Tightrope walking

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I don’t know if other students feel like this at any point in their PhD journey. For me, this sensation has come during the “home stretch”. In other words – at the worst possible time.

It is not uncommon for graduate students to feel down or discouraged at some points of their degree. Everyone knows the PhD road is long and replete with intellectual challenges, time-stealing setbacks, daunting skills to learn in very little time, and experiences that propel us far outside of our comfort zone. It is not uncommon for PhD students to feel fatigued, overwhelmed or disheartened. Waves of negative emotions may come and go, amplified by the constant pressure of deadlines and high standards. It is the small victories in between that make the waves recede and that keep us going, suddenly reminding us of why we love what we do and why we wish to keep doing it.

But that common feeling is not exactly what I am alluding to. This is something a little more difficult to put into words – a feeling of fragility and transience, uncertainty and instability, not only towards one’s work but also one’s own self. Let me try to explain.

 

I am in the final year of my PhD program. I don’t quite know how I got here, or where the time went, or at what point exactly I decided that it was the beginning of the end. I remember feeling certain of it, though. I began to say it – aloud, to others. I began to give a time estimate (which I’d never dared to do before). I felt ready. I had learned so many skills, conducted so many cool studies, presented at so many conferences. I felt ready to wrap it up, excited about putting it all down on paper, black on white. I even began to think about new lines of research and the next steps of my career, and began to lay the network traces for those steps to happen. That was the beginning of the end of my degree.

The middle of the end of my degree has felt drastically different. I have the nagging feeling these days that this stage is completely unlike everything I imagined the end stage of a PhD to be. Of course, one expects the final months of a PhD to be stressful and caffeine-filled – a string of days spilling one into the other without boundaries or designations (what is “Friday” or “weekend” anyway?). I expected the nail-biting, the heart-fluttering and the nights of either maddening insomnia or comatose unresponsiveness, with no healthy medium between those two extremes. But what I didn’t expect was this blatant feeling of not being ready.

I always longed to be a PhD student in the final year of the degree. I imagined quiet, productive days of writing, from anywhere – a library, a café, from home, or even from remote locations if circumstances permitted. I imagined days full of thinking, of tying it all together. I imagined a sense of control and certitude of what I had studied, measured, controlled, and discovered, and what it all meant for the field and the world. I imagined a sense of finiteness and peace – everything being done and needing only to be written up. (I should clarify that I love writing, so the writing stage was something I truly looked forward to.) I imagined a PhD student in the final year of the degree to be competent, coherent and ready – to defend, to move on, to train the next generation and make a name for him/herself.

Boy. Was I ever wrong! I don’t know why, and it pains me to say it, but this stage feels like the complete opposite of what I had imagined. Not only is there still so much to do aside from writing, but I have felt crippled by this infuriating sensation of forgetting, unraveling and re-thinking. In writing the Discussion section of some papers, I have found myself battling urges to run new stats to double-check my claims, verify new (tangential) ideas, or obviously just prevent myself from reaching the finish line. I have found myself revisiting my ideas and claims, criticizing my own work even at a conceptual level, or doubting the ideas I had previously been convinced by, while trying to find alternate interpretations as if I were reviewing my own work from the outside in. I don’t know if this is concrete evidence of LEARNING or if it is brain-paralyzing panic brought on by the fact that I no longer have a series of years to sit and ponder what my data are telling me. It’s a bit like having three minutes left to the end of a high-school math exam (my personal nightmare), where you’ve erased your answers in a moment of doubt and gone ’round in circles, and you can’t even think straight enough to pull out of your brain what you already know. Whether it is panic or inadequacy, this feeling of unraveling like a ball of yarn, of no longer knowing what I think, what I found and what it all means is almost an unbearable feeling. The lapses of memory are particularly alarming, and I sincerely hope they are only temporary, otherwise I would have to retrace six years of steps in order to prepare for my defense!

On top of this sensation of messiness, it seems that the end of the PhD is also the perfect time for profound existential crises to occur. You suddenly realize how non-finite your work actually is, and it can be a nauseating feeling. You devote years of your life to studying a research question, and there are so many stages involved in that process that you take it for granted that writing the papers and thesis will be the endpoint. Trouble is, though, that the endpoint itself is also composed of a series of stages,  none of which really mark the end of anything. You write the “perfect” paper, but you revise it in response to your co-author(s), supervisor(s), reviewer(s), thesis committee, defense committee, your future self, and all of those peoples’ future selves (because if there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that people change their minds). Just thinking that you may even have to revise your thesis after your defense is a feeling dreadful enough to make you gasp. There is no better illustration of this than the amount of file versions labeled with variations of “final” on your computer.

It is also likely that, in attending conferences or workshops towards the end of your PhD, you may come to realize that your way is actually not the best way, or that soon the method you have been using will be obsolete. This blatant reminder of the transient nature of your work (it is science, after all) and of new skills to continuously learn can make you feel quite unsteady about your training and about the impact of your thesis, despite the long and painstaking road you have been on and for which you may have sacrificed other possibilities. Sometimes, you may have to consciously stop from bullying yourself into feeling foolish that you have dedicated so much of yourself and your time to something that amounts to so little.

Personal factors add a whole other dimension to these challenges and tamper with your coping mechanisms, at times making you feel irrevocably fragile. Clashes also arise out of the blue, because it is a high-stress situation for many involved, and you may be less willing to let things slide. You find yourself pondering how the future-you would act as a supervisor and researcher, and you wonder if there really is no better way of managing it all, and that you will break your own idealized vows to yourself when you “grow up”. Then, there are always questions to answer, but somehow the answers are (still) not at the tip of your tongue. What do you want to do after your PhD? Have you applied for jobs? Do you want to stay in academia? When are you planning on starting a family? Do you want to stay in Montreal or will you move anywhere for a job? Does your husband want to move? How will the world be your playing field if you were to have a small child? Ouff. Those are the kinds of questions that make your doubts surface and your heart flutter, unless of course you have your life mapped out and, crucially, nothing happens to throw those delicate plans off-kilter.

So, the final months of the PhD have shaken me up a little more than I’d expected. Maybe it is the nature of my huge research project or the dynamics with my supervisor (who is as meticulous, ambitious and demanding as I am) that contribute to this unsettling sense of things unraveling rather than coming together.

But in going through this personal struggle and in failing to put it into words (until now), I realized that it is much akin to the sensation of unexpectedly losing your balance, and having to put your arms out and flap them repeatedly in a desperate attempt not to fall backwards. It is scary to be on a tightrope or balance beam, and to feel yourself teetering and wobbling. There is a lot at stake. But the only way to get to the end is to focus –not on everything, but just on the immediate, on the very next step. The only way to manage it is to somehow tune out the voices, the questions, and the doubts – to push them all to the periphery and ignore them, at least temporarily. The only way to keep the balance is to keep your eyes forward and your head up, to push away any fears, doubts or self-deprecating thoughts that will only cause your step to falter. There is no sense in looking down or looking back. If you begin to lose your balance, you will adjust and compensate, and before you know it, you will have reached the end (as non-finite as that end will be).

Every day now, I think of this tightrope. It makes me smile and fills me with the little bit of courage I need to keep my balance. It astonishes me how natural it is to put oneself down, silently and secretly, especially in moments of stress. It’s a dangerous habit to sell oneself short and let fears of inadequacy take over. Of course, the crises are still there, but nothing will be gained by dwelling on them. I have been telling myself that I AM ready (or if I am not at this very moment, I will be when I need to be, because that is what I have always done).

I have no shame in sharing my thoughts or insecurities, even if it may expose this side of me to my peers or future employers, especially in a field built on confidence and pride. I think the greater purpose here is to reach out to others who may be feeling the same. If there is anything I’ve learned that is stable and true, it is that comfort and strength can be found in knowing that you are not alone, and that there is always a light waiting for you at the end of your tunnel.

Light at the End of the Tunnel
Light at the End of the Tunnel by Kristina Kasparian
(www.veni-etiam-photography.com)

4 thoughts on “Tightrope walking

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Kristina. I’m only halfway through mine, so I may not know exactly what you’re going through, but I know how intensely demoralizing this work, this career can be, and I believe that most of us feel it, but few of us have the courage to express it. Thank you for sharing your story and your experience so openly and so courageously. You rock; keep rocking. 🙂 We’re all right behind you!

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  2. Kristina, thank you a lot for this beautiful piece. As you say, the greater purpose here is to reach out to others who may be feeling the same, and boy can I assure you that many people are. I myself am also at the end of my degree, and the complete questioning of my research, the seemingly infinite rewriting of sections which I was perfectly happy with two months ago, the not being able to bear my own writing style anymore (did you ever get that?), the Montreal-or-not, job-or-something-else questions, they are feelings that have all come, and few have gone, although just like with you I’d say that there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel more recently. Thanks again for putting it all into words 🙂

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  3. A fantastic piece that sums up every feeling I’ve had over the latter (and wobblier) half of my PhD. Thanks for sharing this, Kristina!

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