December.15.2021

Why your doctorate can make you feel like you’re drowning

By Richard Stewart

This is not a cry for help. These aren’t my thoughts on the difficulties of managing money, time, kids, spouses, visas, conferences, the thesis, the job, or the dog, real as all these pressures clearly can be. Rather I want to share some of the impacts of early PhD studies on me, invite reflection, and offer a note of caution.

I am enjoying my doctoral studies more than any before it. I regarded my admission to the degree as a licence to read widely and write wildly. I’ve engaged with discourse from classical philosophy through neuroscience to behavioural biology, all through the lens of jurisprudential enquiry. I’m enthralled by it all. The possibility of realising nascent knowledge drives me forward. I feel accomplished when an idea reveals itself as a clear, sometimes seemingly novel, pure thought. If it does so at the right time it can manifest as a sentence or two which sparkles with satisfying clarity. Such is the evolution of a thesis, I hope. And a mind. 

My supervisors are quietly encouraging. Nevertheless, in their presence, I can feel woefully inadequate. I have said things to them that are just plain dumb, and other things just plain dumbly. An example of the latter kind was my remark that I found the PhD experience somewhat ‘destabilising’. When probed as to what I meant by that, I could offer nothing adequate. 

Where do we find a safe harbour?

Stumbling over the words of my attempt at an explanation, I muttered that everything was becoming less certain; I was less clear about what I knew, what I didn’t, and even about who, what and why I was. The global health pandemic didn’t wholly explain the phenomenon. No, I continued with deflating confidence, there was something in what I was reading, and in the process of learning itself, that was impacting me in ways I had simply not anticipated. I found it confronting. And I still do.

My research leads me to believe that our earliest hominin ancestors lived free of overt construct. They behaved first according to instinct and departed from it only when cognitive ability enabled them to believe that they had the choice to do otherwise. They resolved the existential problems with which they were confronted and, it seems in the process, transcended the objective fact of their entity as beings, to actually being. Our ancestors quite literally did ‘awaken’. I am left wondering if they did so in ways that I never have, can, or will. Thoreau said he felt as though he never did meet a person who was “quite awake”. It seems that, like me, he doubted that he was. His solution was Walden Pond.

There is perhaps an assumption that we, as modern humans, living as we do in this busy and sophisticated world, start from a position of self-awareness; with an understanding of what and who we are and the rules of our own existence. My doctoral studies suggest to me this isn’t so. I don’t understand very much at all. It is this knowledge, as much as any, that I can experience as destablising. 

Bertrand Russell validates what I feel. He wrote that philosophy ‘raises doubts’. It diminishes our feelings of certainty as to what things are. Russell regarded the doubt as liberating, enlarging our thoughts and freeing them “…from the tyranny of custom”. I agree. But when we are buffeted by those newly freed thoughts, encountered as part of the rigours of PhD study and life besides it, where do we find a safe harbour? 

I wonder if, more than any other course of study, the PhD doesn’t inherently involve breakage at some level, like a vase might as it smashes on a hard floor. For a time, there is only mess; scattered broken pieces that are disconnected from one another, such that the entity as a whole no longer exists (assuming that it ever did). Instead there are shards of sharp material that, if mishandled, will cause injury. The PhD candidate must confront that mess, all that ‘liberating doubt’, and try to understand what it represents. If the pieces are put back together so that something is (re)formed, better or differently understood, that is perhaps the true mark of a Doctor of Philosophy. But inherent in the journey, I think, is the possibility, and indeed the risk, that the vase will smash and that the candidate won’t be able to put it back together. It remains a broken mess which might never make sense again. Doubt prevails. 

Doubt doesn’t always feel liberating. It can be crippling, isolating, scarily confronting and personally challenging. Doubt is a frame of mind wherein feelings of being unsupported, anxious and depressed more easily surface, where we can feel deficient as researchers and our efforts pointless. We know that PhD candidates are susceptible to all these feelings, contributing to what Inger Mewburn has recently described as a “…frightening epidemic of mental health issues among PhD students.” No such epidemic has yet claimed me and one reason it hasn’t is because of my university. Increasingly I rely upon it as a space within which I can safely expose myself to ‘liberating doubt’. My supervisors are my ‘port of call’. For me at least these are important aspects of the value proposition of the university – it will provide me with the support I need to ‘break’, as it were, and then to try and reform. It will lessen the very real risks inherent in the process of my doing so. 

These are the risks about which I would caution new PhD candidates. They should be considered and reflected on more explicitly and universities could, I believe, lead and facilitate that discussion more than they do. A consequence of doing so might be candidates who are more resilient and better prepared to confront the all-pervasive and, yes, potentially destabilising doubts of the kind that go to the very core not only of who they are as researchers, but as persons. When properly supported within the educational setting of the university these same doubts are better able to become truly liberating and, in that form, are perhaps our best chance of moving toward that state of being “quite awake”. 

Richard Stewart is a practising lawyer in Melbourne and a confirmed PhD(Law) candidate at Southern Cross University. My research concerns the capacity for property law to be used as an agent for behavioural change. LinkedIn

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2 thoughts on “Why your doctorate can make you feel like you’re drowning

  1. It is not just research PhDs. Online and international students can have a particularly difficult time with graduate studies. Part of this is that the graduate student is less being told what to do. As as a graduate student I spent three years feeling lost, terrified and angry. The irony was that I was studying how to design a better student experience for international students.

    One of the ways I suggest having graduate students feel less lost is through peer support. This is more than just saying “ask a friend”, it needs to be a compulsory, trained and assessed part of the program.

    Another is to scaffold the individual project process, and involve a team of people in helping the student, including qualified professional educators. PhD “research” students should be treated more like professional doctorate students. Otherwise the risks is the student sits alone not knowing what to do, with their supervisor occasionally rushing in, shouting at them, and then disappearing.

  2. Richard Stewart says:

    Hello Tom

    Thanks for reading and thinking about my contribution to this blog, and for your thoughtful comment. Whilst I don’t have any personal experience of it, I don’t for a moment doubt that higher degree students more generally have a difficult time. And I can easily recognise the added layer of difficulties encountered by international students. For myself, and what prompted this note, it was more the content I was exposing myself too, and the thoughts that content was causing me to have, that I found could be challenging; invigorating and mind-expanding, definitely yes, but challenging all the same. For instance, I found myself deep in thought about the meaning of ‘freedom’, informed by Kant, Hegel, Rousseau just to name a few, all while being subject to lockdown in Melbourne. And I reckon anyone who tries to engage with the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ and its relation to free will / freedom will find the going pretty confronting. Again, its a wonderful thing to do, but when you’re having these thoughts in the context of an otherwise busy and challenging life, like the ones we mostly all lead, things get real pretty quick. At least they did for me. So I am pleased that I am engaged in this process within the university setting, where I have access to supervisors and the resources of the university more generally. And I completely agree with you – peer support is critical. I’ve tried without too much success to increase opportunities for this within my own faculty; again, it’s hard because everyone is otherwise so busy but I really think that we are a great resource for each other, and the more we talk through these kinds of thoughts the easier they are to digest and learn from. Stay well and thanks again for your comment. Richard

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