I have been listening to the Desire Map Experience, and I have realized an internal conflict I had been recreating over and over again.
My current status in life is “PhD student”. You won’t see much about this part of my life either here or anywhere online. I don’t talk about it, don’t share much about the contents. The only thing you can easily find me saying is how bad I feel about it, how I am struggling with it, how I am dissatisfied with it, and so on. Honestly, I am not interested in it, not excited by it, not enjoying the process and neither I am looking forward to earning the degree… Even in most of my private reflections and lists of plans and dreams the “PhD project” often is only a one-line item, while each of my creative interests most likely has at least a separate line, sometimes extended to multiple dreams, ideas, projects, and a high levels of detail. To me personally, the PhD project feels very much meaningless. Even if we take the area of software engineering which I had been studying for 6+ years prior to the PhD… Even to that career the PhD project is irrelevant to a high percentage, concerning the technical knowledge and experience. Maybe supposed skills of information research, work planning and organization, etc. matter – but I think I had missed those completely.
However, while the PhD takes so little place in my vision and my social life, it occupies a lot of mental space, sucks out a big part of my energy. It feels important. It feels like an obligation. It feels like I have no way out but through. It feels like I need to pay attention and devote my energy to it. During normal times, this does not equate a high degree of project-related activity. But when there is a project deadline, it often motivates me to do more for the PhD, to work harder, to strive for better work. And I keep putting extra hours of hard work in, keep skipping recreation and relaxation because I feel that I cannot afford it… Even while at the conscious level I know that I need rest, because I learned by experience that a bit of rest can go a long way… Actually, I cannot rest while I have those deadlines. Knowing (or just thinking/imagining) that my results suck, I want to put everything I have to make them look and feel better, so I either try to work on it or I keep worrying and being anxious and stressing out when I try to have some time off. Also, to be totally honest, there is a part of the victim mentality hanging on there throughout all the time I am in this PhD position, saying “I did not want this project, I was forced to accept it” and wanting to kill myself to show those people who put me here what a bad thing they did, how bad the project makes me feel, how I am dying here because of it, and so on… It is quite shameful to admit this, but I want to keep this text true, honest and fully open, also because only by being fully honest and open I can find a way out of the situation (another lesson learned by experience).
So, in my heart, in my soul and in my vision the PhD has a very little space, while in my mind and energy (and periodically in my time) it takes a lot. Because of the former, I don’t feel inspired to give “even more” to the project when there is no pressing deadlines. Because of the latter, I don’t have much to give to the part of my life which I call LIFE, which I value, which is meaningful to me, which I am passionate about. As the result, I receive an internal conflict of priorities, between my soul and my mind, between my vision and the facts.
What seems to be a possible way out of the conflict is to:
- Give some more structure to the normal periods of life. Develop my daily schedule and routines in a way that guarantees that I will be putting a stable amount of time every day into effective activities for the project, and I will be free for LIFE in all its forms outside that time. Stable is the key, and it is much more important than the daily amount. For example, putting 3 hours 5 days a week will result in 15 hours every week. On the contrary, putting 8 hours straight in one day, burning out and struggling through the rest of the week, resisting to devote any more mental energy to it, equates in only 8 hours that week. From my own experience, 5 hours pretty much tops the amount of higly efficient meaningful brainwork I can do in a single day for the PhD. If I could stick even to 3 effective hours a day, it would mean a lot to my progress.
- Stop stressing out so much and killing myself in the deadline-driven periods. After all, this part of my life is not actually as important as it seems. Do the best I can do, but accept my limitations. Remind myself that without any rest I am prone to break down sooner, much sooner than the deadline. Plus even if I don’t break down, my productivity without proper recreation will be very low. Balance may not be fully achievable, but it is a good ideal to focus upon.
Speaking of the deadline-driven periods… When we were submitting an article to a conference last December, my energy finished about three days prior to the deadline. I had still been trying to do something, at least to put the information in, but doing it very slowly, struggling with each action. On the last day, my supervisor joined in to edit my text, and a couple of other colleagues stayed at the office late working on their, separate article for the same submission deadline. These two things changed the energy around the work for me, leaving me somewhat puzzled for several days. I felt lighter, and I felt easier, and I was able to put in another day of efficient work, adding some final information to the text, correcting figures and their layouts, etc… What I am driving at is that another side of my bad experience with the PhD project is a feeling that nobody cares. As you can see above, I don’t care much about it myself, but the personal side is enforced with the impression that the content of my work makes no good to anyone else either… What matters is only the fact that I am doing the project and that I am delivering presentations, talks/posters/articles on the project. Yes, there is a general good intention that the project advances the scientific knowledge, and that some day, in some circumstances, somebody will learn about my approaches and my results and it will help them to do something good… But all this underdefined potential and a small possibility is not very inspiring… But what I felt on that last day before the deadline was that someone cared about the work I do (my supervisor editing my text), and I was working for a common cause with others (my colleagues at the office with the same submission deadline). After a very long stretch of going on my own, alone, and putting long hard hours without much reward or recognition or anything, this gave me a boost of energy. However, that did not solve this side of the problem completely, and I probably would notice it and experience a drop if the situation lasted for several days.
So, after 26 months of working on the PhD project, I finally seem to grasp the “what’s not working” part of it, and even to have a couple of good ideas on how to go forward. Will I be decisive in crafting the details of the solution further, and disciplined in actually applying these ideas and making the rest of my term as a PhD (9+ months) to be better, more fulfilling and result-producing at the same time? I can definitely say that alone I probably would not manage to stick to it. But I hope for the support of my environment: the online communities I am a part of, and the local communities I will be building throughout this year.
What kind of a conflict of priorities have you had in your life? How did you solve it, or what have you been doing to lessen it? What else can you share about your experience? Maybe you have a good advice for my situation, or can just give a word of encouragement to me? Please leave your voice in the comments below!