Friday, May 22, 2015

The PhD rant that was not meant to be

Many months ago, I told myself that I would never write 'that PhD blog'. You know, the one where a hapless PhD candidate somewhere in the world writes of the brutal turmoil desiccating his soul bit by bit? Where the demons of the PhD-infested mind are unleashed upon a computer screen that is not, tragically, teeming with 'new words in your chapter'; where the sheer wretchedness of unabashed self-pity and self-indulgence is tempered only by the comforting knowledge that countless others have gone through and indulged in the same rather tedious ritual of self-flagellation to arrive at a (temporary, always temporary) point of 'zen'-ness? Yeah, that's the one. I've read a fair number of them and I have to admit, they are fascinating. There is nothing quite as satisfying as knowing that you're not the only one, no matter what the circumstances are in which you imagine you truly are the 'only one'. You're afforded agonisingly detailed glimpses (the longer the post and the gorier the details the more complete the catharsis) into the lives of other PhD candidates who, in some lonely corner of the world, have gone through and are going through similar bouts and seemingly never-ending cycles of self-doubt, defeat and (occasionally, very rarely, almost negligible-ly) triumph. I have to admit that in every moment of self-doubt I masochistically google 'I hate my PhD'. The results are always immensely satisfying. The sheer gore on offer on this subject is always very cathartic. Is there shame in admitting to hating your PhD? I don't think so, not really. Not if you don't actually, truly hate your PhD but just the fact that it's not over yet! (Correction: what the hell, there's no shame in admitting that you actually, truly do hate your PhD if that's the case! In fact, if you do, then admitting it, to yourself firstly, is absolutely necessary.) The thing is, everyone starts a PhD on a very high note. The optimism is infectiously high. But once the initial excitement has run its course, the Dementors take over and basically destroy what's left of hope and optimism in your miserable existence. Now when I hear people make ludicrous (outrageous!) statements like, 'I think I want to be an academic. Maybe I should apply for a PhD' I instinctively flinch and avert my gaze. I don't want them to see the admonishing, hope-denying cynicism in my face. 'Well, it can't be all that bad?' you ask. Well, no, it isn't in reality all that bad. But in your head it is and what does it matter if the reality is not quite as tragic as the interpretation in your mind? You've already convinced yourself that you're no good, your work is no good, academia is no good, the whole education-(insert your evil of choice) complex is no good, and there is very little you can do now that you're almost there - just a few (gigantic) steps away - but stick around and finish! Besides, as one discovers rapidly in academia, you cannot just write and publish what you want to write. You have to take what you want to say, disinfect it with academic-formula spray (if you try to act fancy, you're going to get a swift kick in the backside, and so many kicks that you'll forget what fancy is) and only then is it even worthy of consideration. This is no one's fault but just the way things are and if you want to clear the last hurdle you have to understand how to work around it. But going back to the many, many mournful online confessions of PhD self-hate I've read. What is truly remarkable is how similar a lot of people's experiences are - the same long dark nights of the soul, the same unedifying brooding and unhappiness - and how such experiences span the whole gamut of disciplines. (The sciences, from what I can see online, have it worse, but who am I to say? Maybe scientists articulate their feelings more than those in the social sciences and arts. OK, no, I take that back.) So, in effect, there must be something universal about the PhD-end-of-hope experience. Perhaps something even more universal than the agony induced by injections, dental surgery, complete and utter destruction of a favourite filled-to-the-brim hard-drive... Anyway, the point is, all this psychodrama is very unnecessary. If you can do anything in life that leads to happiness, self-sustenance and growth, then do it. Don't do a PhD! 

(Disclaimer: the views expressed are the product of a tortured mind. Do not take everything at face value.)