In my first year I kept up a high intensity, committing to daily timesheets and allowing myself weekends and evenings off. My mantra was to treat my studies like a ‘9 to 5 job’. The main problem with this philosophy is that unlike normal jobs, doctoral study involves carrying the burden of your own work-rate, conscience and future career twenty four hours a day for a minimum of three years. I saw little reward for my work with few submissions or grades, and the more I learned about my chosen topic, the less confident I felt about the theoretical impact I could make.
As time went on isolation, lack of reward and daily social contact took its toll. Over the summer of 2012, in the midst of Olympics Fever, I was stricken by malaise. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, I felt stressed, unconfident and came to resent having to wake up and face my computer screen. This feeling lasted for a couple of months and was a truly challenging period in both my studies, and my personal life.
I was forced to deal with my own problems. Family and friends tried to support me, but there were some things I had to do to help myself – things I wish I’d known sooner. Eventually I took a break; abstracting myself from work finally allowed me to regain my enthusiasm and generate fresh ideas. Then I tried to find ways to reward myself: I kept records of hours worked and words written as a way of reminding myself of the progress I was making. I sought out regular stimulation through academic seminars, sport and socialising. I also spoke to my supervisors who encouraged me to change my focus. Most importantly, I opened up about my problems and sought help.
I am now weeks away from the end of my funding, and am closing in upon the final draft. Though I have faced difficulties along the way, I will never regret being given three years to develop my ideas and indulge my passion. Nevertheless, knowing that a lull in my work could happen, and having the knowledge of how to deal with it would have made my life easier; I hope that by sharing my own knowledge I can help others going through a similar experience.
What is a ‘slump’?
Troughs and dips in doctoral study can take a variety of forms. Anyone, no matter how motivated, confident or capable, can suffer them. First of all you need to recognise you are in a rut. Some key indicators:
- Lack of motivation
- Sense of isolation
- An urge to give up and get a job
- Inability to get out of bed
- Distraction and procrastination
- Mood swings
- Writers block or lack of ideas
- More serious forms: mental health issues such as depression or anxiety (seek out professional support straightaway)
Tips to tackle the slump
1. Take ‘ownership’ of it
2. Take a break!
3. Talk to trusted family, friends, peers or your supervisor
4. Find ways to motivate and reward yourself
- Blogging and social media
- Publishing reviews/articles
- Set deadlines
- Keep word counts
5. Stimulate your brain
Try reading outside of your discipline, watching films, listen to music, exercise, join discussion groups and attend seminars and conferences. Your brain needs looking after and working out. You might find that reading a newspaper will suddenly set you thinking.
If this advice helps one person through their studies I will be happy. Though it is an immense privilege to be able to study for a doctorate, the three year (or six year part-time) ride can be a massive challenge. Some people are confronted with problems too great and never finish. It is important to arm yourself with the skills and support to be prepared.
In kinder moments my friends remind me that it takes great resilience to wake up every day and motivate yourself. Remember that in spite of the jokes, your friends will respect your commitment and drive, and you will feel a sense of achievement like no other when you finish. There is light at the end of the tunnel, so stick at it!