The valley of deep (COVID) shit


In my last #pandemicpost I asked – should you quit (go part time or pause) your PhD in this global pandemic? One month later, not to put too fine a point on it: the world is in pretty deep shit. Everyday life has not got back to anything resembling ‘normal’. There’s a dawning realisation that we may be living this way for months, or even years. The conversation in my academic circles has moved from the great online teaching pivot, to the messy realities of teaching from our homes, to speculation about the scale and extent of job losses already suffered – and those still to come.

Just listening to the news in the morning feels like an emotional rollercoaster, fuelling more fear and doubt. This atmosphere can make it hard to get on with the complex, interrelated tasks necessary to completing a research project.  Blogger Racheal Cayley wrote beautifully about the difficulties of doing writing work in this time, but we also know intellectual work can be a solace in times of stress. Unfortunately, like many PhD students and academics, I’m finding it hard to just, well… get on with it. Specifically, it’s difficult to achieve a state of ‘flow’: the state of mind where you are so engaged with your work that you don’t notice the passing of time. Flow is a lovely mental retreat from the pressures of the world. If you have decided that you will continue your PhD for now, finding a way towards flow can be good for your mental health as well as your project.

So how do you get your head back in the research game? How do we find our flow in a Covid infected world?

In her amazing book The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley talks about how humans react to disaster situations. In a series of stories about hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis, Ripley details our physiological reactions to immediate danger and the effects of extreme stress on the body, particularly how we make decisions in a crisis.

One of the first reactions to an extreme situation, like a terrorist attack or a car crash, is denial: this can manifest as delayed reactions. People easily fall into a ‘this can’t be happening’ thinking process, which leads to a ‘normalcy bias’: carrying on with normal behaviour that is now stupidly dangerous. People spending up to 40 minutes gathering their belongings from their desk and turning off their computer while the world trade centre collapsed  around them is a good example; people gathering in huge numbers on Bondi Beach the weekend after the government told us to stay at home is another. In fact, my friend Mathan, who suggested I read Ripley’s book, pointed out that the ‘selfish and stupid’ accusations around people going to the beach are a good example of how we misunderstand the power of denial in the face of disaster. People going to the beach is normal, just not normal in a crisis. Many of those people were incapable of reacting to the changed world at that moment – they needed more time to adjust. Given time, people do adjust – the beaches have been deserted for weeks now – but some are slower than others.

When we see normal behaviour and label it stupid and dangerous – we are seeing denial in action. This insight helps us put a certain US politician’s actions in perspective: he’s just being his normal self, but in the context of a global disaster,  it looks even crazier than usual. However,  continuing ‘normal now dangerous’ behaviour is only one reaction to denial, according to Ripley. Denial can also make us freeze in place, unable to see or hear properly and certainly unable to plan ahead or react appropriately. Denial accounts for many a political stuff up in rolling out Covid related restrictions and testing, which has landed some countries in deeper shit than others (Australia and NZ are faring very well at the moment, partly because we got to watch the effects of denial on other countries and took drastic action just in time).

So – in a crisis, trying to work ‘normally’, in essence, is a way of staying in denial. The physiological reaction to stress can affect our brains, so planning too far ahead might be dangerous and result in bad decisions. Work must look and feel different somehow. The first step towards a new kind of work is to accept the denial and work on achieving flow at a basic level. To start doing this, let’s look at the next stage of Ripley’s disaster script: deliberation.

Deliberation is where you start to try and make sense of what is happening around you and work out how to react appropriately. Ripley points out that we can still make very bad decisions when in the deliberation stage. Some of her tales of succumbing to ‘group think’ are frankly scary. In the context of academia, I think the most unhelpful reaction is to stay too long with fear of what will happen and grief about what has been lost. Fear and grief can lead to total PhD paralysis where you can’t work at all. Combatting PhD paralysis is relatively easy if you know how – and being able to snap yourself out of this frozen state is a critical professional skill, even when there is no pandemic.

First you need to understand what is happening when you freeze and find yourself unable to work. PhD students – and fully fledged academics for that matter – are particularly prone to getting The Yips (a sudden loss ability to do something you are usually good at) because we are over-thinkers at the best of times. We need to cut ourselves some slack about this tendency. Many of us are functional perfectionists who work in a highly competitive (and highly critical) industry. Let’s add to that precarious working conditions (with an unhealthy dependency on hope labour) and it really makes you wonder how any creative work gets done at all. Good on us for the massive amount we do despite these factors, but it does help explain why one of the most beloved posts on the Thesis Whisperer is The Valley of Shit. In that post I described the ‘academically stuck’ state of mind like this:

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective – and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

The advice I offered in that original post applies just as much to working on a research project in a pandemic: just keep walking. By ‘walking’ I mean just keep doing stuff that moves your project along, even if it seems pointless, or you worry that you’ll have to throw it out later.

Valleys – even Valleys of Deep Shit – are not pits, but they can feel like it if you don’t move. The longer you stand in one place, the longer you have to keep smelling those towering walls of brown stuff around you. Start with some work – any work – and build from there. Pick the thing you like doing the most if you can. If you can’t, then just do something else that’s vaguely useful: organise your filing system; bring your reference manager up to date; tidy your desk; tag images; process data; make tables and diagrams. Social tasks also help: read a book and commune with the author; ring up a friend, chat about your findings and what you reckon they mean (your friend might be grateful Covid is off the conversational menu!)

Here’s the vitally important thing: whatever work you end up doing, take the pressure of yourself for it to be good or even ‘useful’. No one is really watching, so who cares if what you write is bad? So what if you have to throw out a wrong data analysis? If your research work is not affecting  other vital life stuff, like feeding your family, putting a roof over your head or being there for the people you love, it does not really matter. Keeping on with the Walking is the only way we get to the other side.

But remember: work cannot be ‘normal’. That’s denial thinking. So here’s my hot take: to get into a flow state, make your work more pleasurable. What you need, as Joli Jensen pointed out in  Write no matter what!is frequent, low stakes interaction with your work, which will make it feel like a safer space. One way to do this is indulge your curiosity – only read stuff that’s genuinely interesting, not because it’s ‘good for the project’. Deliberately do ‘unproductive’ things – even if they are really deferment strategies. A classic one is editing your writing before you finish a rough draft – which I normally try to stop people doing, but if it brings you joy right now, have at it!

And please – clear the space of people who are not helping you be chill with your flow (as Thesis Whisperer Jnr would say). If you have a supervisor who is basically ignoring you, don’t take it too much to heart –  use it as license to do whatever you want. If you’ve got a supervisor who is putting pressure on you to ‘do something useful while you are sitting around the house’, tell them you are doing ‘productive’ stuff and tell them to leave you alone while you’re at it. Personally, I’m spending all of Monday writing this blog post; ignoring my email and ‘to do list’. It feels naughty – and you know what? The elusive flow state has been here for hours and hours. I feel better than I have all month. Give yourself permission to go rogue for awhile. It’s fun.

Bearing in mind my advice last week, if you have decided to carry on for now, then stop worrying too much about whether your PhD matters any more in the context of your career. You may never get a job in your field – I don’t know – but if it’s not harming you to do the work for now, then just keep doing it. You might surprise yourself. By taking the pressure off you might end up doing excellent work, but it really doesn’t matter if it’s not. For now: just Walk, ok?

In solidarity