Okay, I’ve refrained from posting much about my ongoing research-related struggles on this blog, despite the size and quantity of the struggles that I have encountered over the last two-and-a-half years. However, following my mission statement from the beginning of one of my recent posts, I’m going to correct this in the hope that either airing those struggles with the internet at large will give me a chance of vent some of the frustration and clear my head, that someone reading this blog may be able to give kind words (or better, solutions) to reinforce my sanity in the remaining six- to twelve-months of research, or that others in similar situations may be able to better understand the steps I’ve taken to solve my problems and may find some solace that they are not alone.
For a long time, I’ve had problems with stress and anxiety that apparently developed during my final years of my undergraduate degree and have been around ever since. I don’t really know what caused this change, but it’s likely that the continuing stresses of increasingly large workloads, rigorous examination schedules and ever-increasing expectations started a chain of anxiety over my intelligence, skills and abilities that I now regularly feel in all aspects of life. I must be mental, then, to accept the offer of studying for a PhD; and you’d be right, although it not for the same reasons you might expect. I signed on to the PhD process expecting hard work and close cooperation with my supervisors – essentially visions of both my supervisors riding on my back, whipping me left, right and centre into hard work. The reality is quite the opposite – relaxed supervisors who continually say reassuring things like “you’re doing fine,” and certainly no signs of the intensive slave-labour I’d come to expect. Which all sounds dandy, except for the aforementioned ‘performance anxiety’ that I feel about the work I produce and the progress I make.
Despite being two-and-a-half years down the line, I don’t really feel like I’ve gotten anywhere. Sure, time has passed and work’s been done, but in terms of how much of that has been useful and how far I’ve actually moved from where I started to where I am now, it’s disappointingly short – heck, I’m still not sure what the problem is I’m supposed to be solving. Some say that this is the same for all PhDs and I find some satisfaction in that, but that doesn’t stop you thinking that you could have spent that time so much better if you’d done things a different way; worked harder; been ‘cleverer’. Which is where the stress and anxiety comes in; forever making you second-guess your own work, tricking you into thinking that if anyone else had been given the same opportunities and tools, they’d have not only solved the problem you set out to achieve, but others as well and be well on the way to a fine career. It’s not like I’ve been slacking, and if you count the number of hours I’ve spent in the office since I started then I’d be no lower than average, but all my brain feels like doing is blaming myself .
The nature of research in tackling the ‘unknown’ means that, when the PhD proposal is written and the problem statement defined, this is being done after only a short amount of research into the subject – so the end result, the potential problems and the feasible timescale may not be accurate, or even present. In my case, my research was initiated by dual curiosity in two departments on the same problem, but both factions knowing essentially ‘zero’ about whether the problem could be solved, how, or indeed any of the finer details. When you’re coming into your first week of research with about the same level of knowledge about the problem as your academic supervisors, that can be a big challenge, and it only propagates through your study: A case of “the blind leading the blind”. For any undergraduate who’s used to rigorous testing/examination/coursework that has definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers (I’m an engineer, and so used to definitive solutions to assessed work), stepping into the world of research where there is no ‘right’ way to go is difficult; particularly if you suffer from similar issues to myself, where constant re-assurance that you’re doing things right is necessary to keep me from stressing the fuck out. More and more over the last six to twelve months, I’ve found it harder to engage with my work – Having to step forward on my own and make decisions about the directions to take or methods to use is immensely stressful, perhaps because I still feel like I’m handling the whole project with kid-gloves. Making the step up to assuring yourself of what you’re doing rather than assurance from others is a tricky business, and one I’ve not yet mastered.
Thus ends my first foray into this adventure of sharing my thoughts, anxieties and faults with the world at large. It’s by no means the last word on this subject, since I’m already working on the follow-up to this. Hopefully it’ll chronicle my problems and offer some sort of solace when this adventure is all over and I can look back on my time here with a tear-filled eye. Who knows. Anyway, I’ve taken up enough of your time, so I will bid farewell. Godspeed.