Since the moment I began my PhD I feel as though I have been on a constant cycle of panic-reset-repeat. The first time it happened about a week into my studies, I said to myself, self I said:
You’re just starting this PhD thing. It’s natural you’re going to feel a bit anxious. You don’t know what everything is yet, where it is, or how to do it.
In fact I have a vivid memory of being in my own head during my very first supervision. I remember at some point, my supervisor (who is awesome by the way and probably the best possible person I could have supporting me through this madness of PhDing), he was talking. And then I noticed he was talking. And then I noticed I had no fucking idea what he was saying. I could hear the words. They were definitely English but it was like my brain had no way of processing them. I sat there panicked for about three minutes hoping to the mighty gods of fakery that he would not ask me to respond to anything he was now talking about. Somewhere I began to understand everything again and all was well. To this day, I think I’ve managed to hide the fact from him that I’m pretty much clueless about EVERYTHING.
So after the first few months, I figured everything would settle down and I’d find a rhythm of working and living that worked for me. I’m here to tell you that two years and three months into this journey, I have yet to figure out what that rhythm is.
I’ve come to the conclusion that PhDs are fickle, fluid, and impossible to predict. Just when I think I’ve got my feet underneath me something else comes along to knock me off course. I’ve tried working from home, working in libraries, working in cafes, working in parks. I’ve tried Gantt Charts, schedules, pomodoro timers, planning. It all ends up crumbling; sometimes even before the ink has dried in my planner. One thing has been constant: panic-reset-repeat.
This is typically what the panic is like in my head:
OH MY GOD I CAN’T DO THIS. NO ONE IN THEIR RIGHT MIND CAN POSSIBLY WRITE 80,000 WORDS. I ONLY HAVE NINE MORE MONTHS TO DO THIS PLUS ALL THE OTHER THINGS I HAVE TO DO. I HAVE TO WRITE THAT CONFERENCE PAPER AND THAT BOOK CHAPTER AND THEN THERE’S THINKING ABOUT POST-DOCS. AND WHAT WILL I DO AFTER THIS IS OVER. IF IT EVER ENDS. ALSO STUDENT LOANS! HOW AM I EVER GOING TO PAY THEM OFF? THIS SUCKS. AND CHRIST I HAVEN’T BEEN TO THE GYM IN AGES. I REALLY NEED TO MAKE SURE I’M TAKING CARE OF MYSELF WHILE I’M DOING THIS. AND I NEED TO MAKE SURE I TAKE TIME AND SEE THINGS AND I NEED TO BE SOCIAL AND CREATIVE AND ALSO THERE’S THE FACT THAT THE WORLD IS KIND OF MESSED UP RIGHT NOW. OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD!
So after this goes on for what feels like a million years, I get to the reset stage of the cycle.
After a wobbly panic about how I’m not in control of my work schedule or that I haven’t met my self-imposed deadlines and expectations I sit down and like Sisyphus I begin to draw up a new plan.
“This one will be better!” I gibber to myself. I pull at my hair until it looks vaguely Einstein-esque (or is it Dr. Frankenstein-esque?). “I know what I did wrong before. Before it was not perfect. This time…this time it will be different!”
::insert flash of lightning and crack of thunder::
I spend all morning carefully crafting my new work schedule. I make adjustments.
“No more delaying tactics!” I cackle to myself, “I won’t allow missed deadlines. No not this time!”
Sometimes I laugh maniacally.
Deep into the evening I work on my perfect plan until it is done. It is beautiful. Colour-coded. Precise penmanship. Artful. People centuries from now will see it in museums dedicated to brilliant, perfect plans.
I hear my phone chirp. I have an email.
I have another paper I need to write and it’s due in a week.