The mid-PhD slump is real and I know because I’m in it, or, enough with the cult of busyness already

I’m currently writing this in bed with the full force of a SAD lamp bearing down upon me and Bob’s Burgers playing in the background.  My complete lack of motivation will probably mean that this post will stop mid-sentence.

I have felt unmotivated, uninspired and so profoundly tired for about a month now.  Winter in Scotland is certainly a major factor in this, but being halfway through my PhD is definitely the main culprit.

I know I am not alone in feeling this way, which is a source of considerable comfort.  Doing a PhD is hard: you’re alone with your thoughts and doubts waaaaaay more than is healthy for at least three years.  Chances are you’re teaching, which like me you might love and find rewarding, but also find tiring and creeping into time and headspace you would like to have reserved for your own work.  If you’re not teaching, you probably have a job, and/or caring responsibilities, and/or health troubles, and you definitely have a life to live with all the joys, woes and obligations that that entails.

You’d rather just sit down and write the damn thing, but you have hang-ups about your intellectual ability and your writing style, not to mention a pile of washing that never goes away and a week’s worth of meals to plan and probably a bunch of other domesticky-life-adminy things to tend to, some of which have been on your to-do list since you discovered the concept of to-do lists.  You really wish you could channel the energy you waste on thoughts about what even is the point of your project and whether it will do any good in this world and whether it will actually ever result in a job with decent pay and conditions into just doing the damn thing, but there is only so much you can do to control such thought patterns with breathing exercises and exhortations to stay present in the moment.

There is no way to solve this, only to go through it and to manage it.  For me that means writing the damn thing bit by bit (a couple of hundred words a day is the bar I’m setting myself at the moment), taking plenty of time to do the things I enjoy – and taking plenty of time to do absolutely nothing, too.

Doing a PhD is not like doing a regular job.  While maintaining some form of a routine is healthy, the idea that you can and should be able to work on it consistently and productively for eight hours a day five days a week seems increasingly daft to me.  For one thing, anyone actually working eight hours a day five days a week doesn’t really; a fair whack of that tends to get spent faffing about.*  For another, the ways we measure and perceive time and productivity are completely askew.  We have all been dragged into this keep-cup-carrying-lunch-at-the-desk madness of being soooo busy and soooo stressed all the time, and are expected to be busy and perform busyness in order to justify our existence and fill our days and CVs.

This is something I have very consciously been pushing back against since I started my PhD.  Between the cult(ure) of busyness and an enthusiasm to make the most of life which can easily tip into taking on too much, it takes a conscious effort.  I like to think of it as cultivating my inner Ron Swanson to counterbalance my Leslie Knope tendencies.  As she learns in episode 16 of season 4 of Parks and Recreation (WATCH ITTT), if you take on too much then nothing is going to get done properly.  You’ll end up forgetting to invite your friend to the birthday party you organised for them (Leslie), or you’ll mess up your payslip and have to go to HR, tear-streaked and panic-stricken (me.  True story.  From this morning.  Yay.)  It is at this point that you must repeat Ron Swanson’s words of wisdom to yourself: “Never half-ass two things.  Whole ass one thing.”

I am trying to do fewer things properly and to take time out.  And time out means time out.  And so, I am here, watching cartoons because I like cartoons.  And so, on Sundays, I have no phone days.  And so, I am going to stop writing this because I’ve written enough.

*I am acutely aware of the fact that there are people working way more than this and having no space to faff while doing so; these people get burnt out even faster than the rest of us.

Rebecca Smyth is midway through her PhD and is a PGRNS Committee Member.  She is very, very tired.


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