The Doctor's (not) in (yet): In a Relationship with: My thesis; Status: It’s complicated.


Okay, this one gets really personal because I am not the type of girl who sugar-coats things: This month, my PhD journey really sucks! That’s right. A PhD is all fun and games until someone cries – which is to 99% the doctoral student (sometimes it’s your supervisors, too when they have to look at your drafts). In times of excessive social media use and presence, we are not familiar anymore with things that aren’t perfect. A PhD journey, however, is everything but perfect. Once you’re in that maze, you can’t get out (and there are no shortcuts through the hedges).

It’s autumn now here in New Zealand and usually it’s my favourite time of the year. But with the falling leaves there also come all the nasty bugs that float around in the offices and public transport. And for some reason, it totally knocked me down. When you're aPhD student, sick days are always harder because with your poor condition there comes the lurking feeling of guilt. Medical certificates mean nothing, unless you’re employed at your university, because it is all your own responsibility.

Not only that I had to call off my grading to finally become a purple belt – I had a deadline in May and needed to get my research proposal done. During that time I realised that my methodological approach probably isn’t sufficient, looking at the required sample sizes. But none of my supervisors were there to talk to me about that. When you have great and successful supervisors there is the catch that they are often away for several months a year, so we needed to make a decision via Email. After two days, and several talks with colleagues later, I was advised to change my methods, four weeks before submission. Usually I would go to training and yell it all out, but due to my health condition, this was not possible. Exercising always gave me a good amount of distance to my research. When you do martial arts, you need to be in the moment. You can’t think about what you’re having for dinner or how you want to structure your literature review, otherwise you get punched or even kicked in the face…Not being able to handle this stress got really frustrating and surely contributed to my poor health condition at this stage. A vicious circle.

The stress added up when I considered a different methodological approach and I didn’t know whether this would be the right call. Due to time constraints I decided against it to implode eventually. I’m now sick since four weeks straight with little improvement of my overall condition. Two weeks before I wanted to submit my nearly finished doctoral proposal, I had to withdraw. For me a personal defeat as I now must wait an additional month until the doctoral board meets again…Just because you are working hard doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. Probably the best bottom line when describing what doing a PhD feels like.

Getting into doctoral research is a serious commitment. What helped me most in difficult times were my supervisors and my fellow colleagues who find themselves in the same kind of misery. Having a supporting environment helps a lot to overcome self-doubt and frustration. Hearing ‘you’re enough’ from time to time can really make a difference.

To be honest, planning and conducting own research is a tough one. But a certain darkness is needed to see the stars. And luckily, there are still more of the good times.