As you grow older, it becomes harder to feel 100 percent happy; you learn all the things that can go wrong, you become superstitious about tempting fate, about bringing disaster upon your life by accidentally feeling too good one day.
Douglas Coupland, Shampoo Planet
I’m coming into the third year of my PhD, and I’m currently on track to submit on time. I’ve been able to pick up some high-quality publications and book some interesting and valuable conferences. I’ve got teaching experience, funding experience, outreach experience… Things are going… pretty well. Not that I want to say it out loud.
I find myself genuinely worried that there’s a huge derailment coming to disrupt me that no amount of careful planning and meticulous method can avoid.
I don’t believe in fate, but I also don’t believe I’m going to risk tempting it. For the last two years I’ve been working in a focused, organised, dedicated way, and it shows in my progress, but when people ask me how it’s going I nervously qualify my answer by saying that I hope it’s going okay, I’m not sure, I hope there’s no catastrophes before the final hurdle. Part of this is because I feel I ought to be modest (an impulse which may well be gendered). I’m sure that a lot of it is that for many PhD candidates, success does not look like this, and it can be demoralising to be expected to celebrate the achievements of colleagues who, for one reason or another, have been able to rise to the frankly unreasonable expectations placed on PhD candidates, and I’m trying to be sensitive to that. Most sinisterly, I find myself genuinely worried that there’s a huge derailment coming to disrupt me that no amount of careful planning and meticulous method can avoid.
In the final year of my undergraduate degree, due to traumatic circumstances far beyond my control, I became homeless three weeks before my dissertation was due. Luckily, I had good people in my corner who were able to postpone my submission until I found a place to stay, though I was still couchsurfing by the time my final exams rolled around. I survived – clearly – but it wasn’t easy, and with the added stress of graduate school (though I’m sure at the time I believed my Honours year was the Most Stressful Thing Ever; how little I knew!) could I bounce back from a bombshell like that again? I really hope I don’t have to find out, or if I do, that the bombshell will be just slightly less chaotic than an emergency flitting.
Maybe this superstition around my own success is just one example of the poor mental health reported by many graduate students. Maybe I’m just being a martyr to how difficult I know graduate school to be (I’m doing well; that doesn’t mean I’m finding it easy). Maybe, as Samantha Fitch at the University of Auckland has recently suggested, individual successes such as an accomplished week in the office or a quickly completed first draft are missing the familiar garnish of validation. There’s enough barriers to completing a PhD without my inventing ones to worry about in my head, and I’m going to have to be careful not to let imaginary boogeymen sidetrack me. Touch wood.