At 2.24pm on 6th June 2016, after a morning filled with panic, I plonked myself down at my kitchen table and wrote this:
I’ve got PhD Fear. I’ve had it for three days now, and there’s no sign it’s toddling off to find someone else to haunt. It’s always there, like a software programme quietly running in the background of my mind. A strange combination of lively moments of panic and levelling moments of stillness, I find myself overcome with the thought of completing a PhD. A PhD which I love, by the way.
I wonder how I got here.
Since 2015, I have written 8 journal articles, numerous guest blogs and media pieces, and presented at 7 conferences. I run my own blog which, through a public vote, was shortlisted in the UK Blog Awards. I got a mention in The Guardian. In July/August I’m delivering 3 international conferences papers. And I’ve got a guest blog, a magazine feature and 4 journal articles in the pipeline. Oh – almost forgot – I’m giving my first keynote at the end of the year.
I don’t say this to show off or make anyone who might one day read this feel inadequate. I’m saying it out aloud to prove to myself that I have a track record in managing my time, alongside teaching, admin and other projects, and producing pretty good stuff.
It’s not like I haven’t started the PhD. I’ve been immersed in it. I’m doing a Professional Doctorate, an enquiry-based project exploring my role as a senior lecturer in law. I draw on my lived experience and place my personal narrative at the forefront of my research. In short, I write about myself. Confessional tales, of which this is one, help me to figure out what I do, how I live, and invite readers to feel, think and respond.
Maybe it’s the size. Metaphors like ‘insurmountable mountain’ get used a lot in PhD student circles, as do comparisons to dragons. Perhaps I need to stop thinking of my PhD as Everest and start comparing it to my guinea pig Valentino. He’s quite small, in the grand scheme of things. And he doesn’t breathe fire (as far as I’m aware).
Maybe it’s that I’m terrified brain and fingers won’t work together to spill the good stuff into the thesis. I construct flowing sentences that sound really impressive in the cocoon of my brain, but, well, a bit rubbish when I try to let it out on the page. Perhaps letting it out is the only thing I can do right now. And later, when I can see it all there in front of me, I can polish it up.
Maybe it’s the time. I don’t have long. I’m almost in year two of a three year programme. The clock is ticking and before we know it December will be here. What will I have done by then? Something? Something that makes sense? Something that has rigour? Something that is good enough? Even while I’m writing this, I’m half whispering to myself ‘you could be reading… you could be drafting that conference paper…’ Perhaps something is good enough and I need to trust myself to keep chipping away at it bit by bit.
Maybe it’s the balance with family life. There’s a part of me which dreams of chucking it all in. I’m jealous of friends who do the 9-5 and spend evenings with their children. I worry that my sitting at the computer during ‘downtime’ will eradicate personal relationships, that the PhD will always be the priority. Perhaps I need to give myself time limits and book holidays in advance away from PhD-land.
Maybe it’s all of those things together. Panic and stillness. Dreams and reality. But what’s important is to face the fear. Stare it in the eye. Show it you know it’s there. Write a blog post about it. And then calmly ask it to move on.
Since I wrote this, time moved on. I moved on. I delivered those three international conference papers. I wrote those journal articles. And then I had a period of sick leave due to a really nasty bout of depression and anxiety.
For almost four months, I didn’t touch my PhD. My numerous lever arch files were banished to the back bedroom, underneath the spare bed (you know, the place you put things you want to forget). But I sought help, looked after myself, and eventually went back to work. And I slowly picked up the PhD. And I slowly started to write.
Reader, I’m due to submit in March 2019.
I think this is the point where I’m meant to say “see, there’s light at the end of the tunnel”. Or, “and now I face every day with confidence – no more PhD fear for me!”. But that’s not how it works. I still have days when I have absolutely no idea why I am bothering. And moments of utter devastation, where I convince myself I’ve written a whole load of garbage.
Sometimes when we go through a difficult period, we’re expected to adhere to a narrative that says the bad times are behind us. Onwards and upward, not peaks and troughs. But peaks and troughs are part of life, and they’re certainly part of the PhD ‘journey’. And they’re okay. And they will pass. And they might even come back again. And they’ll move on.
Author Bio: Elaine Campbell is an Associate Professor at Northumbria Law School, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.