Patience and doubt: PhD Journey

I’m now about half way through what in theory is a 3 year PhD process, although I’m told most people take 4 years. My sister-in-law commented that I was half-way through already. Unfortunately I don’t think it really works like that. Half way through your proposed time is not the same as halfway to finishing.

My mother always said feelings and thoughts are a lot more manageable if you can find a name for them. In this case, as in others, she is right. I’ve been working through a mindfulness app to help manage the anxious thoughts that seem to be constantly present since I began this process. Is seems they are best categorized as reflecting impatience and doubt.

I don’t think of myself as someone who lacks patience or faith in their own ability but this is clearly reflected in my thoughts. I watched a documentary on Tony Robbins recently on Netflix where he asked “what is the question you ask yourself more than any other?”. This question drives you, you need to figure out if where it is driving you is where you want to go. My question every day for the last year and half was “am I doing the right thing?” It asks is this course of action the right move or the wrong one? Will I regret taking this time out of the workforce? What if I don’t ultimately succeed?

This question, based as it is in a black and white world, drives me to a place of doubt and amplified fear of failure. I search for evidence and guarantee of success, but in this project there really is none so instead I cultivate the reasons for why it might not work. I come up with an inner circle of imagined peers who will judge my choices as character flaws. In essence this question drives fear.

If I were to change this question to something more useful as the self-help gurus suggest. It might perhaps be: “how can I make this the best decision I’ve ever made?”. But my mind is not so charitable as to accept such a question gracefully. For me a more workable question is: “If you accept that ultimately you will fail but checking out is not an option what then do you do? What would your focus be?”

My focus then becomes lingering in pockets of enjoyment, learning skills I could use later outside the academic world, the discipline of total commitment in the face of failure and the effort of the work itself. The great antidote for me against impostor syndrome is to accept your ultimate failure… then fight to the death.

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays




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