
I thought I had recovered from the first breakdown fully, but I had a similar collapse right at the start of the pandemic.
While the second collapse was not as bad, or as long, it showed me I must be permanently alert to my own vulnerability and make even more changes to the way I work. One of the most significant changes I made in 2020 was to turn the comments off. I did this reluctantly because I love my readers and wanted to keep Thesiswhisperer as a place where they could connect with each other. But there was no doubt that reading so many accounts of trauma took a toll.
I used to spend considerable time making the Thesiswhisperer comments section a safe space, moderating comments and responding compassionately to these stories of heartbreak, confusion and trauma. But I never felt what I did in the comments section was enough. I started to feel like the whole PhD enterprise is broken and questioned my own role in perpetuating the trauma, as I wrote about here. In retrospect, I think the comments on the Whisperer caused a form of moral injury for me, and I wonder if they sometimes amplified other peoples’ feelings in unhelpful ways. Moderating was also depressing work. Reading some of the cruel, mocking and straight up vicious trolling made me angry and exhausted on a daily basis. Turning off the comments was a profound relief.
I encouraged people to write to me via email and talk to me on Twitter, and many continued to do so, but the site visits for new posts dropped over time. People clearly enjoyed the community aspect of the blog and did not visit as frequently, but they continued to come here to read stuff in large numbers. The overall traffic stayed strong thanks, perhaps, to the size of the site as a whole. Over time, many links have been built to specific posts on topics like quitting, feedback, writing and career advice from other sites, including many universities. Supervisors and researcher developers frequently tell me they use specific posts in their teaching. Others tell me they have favourites they share when others reach out for help. People find their way to the Whisperer from all sorts of places and, once they get here, spend a lot of time browsing over a decade worth of interesting content.
It’s slowly dawned on me that I am no longer really running a blog, which is a kind of online diary, but a huge goldmine of valuable ‘content’ – which needs to be managed quite differently.
This site contains nearly 1 million words now, words written by myself and others that speak to all facets of the PhD experience. From feedback over the years, I realise these words have relevance beyond the PhD, and resonate in the working life of academics everywhere. It is an immense privilege to own such a goldmine, but it is also a responsibility. I am considering where next for the Whisperer. It needs to be less of a blog, organised by time, and more of a growing, online library, which needs to be organised… differently. But I am still not sure how.
While I will continue to add to the Whisperer, I want to make the site fit for purpose for the majority of visitors. I am considering a major site rebuild to make the blog less of a feature and the ‘back stock’ of content more accessible and searchable. This will probably involve migrating the site off WordPress and into some other management system, while not breaking the links that already exist: an enormous (and expensive) job. I want to get it right.
I need your help to design the new site. I would appreciate you filling in this Reader Survey to help me decide the future direction of The Thesis Whisperer.
Survey Monkey assures me that it will take you less than two minutes, so I hope you’ll consider filling it in. You can also write to me if you have more thoughts. You can email me on email@example.com and my DMs are open on Twitter – @thesiswhisperer
Thanks and see you next month with the last post for the year!