WHERE I WENT: Reflections on HDR

I originally wrote the post below for another blog project that I quickly realised I couldn't sustain. I'd planned to ask Higher Degree by Research (HDR) graduates about their experiences of navigating this form of study — what they'd struggled with and what they'd learnt about themselves. Several close friends contributed beautiful posts that I was proud and excited to publish, but beyond that, it was difficult to find contributors.

There's much about HDR study that quite literally hurts. It has a way of fomenting personal insecurities and bumping other seemingly unrelated issues to the surface. It recalibrates your brain, strains relationships, and brings you to your knees before the gods of perfectionism, elitism, and profound institutional pressure.

For many graduates, a sense of failure permeates not only the period of their candidature but also life beyond the floppy cap. I'm posting this here so it has a home, as much for me as anyone else.


MAY 05, 2018

In 2013, a year in which I was hospitalised four times for major depression, I applied for a scholarship that would enable me to enrol as a full-time PhD student.

Only a madwoman, I now realise, would embark on a PhD after possibly the worst year of her life: a year spent lurching in and out of psychiatric care, on the brink of self-destruction; a year punctuated by talk therapy on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis; a year measured in the time elapsing between doses of medication; a year partially obliterated from memory by more than 15 applications of electro-convulsive therapy.

A family friend had lent me a bag of self-help books.

When I say a bag, I mean a huge bag — one of those eco-friendly shopping bags into which she'd crammed what felt like a hundred books. I touched the covers. I read some of the titles and blurbs. I may have tried in earnest to read just one. But I couldn't think of many things I wanted to do less than to read a self-help book. I didn’t like the way the authors addressed their readers. I didn’t subscribe to their thought-centric models of what I’d experienced primarily as profound bodily distress, as if negative thinking were the reason my mother sometimes slept by my side to ensure that I was breathing through the night. And I didn’t trust their forceful optimism or formulaic remedies.

More than that, however, I found it crushingly difficult to read information and advice. They say that knowledge is power, but I couldn’t seem to focus on the page of text for very long before the words would slough off the edge and out of my mind.

Reading self-help was hard work.

The seeming unhelpfulness of self-help for the deeply depressed reader eventually became so perplexing to me that I felt it was worth investigating in a more serious and systematic way. In other words, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But in February of 2014, I sat in my primary supervisor's office with a notepad, pretending to take notes as she introduced me to her two other supervisions, and I noticed the wedding rings on their fingers. I noticed the intelligence and assuredness with which they both seemed to speak. I noticed how calmly and neatly they articulated their research interests. And I felt, all of a sudden, as if I couldn't possibly belong or make it.

People ask me now how I made it. How did you overcome your mental illness, they ask (a term I rather hate), to finish your PhD? They are desperate for a story of transformation, recovery — some kind of victory.

I wish I had an inspiring answer for them.

I don't.

Doing a PhD was the very worst and the best idea I've ever had. It was a poor decision because I started in such a vulnerable position. I was depressed, defeated, and traumatised after a protracted period of loss, failure, and illness. My autoimmune conditions were out of control. I was not only broke but also had thousands of dollars of medical debt. And ECT had left me with lingering memory and concentration problems. I felt as though my brain and body were inherently, irrevocably broken and that I had nothing to offer the world, either intellectually or more practically. But it was, at the same time, a healthy decision to make because it restored some structure, purpose, and momentum to my life. I had — at long last — a reason to get up in the morning again. Researching others' experiences helped to lift me out of my own.

That being said, I was not prepared for the day-to-day terror of HDR study or the curious way in which it seemed to both amplify and multiply all of my fears and shortcomings. Although it was exciting to dig deep and strike 'gold' (the PhD student's holy grail: a so-called gap in the literature), I had no idea what I was doing. I had embarked on a project relying heavily on cultural and literary theory and qualitative research methods, which forced me far beyond familiar territory (my background is in linguistics and corporate writing and editing). As a student attempting to integrate bits of various disciplines, I discovered that other individuals who might have been natural colleagues or collaborators were physically or organisationally distant. My supervision changed after my first year, and I lacked specialist input, often feeling bewildered and exhausted by the cascade of decisions I had to make as I designed the project, collected and processed data, and attempted to narrativise my findings. I cannot fault my eventual primary advisor, whose unwavering respect for and trust in me was enough to get me over the line; however, I felt lonely. I felt lonely and scared, marooned in a giant, amorphous intellectual cosmos, convinced that I couldn't pull off what I was trying to achieve, and that examination would finally eviscerate all of my (project's) flaws, omissions, and inadequacies.

I was also, in the beginning, woefully oblivious to the relentlessness of HDR. I did not know that, for the better part of four years, I would think non-stop about my research, that I'd always, always be working, that I'd wake bolt up-right in the middle of the night needing to write down a sentence or chuck a paragraph in the bin, that I'd tune out at my nephew's second birthday party, fretting about thematic codes while he blew out his cake candles, that guilt would soon accompany every morning or afternoon off, every coffee date when I should have been reading or transcribing or writing.

In Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk writes: 'When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep, and you're never really awake... Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.' Producing my PhD felt like an insomnia of sorts. I was rarely genuinely productive because, even as I worked so hard, I was in such a state of dread and anxiety that I couldn't think straight. (And my memory has never returned to a supple state post-ECT.) When I wasn't working, however, I felt so frantic and disorganised and delinquent that I was never quite there. I was a copy of a copy of a copy.

And yet, if 'a word after a word after a word is power', as Margaret Atwood has suggested, I did the only powerful thing I could: I showed up. That's all. Even when I felt sick to my stomach with dread and despair, as I did almost every day for four years, I opened my laptop and I did something. Some days, I put a word after a word after a word. Sometimes I wrote just 20 words. Sometimes I wrote 2000. Sometimes I deleted more in one day than I'd produced the day before. And I cried.

I made the decision to continue primarily because I was angry. Nobody ever has much good to say about anger, but anger can give you energy. I didn't want depression or anxiety to win — whatever those labels mean to me anymore. I didn't want the pervasive institutional culture to win. And I didn't want scholars who make assumptions about the way individuals engage with self-help books to win.

I had bad days — so many bad days. I behaved appallingly at times and made some incredibly stupid decisions. I think of these many, many low points, and I'm not entirely sure that I could go through it all again. There were days when I couldn't get out of bed. There were days when I sat sobbing on my bedroom floor before limping to uni and brightly delivering undergraduate tutorials about grammar and academic writing before limping home again to cry and/or sleep. There were days when I'd bomb myself out on benzos until midday, then sit in bed transcribing audio or coding transcriptions until I couldn't make sentences anymore. There was the time I stormed through the front door and shouted at my then-housemate for never taking the wheelie bins out (?).

If I could reach back through the time–space continuum to the me of 2013, first I would probably punch myself in the face. You don't need to do a PhD! Who needs to do a PhD?

But then I'd tell myself this.

You are enough. You are going to feel as though you're never enough, never good enough. You've felt this way your whole adult life. But this experience is going to be much worse. You will feel as though you're not nearly clever enough, that you don't know enough, that you haven't read widely enough, that you haven't surveyed or interviewed enough research participants, that you haven't asked enough questions or the right questions, that you're not writing enough, that your analysis is not deep or broad enough, that your expression isn't 'academic' enough, that you haven't read your final draft closely enough. You will feel as though you haven't tried hard enough to publish, that you haven't accumulated enough teaching experience, that you mustn't say 'no' to any offer of employment (exploitative or not) because your CV isn't comprehensive or current enough. You will feel as though you haven't got enough support, that you're not old, experienced, or male enough for people to take you seriously.

But you are enough.

You have friends who will spend the night with you and get you out of bed when you can't do that on your own. People will offer to read your shitty drafts. Let them. They’re not as shitty as you think they are. You will be the custodian of stories whose tellers don't often get the opportunity to share — take that responsibility seriously, but don't let the weight of it cripple you. Go for a walk. I mean it. Or take a hot shower. Words will find their way to you. Knots will unravel. Structural problems will shift and resolve.

Doing a PhD will educate you in more ways than you could have imagined. You have to do the PhD before you'll know with great certainty how you should have done the PhD.

Who you are as a person is not synonymous with your project. You are not your PhD.

And nothing is ever finished — only abandoned. You have to let go.

But you’re enough. With or without your degree, you’re already enough.

Just show up and do something.