Thursday, 28 November 2013

Where All of the Fingers Meet All of the Pies

It stuck me yesterday, after having absent-mindedly left my laptop leaning casually against a wall in a rather public place, that in many ways I am starting to become utterly useless. Most of my friends have probably forgotten who I am, my diary is overloaded with illegible scrawls and crossings-out, and, well (I probably shouldn't publish details of my 'beauty regime' on here, I know), I haven't shaved my legs since the day before I got married.

Despite this, I have to say that I'm enjoying myself more than I have done in a long time. That state of drowning contentedly that I referred to in my last post has never been as potent as it is right now; I've become totally obsessed with the work I'm involved with, and it feels pretty good. That is, it feels pretty good while I'm sitting at my desk getting stuff done, but as soon as I try to pull myself away from it I begin to choke on it all, completely overwhelmed by the extent of my commitments and how ridiculous I must be to have so many commitments if I hope to succeed at any of the things I have chosen to commit my time to. The 'PhD guilt', which appears to be an official term for the general state of any PhD student at any point in time, is gnawing away at my every moment of 'down time', and I realize that I'm going to need a whole new approach to 'down time' if it is to be of any use at all.

In a discussion with a friend yesterday lunchtime I realized what all of this is about. I've been working with a professor from a university in Virginia recently, putting together an exciting combination of experimental methods to pioneer a new approach to perception experiments with young infants, and he wisely told me that learning how to pick and choose projects based on personal interest and potential benefit is all part of learning how to be a good academic. All very well. But no matter how busy I was before I decided to get involved with this experiment, how would I ever have justified turning down an opportunity to pioneer a new approach to perception experiments with young infants? The same goes for every other commitment that I have taken on with gusto: how could I possibly say no?

The issue is that, at PhD level, we simply don't have the option of turning down an exciting opportunity just because we're too busy. Every step of the way we're reminded of the need to connect ourselves to the wider academic community - "impact" and "engagement" being the buzzwords to our every decision, as well as that godforsaken phrase "it'll look good on the CV". Has this sort of pressure existed throughout the eternity of academia, or is it a new-fangled thing to match the financial pressure that universities, funding bodies and students face, and the need to somehow be able to 'justify' our research to everyone who might bother to ask (and I wish people would ask, really I do)?

I'm all for addressing the impact of my research, and I'm more than happy to engage with anyone who'll care to listen, but I do wish that there were a little bit of space to simply enjoy the wonder of research without all of the surrounding academic anxiety. And maybe it's just because we're no longer so afraid to talk about our emotional 'weaknesses' and personal issues openly (see beauty regime comment above) but it seems to me that emotional issues go hand-in-hand with being a PhD student: by our very nature we are strivers, bursting from the pressure we put on ourselves to go that extra mile.

So while I'm glad of the many amazing opportunities that have come my way over the past year-and-a-bit (and by gum, I consider myself lucky to have had them), I do wish that the onus was less on the 'added extras' that will make my CV so much more sparkling than it otherwise might be, and more on the general skills that one might need to actually do the PhD itself; emotional skills as well as practical or stats-based skills. Having all of these commitments makes stopping for breath harder than never stopping for breath; it's too easy to bury in work and forget about the world out there, while social, personal and emotional priorities just seem to dissipate into some vaguely familiar shadow of something that I used to know.