Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Learning, Pressure, and PhDs

The view from the bottom of Snowdon can be intimidating

Confession: I spent five years working on a Philosophy of Mind PhD, which I never finished. There are multiple stories I could tell about why, and none of them would tell the whole truth.

The negative ones might talk about losing my supervisor, depression, duty, fear of failure, approaching what looked like a mountain and not knowing that even to climb one of those you have to do it in lots of normal-sized steps, not impossibly long leaps.

The positive stories would tell you how much I learned, that the learning was enough without the piece of paper, that I had delayed turning to my true love – creative writing – for long enough, that I set myself free from the cage of expectations by quitting.

Basically, for whatever background reason, I could not get the work done. I did not turn all that reading and thinking and those ecstatic sparks of realisation that accompany them (and to which I was quite addicted) into words on paper.

I don’t mind confessing this because I feel quite cheerful about my unfinished PhD; it made me the argumentative pedant I am today and I wouldn’t change that.

However, fear did creep up as I began the first task of – yes – my second PhD, in late 2012. Would I sink back into permanent procrastination and the resultant self-loathing that came last time? How would I deal with that image of the mountain, especially since, fitting this PhD around a full time job, there would be a lot less time available for faffing about looking for the best path? Not to mention that I already felt in a hurry to get this one done before I’d even started, so that I could ditch that full-time job and, with a bit of luck, return to teaching.

Having just sent my supervisor my first piece of work – a fifteen thousand word survey of the creative and academic literature relevant to my PhD – there are now multiple stories I could tell about how on earth I managed to produce this in eight weeks, given my track record. It’s only a first draft, but frankly I’ve surprised myself.

The stories about this that I think are closest to the truth would have the following messages:
  • When you have three hours in a day, as opposed to sixteen, in which you can reasonably work, you use those hours far more effectively
  • The anxiety of not having done something is worse than the anxiety involved in doing it imperfectly
  • Doing a PhD for a specific reason (so that I can attempt to become a creative writing lecturer and spend all my time around writers and writing), not purely as an exercise in learning, helps to overcome fear. The process is important, but it is also a means to my most cherished end
  • Somewhere along the way I seem to have learned the small-steps-up-the-mountain lesson, possibly by climbing an actual mountain (Snowdon). Even when completely knackered, a 100 word summary of a short story is worth writing before collapsing in a heap.

I have not become some sort of hyper-motivated perfect student. Throughout the research and writing for this essay I still fell into old traps, the main outcome of which being that I have bought a lot of vintage shoes on Ebay. But I want to impress upon others who think it is not possible to undertake something like this that, actually, more pressure is better. And, possibly, starting such a project in your thirties (or later) rather than your twenties, when everything you do matters more, is a good thing. So my message of the day is: go forth and study!

1 comment:

  1. I've found studying easier the older I get. Somehow one's ability to apply oneself improves with age - while the brain itself goes the other way. There must be an ideal "tipping point" - but I suspect I've only realised this having already passed it.