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Beginning to see daylight – emerging from a dark place

The past three months have been the most difficult of my doctoral journey so far. I did start to write a blog post a few weeks back, but was not really able to express what I wanted or needed to say. I am now in a better place and able to reflect on the experience and look ahead.

In the draft post written at the end of January/beginning of February, I said:

I’ve been pondering whether or not to blog the ups and downs of the last few weeks and have decided that now is as good a time as any to do so. If I had been writing just before Christmas, what I would have written would have been very different. I was at a very low point and seriously questioning whether it was worth continuing with my DPhil. I have turned a corner, but am still feeling very fragile and doubting whether I can actually complete the journey, but I am able to look at things more rationally.

Anybody following this blog would know that up until the end of November, I was in a good place with my work. I felt that I knew what I was trying to do and I was doing it. I had set myself some fairly demanding writing targets and was achieving them. I had restructured the way I was presenting my work in a way that made sense to me and I was generally pretty happy with the way things were progressing. So what went wrong? And why is it coming together now?

What went wrong?

Around the end of November, beginning of December, three things happened, each of which contributed to me becoming very depressed about my work – and very angry that I might not be able to do what I had set out to do.

Firstly, my supervisors cast doubts on the way I had re-organised my work. I was not following a conventional thesis format and this was likely to cause problems when it came to the thesis being examined. I considered I had strong reasons for wanting to structure my work in the way I was doing and that my theoretical stance was not understood. I had a sense of being required to write something that was not going to be ‘my thesis’ in order to comply with convention, whether or not convention made sense in the context of what I wanted to say.

Secondly, I got ill. OK, it was only flu-like cold, but as I am asthmatic, it went to my chest and I spent a couple of weeks feeling really grotty and took about a month to begin to feel well again. Truth is, I was probably mildly depressed as a result of being definitely under the weather and feeling totally stressed out about my thesis.

Thirdly, I got comments on the writing I had been doing during the previous weeks. Although I could see the rationale behind some of the comments, others I felt much less happy about as they were encouraging me to put more weight on some parts of my work than others in a way that made no sense to me.

What happened to resolve the dilemma and put me back on track?

Firstly, I realised that I was not powerless but had choices. I could choose to walk away completely, or to present my work other than in a thesis. I have learned a great deal over the past three and a half years and I could choose whether to complete my planned journey or head off in a different direction.

Secondly, I had supportive friends. Not friends that tried to comfort me, but friends who listened to my tale of woe, accepted my account and gave me space to be angry, frustrated and depressed, only offering advice once I was in a place to hear. Those folk know who they are, but they are found in #phdchat on Twitter and amongst colleagues at University of Sussex.

Thirdly, although my supervisors were not happy with what I wanted to do, they had confidence that I could complete my DPhil and one in particular took the time to explore why things had gone so radically wrong. This gave me a sense of being understood and provided a platform for negotiation and agreement on a way forward based on an honest appraisal of the potential risks.

What are the outcomes of this process?

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the past three months is a very real sense that I own my work. I owned it back in November, but now I simultaneously have both more invested in it and less. That may seem odd, but I have accepted that what I am doing does not follow conventions and that may not meet the approval of examiners. That is OK and my decision and if it means I do not get to wear a floppy hat at the end of the process, that is fine. At the same time, I do believe in what I am doing, and do regard not only the content but the approach I have taken as valuable. If it is not valued by formal academic measures, that does not make it less worthwhile, but it places more responsibility on me to find ways of disseminating my work.

Secondly, there is a change in my relationship with my supervisors. From my perspective, there is a new honesty in our exchanges, perhaps because we have locked horns, and found a way forward. When I get to the end of the journey, I will be interested on getting their thoughts on this perception.

Thirdly, I think my writing is improving. I am more self-critical, in a positive sense, and more aware of the need to ensure the rationale for my approach and argument is transparent, even if it sometimes means labouring the point. Because my approach has been challenged, I have read more, understood more and am more confident.

Where now?

Get the thesis written!

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4 Comments

  1. ailsa says:

    Great post Liz, inspiring 🙂
    One day I’d love to see it, to see the different structures people elect to use and the rationale for this. I like pussycats too much to suggest the proverbial many ways, but i do believe the data for a thesis lends itself to a multitude of approaches, and that a thesis, read story writing, need not always have the same plot. Nice to see where you are in this process.

  2. Emma says:

    I loved reading this blog Liz. You have demonstrated what an emotional rollercoaster doing a PhD is in more ways than one. Most importantly, you have also showed your strength and committment in getting through what was obviously an incredible difficult time. Full of admiration…. and I can’t wait to see the photo of you in your floppy hat!

  3. Great post Liz. As tough as those moments are, they seem to be a necessary evil. It’s great that you have taken the time to reflect as you go – it must make your leaning process all the more valuable. Best of luck finishing – no turning back now!

  4. Sarah R-H says:

    I’m so happy for you that you are now coming out of the tunnel. Your post is quite circumspect, this is only something you could have written once you’re on the road back to being ok. You bravely reveal a vulnerability, and examine it from the angle of the stronger you that you have become, at least in part due to what you’ve just been through. Many don’t make it through these episodes of PhD Blues, and it’s wonderful to be able to read a survivor’s account :o) Gives me heart that others can follow suit!

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