Why the PhD is the most un-zen phase in your life
I’m currently travelling for a teaching gig and just had this epiphany (which ultimately was a long time in the making, I guess). The PhD phase is the most un-zen thing you will ever do and it definitely will have consequences on your mental health somehow, on your mindset in the very least. Let me explain.
[just found this pretty much finished draft which is likely from during summer term 2022]
The best time of your life yet you’re never truly living in the moment
The PhD requires you to put all your focus – for three years in the very least – on one single project, topic and goal. This is the most important thing in which you not only pour all your love and passion but you also directly link your identity to it. That is inevitable and part of the game, so far so good. I also want to add that I feel the PhD phase had some of the most amazing moments for me. I traveled a lot, went to conferences, met fascinating people, read great books, etc. It was a battle sometimes but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experience. I definitely learned a lot and grew a lot in a way that you don’t expect to still do once you’ve left your teens. In that respect, definitely an invaluable experience.
But one negative mindset I have acquired in this phase and currently trying to undo is being incredibly un-zen, i.e. never being in the moment. And how could you be? Your goal is always in the future. I think this was initially still fun and even very invigourating in the beginning when you’re still orienting yourself in the field. Lots of firsts (publication, talk, conference, etc.). You’re still figuring out the topic, reading up on it. It maybe feels a bit vague and not so effective in the moment but is a fun time.
The pressure to “live in/for the future” gets increasingly worse towards the end despite your getting more and more tired
However, the closer you get to the end, the more pressure (internal and external) you get to “finish your thesis!!!”. It becomes appropriate to tell you off for doing anything but the thesis. And I get it, it’s a hard balance for anybody in your life – they should be encouraging you and you probably do need some pressure to pull through. However, it’s a also a very slippery slope in terms of “having a life”, being somewhat “zen”, feeling good about yourself, mental health, etc. It’s a lot of pressure and I’m glad to be done with it.
Would I do it again? I’d probably say no but also, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, so realistically, probably yes. But if I did it again, I would approach it differently and be confident enough to protect my mental health better and to not let people teach me a bad mindset like this (which is totally normalized in Academia but shouldn’t be!).
People seem to fare better if they treat it like a job
I’ve heard people handle the PhD, even the final phase, much better when they treat it like a job (sometimes because they have family or sth and they just can’t pour all their hearts into the thesis). And maybe that would have been more healthy.
I just don’t have the wisdom on how I could have achieved that…
Write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day
Years ago, I read this great little book “How to write your thesis in 15 minutes a day” (Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis, NY 1998 – also discussed here). It sounds cheesy but the point was that you just have to do a little every day. And that’s precisely what I didn’t end up doing. I procrastinated on it, for weeks on end not even looking at it. Getting distracted by the side quests and bascially anything else. That’s not because I wasn’t strong-willed enough. My willpower had been fine all my life and I’m a hard-working, disciplined person who also enjoys work a lot. But none of my usual coping mechanisms worked on the thesis. And I blame this un-zen mindset. It encouraged procrastination in a person who was never a procrastinator (I’m mean, aren’t we all, but I wasn’t that bad).
In that post linked above, I discussed some reasons for why we procrastinate and what we can do about it. But ultimately, it all comes down to being in the moment. I’m re-learning how to do that and believe me when I say, I hadn’t been in the moment for way too long during my thesis. Always focused on this dread-inducing goal in the future – yet completely unable to make progress in the present because I was just frozen in place. Not only is this not a fun feeling and damaging for your mental health in the long run, it’s also deeply unproductive.
Side note: I’m just reading Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021). A) It’s not as cheesy as it sounds and B) he talks about this concept he calls the “Efficiency Trap”, i.e. that the more you get done, the more work you have. The more email you answer, the more email you are sent. It’s like a modern-day Sisyphus Inbox. Just saying, I might have things to say on the topic of productivity and what that can even mean once I’m finished with this book.
At least now I understand why all those side-quest dopamine hits were so much more interesting…
I’d love to tell you that I have a suggestion on how we could do better but I truly don’t know. Would I have been able to be more zen during this last year of finishing the thesis? I’m not sure. I think, if anything, I would have needed to start early establishing a good “process not product” routine, yet I never truly managed to.
No wonder all the side projects were more interesting – they were in the moment and I felt that I had control over them: if I worked on it, it would be finished eventually and I’d get at least the reward of not having to look at it anymore.
(Still haven’t gotten that on the thesis because it needs to be published…)
Anyway, now I’ll have the last session of my block teaching gigs and with that, I have vacated both my teaching gigs in Passau and Vienna. I loved both of them and how they allowed me to expand my teaching portfolio. But with teaching in Graz now, I just can’t do any external gigs anymore right now. I have given a workshop at Harvard lately which has inspired a few colleagues and me to organize two winter schools. So basically I’m still teaching semi-external gigs but in a different format.
I will keep you up to date if I come up with a miracle solution for the problem – and you let me know in case you have found one already in the comments! 😉
Anyways, that’s a all I wanted to share for now.