PhD: Periodic Human Derangement


Hello world. Yes, I’ve been absent – and for some time. I’ve been deferring this post for a while, though in fact I’ve been piecing it together intermittently over several weeks. I think that reflects the irregularity and general tumultuousness of my life over the past month and a half of the New Year, during the course of which I have repeatedly asked myself whether I might be ‘crazy’. Everyone has their own special brand of crazy, right? It’s the human condition, I’ve come to learn. There is not really any such thing as ‘sanity’. But there’s crazy and then there’s PhD crazy. Ultimately, I think you have to be crazy to do a PhD; or, if not, then the PhD will make you crazy. Of course, the two things combined are mutually conducive to more crazy. There is a serious point to all of this. Lately I’ve had a series of revelations, and they have opened my eyes to the kind of person that I’ve become since starting my PhD 16 months ago.

The PhD can be a lonely and intimidating experience; it’s not for the faint-hearted, this much we all know when we sign up. It takes hard work, and guts (real iron-encased guts) to stay focused and positive through the long periods of solitude and the many challenges to our credibility and worth as scholars. We have to face off against these things while, at the same time, trying to spin several plates, ultimately knowing that the extra plates help to drive us and keep our work fresh, but also knowing that they are the essential building blocks in our careers. Again, I’m hardly saying anything new here, and it sounds a lot like the start of an invective against the PhD, but actually it’s not. If anything, it’s more like the opening of a (potentially unanswerable) question about the conundrums posed by the PhD.

In recent months, I have felt confused and unsettled by some of the emotions that the PhD has thrown up. I feel compelled to say that I am in a (pretty) good place as I write this, but that wasn’t the case about a month ago. In every job, people have to take the rough with the smooth, and there’s no denying that there are a lot of people out there who experience more of the rough than the smooth, but that shouldn’t be the case for a PhD, surely? I mean, in spite of all of the above, this kind of career involves choice, and it relies on a motivating passion. I get to do what I LOVE; I get to exercise my passion and employ my creative energies in ways that to some are unimaginable and unachievable. My expertise was laid to waste in my last job, and the PhD offered an opportunity to change that, so you can imagine my surprise when Julian told me that he thought I was a ‘happier person’ in my last job.

Though I knew him to be right, it seemed to me the most incredible thing. How could I possibly have been ‘happier’? How could I not be happy now? Everyone’s experience of the PhD is different, but, by and large, I’ve not met a single person that has been through (or is presently going through) the experience who could tell me that they have not had moments of complete desperation. Even in those moments of wild and sustained productivity, when things seem to be ‘coming together’, I think that many of us would still find it difficult to characterise ourselves as abundantly happy. And yet, we’re stuck in a catch-22 situation, as I’m pretty sure that happiness makes you work better and more productively. A lack of happiness translates to a productivity ‘leach’.

So, inevitably, we try to bring happiness into our lives, ensuring that we enjoy equal measures of fun and rest to balance out the demands of work. But how do we sustain that happiness through our work? How do we continue to feel positive after the buzz created by that breakthrough passes? How do we pull ourselves out from that giant pit that seems to get deeper each time we attempt to climb it?

The solutions that we find are likely to be personal ones, but I think that we can all benefit from the maintenance of active communities that promote opportunities for fruitful and regular exchange. As I type this, I’m thinking about how I might go about setting up a network for such exchange to take place *exciting brainwaves catapulting Nicole to new levels of happiness*, but I appreciate any thoughts and comments from happy people, or from those striving to achieve happiness in their daily working lives.

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