Doctoral despair: what to pack for the bear hunt


Doctoral misery and deadline pressure love company. So I have to say I was somewhat relieved to hear from a fellow traveller on this journey that she too was having completion issues.

To put this in perspective, I am not talking about some mythical PhD slacker who spends the days on a scholarship playing Solitaire on the computer. Though I have heard they exist…

No, this woman a motivated self-starter who presents at conferences around the world, publishes and teaches. So when she sends me an email saying that she is in the last two months – and too scared to count the days – and things are not moving as swiftly, or as smoothly as she would like, I know that feeling.

Yes, I am having what she’s having. And that’s the fear of the last part of the journey. It’s no longer about formulating ideas, drafting version of the thesis, reading and commenting on journal articles – it’s not even about writing articles or conference papers.

Hell no, this is the real thing. This is fear. This is what sports stars must feel just before the race begins.

It has nothing to do with competence; it’s all a mind game now, in the same way that writing fiction is actually a mind game. This is what internationally best selling author Douglas Kennedy has to say about it about it:

“Writing is a confidence trick you play on yourself… and one which you must perpetuate on a daily basis.”

I’d recommend reading Kennedy’s blog: “left handed writing, right handed thoughts” for an insight into so many aspects of the writing life – confidence tricks, completion, and the curiosity with which he observes people and the world and weaves that into his books. No, he isn’t in my doctoral bibliography – no mutants here, just an acute skill at rendering the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes a little respite from the Gothic is called for….

As for my friend? She writes, ”I shall look forward to seeing you all on the other side of the PhD, although I can barely imaging what that place might look like!”

I had her pinned for an effortless finish and am now somewhat relieved I am not the only one tearing my hair out. At the moment, nothing I write seems profound enough or sounds scholarly enough…yes, it’s the inevitable descent into The Valley Of Shit. This is something that Dr Mewburn wrote so eloquently about in her Thesis Whisper blog entitled – The Valley of Shit.

The Thesis Whisperer is a newspaper style blog dedicated to helping research students, and is edited by Dr Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the ANU.

I met Inger when she was working at RMIT and she asked me to contribute some blogs to her site, which I was more than happy to do – you can read them here.

I have a theory that any time spent reading The Thesis Whisperer is not procrastination, but actually a thinly disguised therapy session….

Inger writes: “There are a few signs you are entering into The Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant.”

Indeed, the photo that accompanies today’s blog was taken on a visit to my father’s village in northern Greece. It seems to sum up this state of mind perfectly. Because I cannot speak a word of Greek, the signs didn’t really help me as we started to trek up the mountain. If I got lost, I couldn’t ask for help. That’s what The Valley of Shit feels like – you can see from the signs that you are there, but you don’t know what they say, and don’t know how to get out.

If you too are in this dark and smelly place, you just have to do what I am doing, and believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps because I am a fiction writer, I am well-used to walking through The Valley of Shit, and know there are only three things you can do – do not lose your nerve, keep on working, and believe in your ability.

As Douglas Kennedy says about being a novelist:  “Even when you’ve hit the twenty year mark, are you also willing to accept the fact that, even when others think you have arrived as a novelist, any truly good and serious writers knows one central truth of this calling, this profession: you never arrive.  You just keep on working.”

That’s right – just keep on working. That’s all you can do when you hit The Valley of Shit – take comfort in knowing everyone completing their doctorate probably ends up here, and probably gets out alive. You just have to keep on working through it.

I am reminded of a book I used to read my boys when they were little – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen. I loved this book even more than they did, as it seemed to sum up the very meaning of persistence so perfectly. I’d bounce the kids on my knee and sing along with the team on Playschool:

“We’re going on a bear hunt…we’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day, we’re not scared! Uh oh, a river – a deep cold river! We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it – oh no! We’ve got to go through it….”

Who needs the philosophy according to Pooh? I’ll take Rosen any day. Good luck!