Taking a PhD break and trying to fight the feelings of being a loser

In June 2016 me and my supervisors agreed that I should take an ‘interruption of studies’ for six months on the grounds of health and wellbeing. The reason being that I had stopped making any PhD progress in what was my third and final year. We wanted to try and break down the negative pattern of submitting pieces of work that were always incomplete or not quite making sense in terms of my research focus. My supervisors were confused and worried that my perfectionism was paralysing me, I was tired, frustrated and depressed, so we decided to stop and break the cycle in its tracks.

So now it is October and I only have 3 months left of my ‘sabbatical’ which is worrying me a bit because what if I am not ‘cured’ now, what if the same patterns return. But thankfully I am actually also looking forward to going back. I have decided to return part-time to take off the pressure and am putting other strategies in place which I may discuss in another post.

This break has had a little pattern of it’s own. First of all I love that delicious feeling of lying down and watching trash TV with no guilt. Or going on a day trip to Margate with no pressure to read an academic book on the train.

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Some sort of shell penis in Margate

I enjoyed joining in briefly with the Pokemon Go! craze.

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Some sort of seal thing in Wardown Park

I have been playing in my band at fantastic summer events with no other stress apart from how to drain the huge puddles of water out of my pan.

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Some sort of spendid summer scene at Luton’s Summer in the Sun (before the downpour)

However within this luxurious feeling I sometimes spend dark nights up late into the early hours (or as soon as I wake up, or just in the afternoon, any time really) feeling like a loser and my inner critic alter ego starts bullying me: “Other people I started with have finished or are close to finishing – you’re a loser”. “Other people have got some magnificent findings – your work is shit, you’re a loser”. “Other people are just all round better and more successful – you’re crap at everything and a loser”.

However coming out as a ‘loser’ has been quite good because lots of other people have also said they have had similar experiences. But you know what it’s like when you are feeling full of self-hatred, you only focus on the ‘other’ people you are envious of, not those others who are the same as you. It can take a whole day to get rid of my nasty alter ego voice. So days and days of my luxurious holiday feel wasted.

Much of my holiday has also been worrying about money. I am lucky to have savings and my mother is giving me pocket money for these 6 months (“you’re 36 and your mum is giving you pocket money, you’re a loser”). I now have to pay fees when I return as my ESRC funding has run out – another thing my inner critic likes to remind me of – ‘what a tosser you are, wasting all that time and money. Idiot loser.’

So most of this holiday has also been spent working or trying to find suitable work for when I return. I have been experiencing all sorts of casual jobs which has been useful in remembering that the PhD isn’t everything. I spent over a month doing some transcriptions which was interesting and reminded me of the work I used to do pre-PhD as a research assistant. But it also reminded me why people pay other people to do it.

Babysitting was fun but scary. I have limited child experience. I was worried her mother would be disaproving when she saw her 2 year old naked and covered in felt-tip pen (I like to let children be free!).

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I let her feed me soap bubbles. They didn’t taste good. Don’t do it.

I am on a list of casual bar staff now too. I forgot how fabulous I am at customer service and banter with the general public, but I did not realise how much bar work results in getting alcohol all over yourself from head to toe. Also in a loud environment Fosters and Vodka sound exactly the same which results in some mixed up orders. However, I did see some very interesting patterns regarding the drink choices of different demographics (quick quiz – a punk’s fav tipple is:  a) Red Stripe b) Newcastle brown OR c) Malibu and Pineapple – – – answer at the bottom of this post).

Tomorrow I have to get up at 6am (omg, I’ve been waking up at 10/11am (maybe later) for weeks now!) for the selection day for Royal Mail Christmas Temp job. That’s kind of being a magical Christmas Elf isn’t it? And I am also meeting someone at Luton Culture to discuss being on their casual bar and front of house team.

So I think things will all work out in the end. Once I get some jobs sorted, I am going to get back into PhD reading in the last few weeks of my sabbatical and hope I can kill the inner critic.

Final fun fact – Did you know Paul Willis of Learning to Labour fame used to sell icecream to fund his PhD – well, I am hoping to be a casual for Gelato Heaven during their peak summer season – it’s all a sign!

 

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Some sort of giant sociological ice-cream

 

 

 

 

 

ANSWER – A punk’s favourite tipple is Red Stripe! Well done if you got it right. You win…. a can of Red Stripe!

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5 comments
  1. This is a pretty brave admission, Annika, and well done for making it. Yes, you’re right in that it seems like everyone gets major and minor wobbles in the course of their doctorate. Imposter syndrome never goes away, and I suppose it depends on how (and how much) it manifests itself, why, and you deal with it. A PhD is not for everyone, and there’s no shame in getting a long way in and giving up if it’s really not working. Having said that, you’ve done most of the work and you’ve probably got what it takes to grit your teeth and get the bloody thing done and dusted.

    One cliché which might help is the well-worn ‘There are two kinds of doctorate – a perfect one, and a finished one.’ Your PhD is not your magnum opus, you could end up publishing a thing or two (or even nothing) from it and then moving away onto other things (academic or otherwise). Very few PhDs set the world alight, it’s usually the work that’s done years later that gets really noticed. During your doctorate it becomes almost the be-all and end-all of life as you know it. Once it’s behind you (finished or otherwise) it loses that centrality. All you have to do is pass!!

    Whichever way you choose to go, good luck, and try not to worry about it too much. Another well-worn but useful cliché is that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. If you can take a slightly more relaxed approach to it without it owning you, this might give you the head- and heart space to finish.

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  2. Damn, I was so sure it was Malibu and Pineapple. The thing about bullies, whether they’re internal or external, is that standing up to/ignoring them (often the same thing) is the best strategy. Your inner critic may always be with you (mine hasn’t disappeared despite my PhD and all the other stuff) but I suspect that, like me, you can learn to turn the volume down and let that stoopid critic chunter away without actually bothering you so much. After all, who is that critic to call you a loser when they’re not and never will be a winner?

    The inner critic likes to have the upper hand, and the best way I’ve found to prevent that is to carry on doing whatever it wants me to stop doing. Something that helps me is to remember I don’t have to do the whole thing (at least not right now), I only have to do the next step: open a book and read some pages, open a document and write some words, do some admin, whatever. I know I can do any one of those tasks because I’ve done each of them many times before. For example, I’m not a loser when it comes to reading, and neither are you. Getting on with my work helps me to turn down my inner critic’s volume.

    Annika, I firmly believe you can nail your PhD. Best of luck!

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  3. I didn’t want to simply like this post and move on..
    I can’t do anything to end the terrorist attacks in my country or chip in to help improving the living standards for the refugees without having started my job but I hope that I can still show some sort of support in this way. Tell your inner voice that you are not a loser, you got tired a bit, that’s all. Even those who quit their PhDs half way shouldn’t think of themselves as losers (in case they do). A PhD, in my opinion, is a great test to get to know ourselves bringing all our strengths and weaknesses into light. A colleague of mine left 2 years after he started. He noticed that doing research in the lab didn’t make him happy, it wasn’t quite like he imagined. He waited to make sure that his instinct reflected the truth and he left. He now works for a leading company as a laboratory analyst and all is well. Having bought a car, living in Oxford and enjoying his life, he is actually a winner as he turned around what seems like an act to be avoided at all costs : ‘quitting the PhD’.

    The PhD student before me graduated without a publication and she already had a job in a firm when the long-awaited publication came out 2 years after I started. I managed to get a postdoc position at a research institute I didn’t even think of applying as this place was above the clouds in my imagination and I didn’t see myself finishing the competition at the front without a first-author publication, but it happened!

    I didn’t have an easy PhD, had to bin almost a year of results after noticing the construct the previous PhD student used to get a large set of data which formed the basis of my experiments was WRONG. My supervisors didn’t believe the project could turn around at the time I started I guess, I noticed this after one of them said ‘I finally understood what you are doing!’ after I presented my first year results to the whole group. For about two whole months I questioned whether I was good enough as the simplest assay I’ve been doing for half a year already started to give me strange results and I didn’t have an explanation as to why I was incompetent to reproduce my results to my supervisors (and when you skip the masters and start a PhD right away after your undergrad, the inner voice has a good case put forward). It turns out that the room with a temperature set to 37 C which is the standard temperature we use to grow most bacteria was broken and I was just a victim. Although not formally but still serious enough to make me very very upset, I was told that I might risk an MPhil if I don’t do more experiments during one of my supervision meetings at the beginning of my 4th year.

    All in all, perhaps there were more downs than ups and if I had the chance (didn’t due to the limited time granted by my visa and asking too much of my parents’ income when the currency exchange rate got mean), I would’ve taken time off just like you did. In a way, I still took that ‘off-time’ by not getting a job right away and giving myself the time and space to recover from my PhD journey. So, what about this? Maybe some of these other people you are envious of for being close to finishing up actually envy you for having a break that they wish they could’ve taken, who knows 😉

    P.S.: I was once a comedy mascot, I probably lost two kilos while sweating and I was so scared that my neck would break. Having all these part-time jobs are actually big pluses and fun memories to keep afterwards, keep going 🙂

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d’ve guessed Newcastle Brown. Shows how much I know.

    Go you!

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  5. You don’t sound like a loser, you sound like you made a pragmatic decision. When you look at other ‘successful’ people, remember that everyone is on their own journey through the PhD, and it’s the destination rather than the route which is all that counts in the end. Good luck with your many jobs and finishing 🙂

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