By Leonie Heres
So why am I telling you this? Well, I guess you could say that it signifies a bit of what my life in academia is like sometimes. Before I became a PhD student, I considered myself to be a reasonably bright, productive, punctual and disciplined person. I was the kind of person who knew how to manage her time efficiently and effectively and I was excited about getting the chance to do research for a living. But a few years into my PhD, I’m now experiencing a bit of an existential crisis. And I think it is about time I ‘fess up to it.
Confession number one: Working on my PhD bores me sometimes. And with ‘bore’, I mean: I want to throw my computer out the window, poor acid on it and set it on fire. Really. I have days where working on my PhD gets me so incredibly frustrated. These moments happen especially when I get back the second round of reviews on a paper, and realize I have to once again rewrite that same piece of text that I have been writing, rewriting, scrapping, and fine-tuning for over two years now. I mean, this stuff gets old, man. Literally. I feel like a cow that’s been chewing on the same piece of grass for so long that it has turned into this unidentifiable green mush that nobody –including myself- is really interested in anymore. Now of course I know the value of the peer review process, and of course I know it all helps to improve my work. But sometimes I just miss those days where I could hand in my work, be done with it and move on to something else.
Maybe my disinterest in rehashing old work also explains a bit of confession number two: I must seriously be the least productive, laziest PhD student ever. Most days, I go home not really knowing what it is that I actually achieved that day. In fact, most days I’m pretty confident that I didn’t really achieve much at all and that my PhD is not one bit closer to actually getting finished. Now to give you an idea of exactly how unproductive I have been in the first two years of my PhD: I have managed to write a staggering amount of 39 pages. To be clear, that is an average of 0,05 pages or 21 words per day. 21 words! I mean, that’s about a sentence and a half! And almost 25 percent of every sentence consists of references! What on earth have I been up to in those two years?! I see other PhDs writing and writing and writing and I just don’t get it. How do they do that? How do they work at home without being tempted to do laundry and mop floors all day? Because that’s all that I seem to be doing sometimes: procrastinate by doing work around the house. My house could win a price for being the cleanest house on the block. And not because I like cleaning so much, trust me.
That brings me to confession number three: some days, I’m convinced that I’m just too dumb for this line of work. More often than I’d like to admit, when I go to conferences or research meetings and people explain their research to me, I have absolutely no clue what they are talking about. I’m not a very conceptual person, theories are not my forte and I don’t do well with highly abstract stuff. Most of that just makes my brain hurt. I can fiddle a bit with numbers and play around with statistics, and I don’t think my writing is all that bad, but I am just not some über-intelligent philosophical thinker who reads all the original classics of the Social Sciences and comes up with these amazing innovative studies that will change the field forever. I simply happen to know a couple tricks when it comes to writing and doing research, and those tricks seem to help me produce something that has the appearance of being somewhat academic-y.
Now there are some people that believe that I am good at this whole academic thing. But let me tell you something: That’s just what these people want to believe about me. I’ve really just been lucky so far. I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities and good help during my PhD, and that’s why I am where I am now. Because I’ve made other people think I am know what I’m doing. But on most days, I feel like I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Doing a PhD is a struggle for me and there are days that I just don’t think I’m cut out for it. I’m just a good talker and the people that matter in my academic career seem to like me. Or maybe they just take pity on me. Either way, I’m pretty sure they’re just biased and don’t see that I’ve already reached my intellectual limits about two or three years ago and now I’m just sort of waiting for them to find out the truth about me.
To show you just how dumb it gets with me sometimes, here is confession number four: I watch America’s Next Top Model. And I like it. I really do. I don’t go home after a day’s work and read more books; I don’t take language courses, or study U.S. politics. I watch America’s Next Top Model. Oh, and Grey’s Anatomy, and all that other stuff. I’m an American TV-series addict. Because watching these kinds of TV-series is the most unintelligent, brainless thing I can think of after a long day of working on my PhD and that’s why I absolutely love it. It’s like the off-switch to my PhD. The only bad thing about it is that I always feel incredibly guilty afterwards. After all, I could have used that time to read that book that’s been lying on my desk for months or finish that chapter that’s been gathering virtual dust on my computer.
With all that in mind, confession number five should come as no surprise: Knowing what I know now, I would never, ever have done a PhD. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I regret doing a PhD. I’m actually really glad that I’m am and proud to see how far I’ve come –even if that never seems to be as far as my schedule tells me I should be by now. I just think that if I had to do this PhD thing all over again I wouldn’t have been insane or brave enough to think that I could actually handle it. In fact, if I’d had some notion of what it would really be like to do a PhD, I probably would have turned and ran away as fast as I could. I would have run off and chosen to go work at McDonalds serving pink slime over this. And to be honest, on some days, that still sounds like a pretty good alternative. Because what rational person would ever chose a job that puts you on such an emotional rollercoaster ride with such intense moments of self-inflicted and self-perpetuated insecurity and frustration? A job where in some weeks your best achievement is actually the deletion of a paragraph in your chapter? And where feeling completely inadequate, irrelevant, and inferior for weeks on end is something that just comes with the territory? So, yeah, I guess it’s a good thing that I didn’t really understand the whole PhD process before I started.
Still, reality is that I did chose to do a PhD and now that I am, there is one thing that helps me get my spirits up and keeps me on track –even on my worst days. And that is confession number six: I fantasize about my promotion ceremony. Even though it is completely inappropriate to already be thinking about it at this stage, it’s sort of fun and strangely motivating to let my thoughts run wild on this while I ride my bike to work. I fantasize about the party, the dinner. About the location and my outfit. I fantasize about the gigantic amounts of ‘bitterballen’ that I will have at my reception. Maybe even a bitterballen-fountain! But what I probably fantasize about most is the song that I want to have played as I walk back from the stage to the reception room, right after I’ve officially received my PhD. Obviously, it will have to be something appropriate and fitting for the occasion. But in my ceremony-fantasy, I’m thinking of something, well…a little different. I don’t care much for clichés like Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” or some anonymous classical hymn. No, to make my academic statement to the world I’m thinking more along the lines of something incredibly cheesy like ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” or R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. Or maybe a Dutch classic, like Doe Maar’s infamous “Is Dit Alles”? Perhaps some 50 Cents’ “P.I.M.P.” or Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface”? Trust me, just about every song I hear on the radio or on my headphones is currently being screened for possible-PhD-ceremony-closing-suitability.
So there you have it. Six things that I felt I needed to confess. Now secretly, I hope I’m not the only weirdo out here who’s struggling with her PhD and all that comes with it. But maybe it is just me. Actually, it probably is. Because when I look at the works of other PhD students I’m certain that you actually are in fact hard-working, capable, intelligent and normal people that do have all the makings of a good academic. I’m probably just that outlier who feels a bit out of place sometimes and doesn’t really know if all of this is meant for her.
Either way, there’s one last confession that I have to make. It’s one that I hope you do share with me. So here goes, confession number seven: In spite of all the insecurities and the worries and the guilt that I have sometimes, I actually kind of like this job. Because the truth is, most days l have a lot of fun hanging out with my colleagues, coming up with new ideas, and preparing my lectures. And let’s be honest: what other job let’s you stay home to work on the couch in your pajamas when you don’t feel like going out? Or let’s you read books all day in the name of ‘work’? Where do you get to have the most unproductive moments and still have everyone say “oh, don’t worry about it, it is all part of the process”? And what other job let’s you spend all day chatting with people and even fly across the world for the sole purpose of generating ideas, socializing and building your network? Let’s face it: Doing a PhD may have some downsides but it sure has its perks too…
Picture credit: creative commons/ wikipedia