What I learned in Hell – For those of you who have not been playing along at home, the title of today’s entry is something of a inside joke: I have been working on my dissertation for quite some time now, and got into the habit of abbreviating it as “diss,” but recently I decided to drop the second “s” and capitalize the “d,” leaving us with “Dis,” which is (among other things) the name of the city that contains the lowermost circles of Hell in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Dante only listed nine circles of Hell, but I suspect that there is a tenth ring reserved for PhD candidates. Today’s entry is about what I learned in that tenth ring of Hell.
Back at the beginning of June, I posted a link to a page called “3 qualities of successful Ph.D. students” (this is also, incidentally, where I first started calling the dissertation the Dis). I originally had the idea to eventually write my own version of this based on what I had learned. Unlike the author of that page, though, I have not had the opportunity to observe PhD candidates at four different universities, so I don’t know how qualified I am to make a list of my own. I did start writing a list of things, but I soon realized that it was less a list of qualities and more a list of things that I learned in the process of writing the Dis.
At the time, there was also the minor detail of me not actually being a successful PhD candidate yet. The timing of this entry is not random—this past Thursday was my second and final evaluation, and as you can probably guess by the fact that I am writing this now, the Dis was approved by all five members of my committee. Despite the fact that the committee deliberated ten minutes longer than they did during the first evaluation, this one went a lot more smoothly. There were no major issues raised (at least none that would require major revisions), just some suggestions on things that I might want to do to polish the Dis before publication. I have two weeks to do that—the official copy is due at the library on the 5th of August.
I had once thought that I would save this entry for after everything was done, but I quickly realized that I probably was not going to want to talk about these things when everything was done. After I submit the final copy of the Dis it will be time to look forward, not backward. So I think now is the best time to deal with the lessons learned along the way. There are a lot of things I could discuss, but I’d like to talk about three lessons in particular, as they seemed to me to be the most important. The first deals with perspective, the second deals with point-of-view, and the third deals with pain—call them the “Three Ps,” if you will.
This lesson is actually a combination of a number of things I wrote in my list as time went by. In a nutshell: the Dis is not the ultimate goal, it is just a starting point.
For the longest time, I had a really hard time seeing past the Dis. By this I mean that I could picture my future, at least murkily so, up until the point where I finished the Dis (whenever that might be), but after that it was all fog and mist. The Dis was my own personal event horizon. I didn’t realize until relatively recently that this was because I was ascribing far too much importance to the Dis. Not that it isn’t important, of course, but it is not the end all, be all of my academic existence. It is not the finish line but the starting line.
When I began to see the Dis in proper perspective, some of the problems I was having disappeared. As those who know me personally can attest, I am something of a perfectionist. The Dis was to be my magnum opus, and I wanted it to be perfect. Having to deal with the fact that it probably wasn’t going to be perfect was causing me a considerable amount of stress. But once I realized that it was more of a first step than a magnum opus, I felt a lot less pressure. I will still do the best that I can, but I also know that I will be able to revisit these themes in the future and develop my thoughts on them over time.
I also know that I will be able to deal with themes adjacent to the Dis. One of the things I struggled with early on was getting a tight enough focus on the Dis. There were so many things that I wanted to deal with, but if I had dealt with them all, the Dis would have been far too unwieldy. Once I gained the proper perspective, though, I realized that those adjacent themes would still be there for me to come back to later. This also relieved a lot of the pressure I felt.
Finally, the fog that had settled over my post-Dis future was lifted as well. Because the Dis was no longer an end point but a starting point, I began to be able to see ways that I could move forward after completing it. I got ideas for subjects I wanted to research, papers and books I wanted to write, and other projects that I wanted to tackle. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but it’s actually pretty huge. The Dis as an end point meant the end of possibilities, but the Dis as a starting point meant a whole new world of possibility. It did wonders for my state of mind, which is crucial to a PhD candidate—everyone goes a little loopy at one point or another, so the more sanity you can retain the better.
There is a Korean phrase that is used to describe someone cut off from outside sources of information, someone who is clueless about what is going on in the world at large: frog in a well (umul an gaeguri). You do not want to be a frog in a well when you are writing your dissertation.
When I was in university, I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (stick with me here, I have a point). I enjoyed the book immensely, so much so that I sought out Shelley’s other novels and read them as well. None of them appealed to me quite as much as Frankenstein did, though. The relevance of this book to the present topic can be found in how Herr Frankenstein goes about his initial studies—he basically buries himself in old texts without any sort of outside guidance. It isn’t until he gets to university and begins talking with the professors there that he realizes the theories he has been so fascinated by have been considered outmoded for quite some time. (Then, of course, he takes these outmoded theories and succeeds in creating life in the form of a “monster” that eventually destroys him, but we won’t get into that here.)
It is very important to have outside input on the dissertation, because it’s very easy to get caught up in your own head and lose perspective. That is, of course, what your advisor is for, but whenever I met someone I could tell was genuinely interested in what I was doing, I took the opportunity to talk with them about it just to get a fresh perspective. Even if they did not have the same experience with or knowledge of the subject, just talking with them about it could be enough to help me see things in a different light, and sometimes that was all that was needed for a breakthrough. (By the way, distinguishing those who are genuinely interested from those who are just being polite is easy—the eyes of the polite questioners will quickly glaze over, taking on a vacant and slightly horrified look.)
One of the greatest advantages of a university education is precisely this ability to be sharpened and honed by dialogue with professors and peers. Unfortunately, once you finish your coursework and enter the ABD (all but dissertation) phase, you tend to have less interaction with your peers. Most candidates are working at one job or another, and this job may or may not have anything to do with what you are studying. In my case, what I do now has little relation to my field of study. Thus it was important that I seek out interaction whenever possible.
If you set out to write a doctoral dissertation, you should be prepared to suffer, both mentally and physically. This could actually be the most important lesson I learned: while the proper perspective and point-of-view are important, and while there are many pieces that need to fit together in the dissertation puzzle, the bottom line is that writing the Dis was a marathon of pain. Take a few weeks ago, for example. I woke up one morning and could not move my head—my neck muscles had seized up to the point that the slightest movement of my head caused excruciating pain, and even staying still was very uncomfortable. I went to the hospital and everything is OK now, but it was a rough few days.
All throughout this process I have felt my body slowly deteriorating. I’ve tried to exercise along the way, and for a while I was exercising regularly, but the past few months in particular have been difficult, and as a result I am now probably in the worst shape I’ve been in a while. In retrospect, I should have stuck with the exercise, but there’s not much I can do about that now. All I can do now is get off my butt and get active again.
The physical suffering is only part of it, though, and probably not even the worst part—that would be the mental suffering. I don’t know if the Dis is the most stressful thing I have ever done (I think I’ll need a little more distance from it to determine that), but it definitely ranks up there in the top three. The thing about stress is that it is not an entirely bad thing, just like pain is not an entirely bad thing. Both of them serve a purpose: pain lets you know when something is probably not good for your body, and stress can act as a motivator. Too much of either, though, can be debilitating. Thus everyone needs to come up with their own ways of dealing with stress or they risk losing the ability to function properly.
I’ve never been too confident in my abilities to deal with excessive stress, to be honest. Thus I tend to compound my problems by focusing on the source of the stress and making myself physically ill. While working on the Dis, though, I realized a few important things. For one, the mental suffering I experienced was largely a self-fulfilling prophesy. That is, I would tell myself that, based on past experience, I always got nervous at certain times (such as right before presenting a paper at a conference). Because of this, I would not eat before a conference (nervousness manifests in different ways for different people—for me, it’s the digestive system). This in turn would rob me of needed strength and actually make things worse.
Recently I presented yet another paper at a conference. As I was preparing for the conference, I started to fall into my old thought habits. But then I realized that the source of my stress was not actually the act of presenting a paper, it was my attitude toward that act. In other words, I had complete control over my own thinking, or I could have if I wanted. So I decided that I was not going to freak out about the presentation, and as a result things went reasonably well. I even ate lunch before the conference and my stomach was completely fine.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I have suddenly eliminated all nervousness. I was still a little nervous before presenting the paper, and I was extremely nervous as I waited in the school office on Thursday while my committee deliberated. Perhaps people with stronger wills than I are capable of eliminating all stress and nervousness from their lives. For me, personally, this is not a reasonable or even worthwhile goal. There will always be some stress and, as I said above, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. So, on the one hand, I have done my best to eliminate excess stress, but my approach to the stress that remains has been different. I mentioned this in a previous entry, but essentially my approach is to embrace that stress. Being nervous is a fairly strong emotional experience, like falling in love or being terrified. These emotional experiences define our existence as human beings. To be overwhelmed by any one of those emotions might not be healthy, but I think it would be equally unhealthy to attempt to deny them and aspire to some sort of Vulcanish serenity. So as I sat in the office and waited, I tried to eliminate what nervousness I could (by doing breathing exercises, etc.), and the rest I just accepted as part of being human. This is what it means to be alive.
So there you have it: three things that I learned in my journey through the bowels of the Dis. They are very personal lessons, so they may not apply equally to everyone. But my journal entries here have always been more about personal experiences and views than broad, overarching theories. If you find yourself considering a doctorate, though, perhaps the above will be of some help. If you are working through a doctorate right now, maybe knowing that you’re not alone in these things will help, too. And—despite what I just said about avoiding broad, overarching theories—I’d like to think that these lessons could be applied not just to something like the Dis, but to life in general. At least, that’s the way I’m approaching them.