An underestimated turning point in our PhD journey
Deepening the bond
One of my professors said to me, ‘Prakriti, old age is a time to simplify things’. This was fairly recent and our discussion was a beautiful mix of contexts ranging from daily chores and putting together a flat as desired to anxieties of work commitments and the difficulties and joys of reading and writing. We talked about the past- our shared memories and I confessed to my professor what they had meant to me in very exact terms: ‘your lectures made me feel like someone had finally fed me, I’d been so hungry’.
This was a helpful moment for me to notice that I’d come a long way. And I was still very hungry, to the effect of the same metaphor. Taking that moment allowed me to realize the potential of the U-turn. The U-turn is a moment in time that allows for a swift recap and recalling the route that we had been on. We get a chance to not feel overwhelmed this time. It is already known to us and we merely revisit it without calibrating our plans anew. The lockdown presented itself as a chance to journey back to where we started; to take a U-turn. For some of us it was an activity worth pursuing in the face of a confined space that then became a noise free vacuum to find new ways of being. I’m an introverted person. The noise free vacuum had been my natural habitat. I noticed some other things.
In Deep shit
I found myself in yet another financial crisis over the lockdown. My thesis topic felt more and more unfamiliar to me and I was losing my grounding and producing drafts that were superficial. I was alone and did not know that a kind of depression was creeping in. My wonderful friends and family, so far away at home, did not know about it because I didn’t know about it myself. I was inside my rented room, surviving on grocery vouchers offered by the university and writing to my employers to help me a bit so that I am able to re-apply for a student visa soon. I completely neglected how much the visa process would be dependent on my research output. Considering that I didn’t have much of an output in words, this was going to be a heartbreakingly scary problem to come to terms with.
Closer to the visa process my supervisor and I had to have a difficult conversation about the same. It had felt like the end of the world to me. Right before the third city-wide lockdown, I’d put in an umpteen amount of time being immersed into history books and literary criticism. I had tried to make ends meet and I knew that this was my own choice. And I had failed at it.
Among self-doubt and low self-esteem, my wordless document also reflected my complete apathy for my project. It was akin to mourning for a loved one’s loss, a feeling many of us have gone through in these pandemic ridden couple of years. After having been through a series of these mental ‘accidents’ I announced to my folks that I had failed them and that I will come back home and retire into a disgraced corner and start from scratch. I simply did not have what it takes to do a PhD. For someone who’d been consistently introverted and underconfident, I should have known better than to undertake such an herculean task along with making ends meet. I was already in grief and midst post-event rituals, now that I’d given in to the paradox of life and choices. I just did not have a choice because I’d exhausted all my resources to save this project and to get my degree. Or so I thought.
The Deep dive
I was tired and hadn’t had a break ever since I was 18. There it is, I thought. I needed to rest but there wasn’t enough time. There was work to do and the visa deadline was very close. When my family encouraged me to reconsider leaving just yet, I resisted the idea for as long as I could. However, at this point it all came down to one last shot. The stakes suddenly came down to a nil. This meant that I did not have to work too much or be at the mercy of a positive feedback for the drafts. This meant that if I got comfortable with the mess I was in I’d get enough time to meditate on possibilities and recalibrate my thesis. Imagine this moment as one of those typically deconstructive and reconstructive moments where you become emotionally naked with yourself and start from there.
I made quite a few changes to 3 areas of my life. The first one had to be my grocery list, obviously. (If this wasn’t obvious, reconsider priorities.) My expense had to come down to $25 a week and my nutrition had to be on point so that I can write and write! Just when I thought I knew the cheapest ways to sustain myself, the previous lockdown became an opportunity to ruthlessly cut it down to only the best stuff.
Cooking and eating became processes I started to swear by. If I could make something so delicious from scratch, I could do anything. The key was to pay attention and not make it look difficult at all.
The second area was my thesis- the nucleus of this endeavor. Lessons from cooking influenced my writing process. I was forced to ask myself before starting my draft: What is it that I am preparing this morning. The answer to this question usually covered all the Wh questions where lies the motivation and a sense of purpose that beats intellectual fatigue and makes one enjoy and savor it. Making mistakes seemed acceptable now. Clocking out of tasks before getting too heady started to look more achievable, too. My drafts improved because I knew what I was doing. Like, duh.
The third area commanded a figurative deep dive into the Self. If everything was taken away from me, what would I do? How would I still continue to live and enjoy life? Implementing ideas to answer those questions led to definitive solutions to my constant anxiety. Somehow, that period of extreme poverty and emotional impoverishment went on to make me the happiest I have ever felt.
The Deep end and then a U-turn
With only the most fundamental resources in my arsenal, I was free to notice that I didn’t have to meet with those mental accidents. Perhaps all of those decisions were my desperate attempts to not drown. I overworked myself to pay my bills and I didn’t devote enough time to writing because of self doubting and self sabotaging patterns. Not producing drafts further confirmed my inadequacy and my work schedule didn’t help. Once I recognized this conflicting attitude, I was able to take a time-out. I had to earn my livelihood and this wasn’t exactly easy. I accepted that it was never going to be, and hard times don’t always have to be bad times. I worked out a more suitable plan. One that is necessarily more compassionate to myself and by extension, to others involved in my project.
Now that I’m slightly past that period, it has been an exciting challenge to keep up with the time lost. I’m being more practical with my time and energy and that’s the only way to ever get anything done. Which brings me to the last two observations: A PhD needs to be imbued with moments of ordinariness. So, our mistakes, delayed draft submissions, positive as well as critical feedback from our supervisors are all part of getting our degree and honing our skills. The external pressures, too, are real. And they need our attention. But prioritizing and being cognizant of our emotional needs makes it easier for us to not lose track.
Lastly, here’s my emphasis on the U-turn so as to not lose track of our goals. Doctoral candidates are more often than not first time writers struggling to communicate the afterthoughts of our research in a hopefully readable manner. It might feel counterintuitive to some of us but working backwards or taking a U-turn is the only way out of unsuccessfully trying to write decent drafts in loops and making the same mistake: ‘It is not as clear on paper as when you say it like that’. Therefore, embrace that ordinariness of ‘saying it like that’. Be a casual academic stumbling upon critical ideas but also rolling in the green grass in the park sometimes - not literally(?).
Nurture the deep bonds you might have with people. Networking is a scam. We need connections and we need each other’s backing. If age is just a number, it seems to me that we must all always take out time to simplify things, as my professor had so kindly mentioned to me.