A PhD Journey – Building Motivation During the Darkest Days

I am hardly an expert, but I experienced my darkest hour and it was during my PhD.

Just like other kinds of affairs, the PhD experience varies according to individuals. Some of us were lucky enough to sail smoothly through it, but mine was a bit of rough ride.

Looking back, I sincerely believe that it seemed like almost every semester I have to deal with a new issue. If it is not the stress of keeping up with the strict coursework requirements, it is the sickening feeling in the stomach when your write up keeps being returned back from your supervisor’s office then also the sensation of panic as if you were slowly descending into quicksand when you realised the workloads were too overwhelming for one person to handle. This of course is exacerbated into the black hole when you unsure whether you can make it through the next month because you are financially distraught.

The state of uncertainty is high when doing your PhD. This probably the most unpleasant situation you could wish to be ended up with in life and not to mention, the fear you constantly experienced due to the uncertainty. On top of all these difficulties, you are expected to keep performing simply because you couldn’t afford to lose the research momentum.

In the first six-month after commencing the PhD program with one of the Universities in Australia, I have a sudden realisation that I might not actually be cut out for a PhD, which makes the emotional struggle even worse. This phenomenon is apparently common, and known as the impostor syndrome.

The itch to get away was strong, but being a sponsored student, this is also mean that the exit cost would be too high for me to withdraw. Should I dig myself into much bigger hole than I am already in?

I never felt so stuck in my life. I thus silently continue, but I still have this haunting look like I shouldn’t be here, which according to my supervisor I have carried it with me for at least 3 years.

The ugly grey clouds surrounding me started clearing making way for tiny ray of lights when I see there was no other way except forward.

source: Pexels

It was not easy and never was.

Like many other problems, the first step is always to acknowledge the stickiness you are in. In my case, I realised that I have to stop thinking of running away from it and start gaining control of the situation by owning it. It was my decision to further my study to a PhD and in my case, I want to see it through.

The second step is making sure you have a consistent positive progress. You cannot achieve this without a proper schedule of milestones. You need to table out in detail, from your smaller tasks to bigger tasks by weekly basis. The size of the progress does not matter. PhD students normally are passionate, capable and dedicated individuals in terms of academic. However, because of these characteristics they also have high expectations on themselves that they could not tolerate failure or less than good progress.

Thus, to keep your motivation up during PhD is to keep making progress in your weekly tasks. With no progress, it can adversely affect your self-esteem and it can cripple your work productivity for a long time.

To emerge from your PhD slump, some people suggest that it is best for you take a break from your work for a while to rejuvenate yourself, or talking to professionals like, a psychologist. I have done neither. I have no reserves about taking holidays, but I was under such tight schedules that I have no luxury of breaking away from my work.

I have not taken a break for three years, I also work on the weekends. Most days I worked up to 10 – 14 hours and when there is a need to finalise certain findings, or write up for the chapters, I can work up to 20 hours. I have hurt my back once for sitting too long, so I kicked the chair out of the way and worked on my knees instead for a couple of hours. This turned out to be such a bad decision, not only that my back pain did not recede I also injured my knees in the process. I have to lie still on my stomach on the office floor for two hours in order to ease the pain. The saddest part was, all I can think of that I have lost two hours of work.

If you think I have distorted view about work commitment, you are not wrong. After the incident, I worry that I have pushed my body too far and I decided to go easy on myself. In addition, once the administration found out about the injuries, they have given me a standing desk so that I can manage my work, injury free.

You may choose to pump up your motivation during PhD by sharing your pain with friends, or seeking professional help. I enjoyed the former than the latter although, both only serve as temporary solutions for me.  Most of your friends do not understand your emotional or work struggles and even if they would like to, they also have issues of their own. That’s why some would view PhD journey as a very lonely experience.

The journey might be lonesome, but it doesn’t have to be too damaging. Seek positive company, learn to find comfort in easy going and amusing stories shared around the table.

source: Pexels

I have tried meeting with a psychologist once and unfortunately, I find the session was not very useful. Maybe it was just a poor match between us since some of my friends have different opinions about it. However, in a serious case of depression during PhD, seeking help should be your top priority.

PhD students are naturally relentless pursuer of perfection in work and therefore, they have learnt not to complain. However, because they keep accepting the odds, the stress and depressions become a constant company. I am quite certain I was under extreme stress during PhD, but I was not sure whether I have experienced any episode of depression. If I have had any, it might not that severe as I have seen happened among my friends. One of the symptoms for depression that you might have read about is that, you could not bring yourself to rise from the bed. When this was happening to me in second year of PhD, I forced myself to get up by rolling myself out of the bed. I know there are better way like reverse psychology yourself into getting up, but sometimes you are limited to what works for you.

My methods may not necessarily optimal for others. Thus, understand your body and the workings of your mind and remember, the only way is forward.

Reference list

Hayton, J. (2016). PhD Imposter Syndrome. James Hayton PhD Coaching. Available at https://jameshaytonphd.com/phd-impostor-syndrome/

Marano, H. E. (2013). Can’t Get Out of The Bed. Psychology Today. October.  Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/articles/200310/cant-get-out-bed

Walker, J. (2015). There was an Awful Cost to Getting a PhD that no one talks about. Quartz. December. Available at https://qz.com/547641/theres-an-awful-cost-to-getting-a-phd-that-no-one-talks-about/

Sarini Azizan is a Ph.D. student of Accounting in Australian National University, Australia. Her research explores the theory of source credibility in corporate financial information communication.

Contact info:  sariniazizan@yahoo.co.uk

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