I have a confession to make.
Earlier this year I really, really wanted to drop out.
There. I said it.
I get the impression that amongst PhD students it’s perfectly acceptable to broadcast how tired/busy/stressed you are on a regular if not daily basis. But when it comes to the crunch – do you actually want to do it anymore – that tends to not be spoken about. There seems to be some sort of taboo and stigma around it. That it’s ok to express the day to day stresses, but to actually admit that you might have made the wrong decision, or you think you can’t do a PhD – that seems to rarely be discussed. And surely that is when we most need to be honest with our colleagues and gain some support?
If we rewound to six months ago, you would have found me having quite a significant wobble. A change of heart. A reassessment of priorities and commitments. Call it what you will. But I was f-r-e-a-king out. Halfway through the first year of my PhD and I was having doubts, questioning whether I had been right to take on the three-year marathon that is a doctorate, and whether I was even capable of it. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Should I suspend? Drop out? Not good.
What got me to this place? I had spent the first half of my first year slogging away on a systematic review. I had initially been excited and enthused by it, but day after day, week after week and month after month of working on the.same.damn.thing – I was quite simply bored. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing and I wasn’t excited when I woke up in the morning.
This was (and is) never my intention with a PhD. Yes I understood that there would be stressful moments, times when I wanted to pull my hair out and times that I would doubt myself, but I had never, ever signed up for being unhappy as a result of my studies. And I was feeling very unhappy.
I shared this with a good friend, I started thinking of back up plans and I didn’t let on to my supervisors how I was feeling. One of the main reasons I wanted to continue was because I didn’t want to let my supervisor down after her amazing help with securing funding in the first place. I was in a bit of a pickle.
But now, things are better. I feel excited about my research again. I look forward to coming into work and I am really positive that taking on a PhD was the right decision for me.
So what changed?
As I say, I had been working away on the.same.damn.thing for months, and I was feeling rather fed up. I was telling myself to keep coming into work, to keep working long days and to just get the.same.damn.thing done as soon as possible. Then I wouldn’t be bored anymore. It would be done and out of my life. But things had gotten past that point. I just didn’t have the energy or the motivation to get on with it.
So I did something that went against all of my instincts.
I took the pressure off. I decided to spend less time working.
When my brain was telling me ‘work six days a week, twelve hours a day and GET IT DONE’. I decided to do the opposite. I decided to commit only three days a week, short ones too, to completing the.same.damn.thing. And I refocused. I wrote a list of things that I would enjoy doing, and I looked out for opportunities away from the direct focus of my PhD. I wanted some fun. Little did I know in doing this, by taking the pressure off, by opening things up and doing fun things, I would discover my motivation and my passion for research again.
The things I did weren’t completely frivolous (well, not all of them anyway…). I took a day off to go to a local sixth form college to help at their PSHE day, presenting in a session on Equality and Diversity about ‘Growing Up Gay’. I came away feeling like I had done something really worthwhile, and with a total of five sessions I had spent the entire day presenting – something I love to do. I also visited a college to present about ‘Life as a PhD student’ – although I was talking about my current PhD, I also reflected on how I had gotten to this point and where I wanted to go in the future – a useful activity. It was great to meet enthusiastic young adults and again to practice my presentation skills.
I then had the opportunity to spend a weekend volunteering in the Calais Refugee camp. I desperately wanted to go but I was thinking about all the time it might take up. Organising it, raising money, holding stalls for donations, getting a car ready to cross the channel and packing up donations. And that’s before we’d even got on the ferry.
But I did it all, and I went. The organisation took far more time than I would care to admit to my supervisors, and for a couple of weeks my mind was focussed on nothing but raising money and as many donations of aid as would fit in my little car. The time spent travelling and volunteering totalled four days (not to mention the time recovering once we got back).
I took myself ‘out of my PhD’ at a time when I really ‘should’ have been ‘in it’ getting the.same.damn.thing done!
But it was perfect. It was exactly what I needed. Whilst in the camp I was witness to the incredible strength of the human spirit. I saw community within the camp, I saw community within the charity volunteers. I saw kindness and generosity. But most importantly, I saw resilience. I saw people coping with an awful situation in the most admirable of ways. That was my reason for doing the research I do. And that was all the spark I needed to rekindle my enthusiasm for my study. I came home exhausted, emotionally and physically drained, but excited to do what I needed to do. To make a difference, to have impact. To study a topic I am so passionate about. It was a major turn around and I never went to Calais expecting to experience what I did. For that I am incredibly grateful.
So what did I learn? What would my advice to anyone else feeling like they are bored, or lacking motivation be?
I would say, take time to fill up on the fun stuff. Don’t battle with yourself. A time comes when you just know that you need to do something different. You can’t keep looking in the same places for inspiration and hoping it will come. Sometimes you’ve got to get out there and find it for yourself. And that might be in the most unlikely of places.
In the future, if I find myself feeling stressed or unmotivated, I will most certainly be taking the pressure off. Spending more time away from whatever is stressing me out, knowing that I will return to it, in good time, feeling refreshed and enthused. It will be difficult, I know, to ignore the well-worn pattern of putting the pressure on rather than taking it off. And it will probably take me a little while to remember that filling up on the fun stuff is important, that it will make me feel better. No matter what that little voice in my head tells me about getting behind or wasting time.
Time spent resting, recharging, seeking inspiration and rediscovering your calling – does that sound like wasted time? I think not.
Until next time 🙂