Finding your way back into your research

I had a long conversation with a dear friend of mine recently about her PhD, with which she is struggling at present. In truth, she has been struggling for a while, and one of the main reasons for this is that she has fallen out of and with it. She is no longer interested in her research topic, and while she has generated rich and interesting data that give her several viable PhD questions to answer, she is battling to find one that will help her find her way back in so that she can press on and complete her doctorate. How can she find her way back in, given that she has been outside of her PhD for a while, and feels an enmity towards it, rather than a feeling of kinship with or interest in it? How can any of us find our way back in to research or projects or papers when we have fallen out with or of them and can’t seem to locate a door or a window to climb back through?

I have, myself, been on the outs with my writing recently. I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a while, not for a lack of ideas, but more because of a kind of ‘Meh’ that has settled over me. I want to be enthusiastic about it, about the paper I have to write before 1 June, about the conference paper due mid-June, about the book proposal I want to write, about the book I am editing with a colleague as we speak, but I am just not. I am on the outs with all of the thinking and writing I have to do. Why, you ask? Well, therein lies the rub: I don’t know exactly. All of these projects are ones I have chosen to take on, and are interesting. They will stimulate and challenge me, and they will all look very impressive on future job applications as well as on the application to renew my postdoc for another year. I not only need to do them, I do want to. In theory. This is a lot like being on the outs with a PhD. My friend, me, you, others – we have chosen to do a PhD, either because we need to or want to or both. But, just because we choose something doesn’t mean that we are always going to be interested in it, or stimulated by it, or excited about doing it.

So, I am asking myself why I have fallen out with all these chosen projects. Am I tired? Perhaps, although given that I no longer have a majorly demanding full-time job which requires me to dress up and leave my house everyday to drive 45 minutes each way, I feel a bit silly being tired. Am I bored? Maybe. I don’t think so. I am still pretty interested in my research, although I could certainly do with some more updated data (all sitting on a flashdrive waiting to be captured and coded). I’m not bored enough to give it all up. Am I just not up to it? No. I am. Really. I think. No, I am. So, what, then? Why am I struggling to find my way back into all of these postdoc projects, just as my friend (and many like her) are struggling to find their way back into their PhDs? Are we tired, bored, not good enough? Have we chosen the wrong project for the right reasons, or the right project for the wrong reasons?

I don’t know the answers to these questions for anyone other than me. But I think finding them and then taking action might be a step towards finding my way back in. If I am tired, then I need to create some space to allow myself a break here and there, so that I do actually feel like I am getting a break from the demands of the writing and thinking. Perhaps, if you are tired, this is something you could do. Not necessarily a physical trip, but maybe more of a mental break, where you can give your brain a rest from obsessing about the PhD or the project you are working on. Mental vacations, where you read slightly (or very) trashy fiction for a week, or pig out on a box set of your favourite series instead of slogging away at your desk every evening, can be just what you need to give your brain a break.

If I am bored, then I need to look at what is boring me and see if I can change or eliminate it. It’s easier to abandon a boring paper than a PhD thesis, but perhaps I could approach it from a new angle, or bring in different data or a slightly modified theoretical framework, or new literature to give the paper new life, and engage my brain differently. Perhaps, if you are bored as my lovely friend is, you could map out as she has done what you have done and what you do know about your topic, and possible trajectories to follow in terms of following all the ideas through. Some may not be as viable as they seem, and some may be much more interesting or possible given your logistical constraints than others. A creative process of elimination and critical reflection with a friend, peer or supervisor (or all three) may be enough to help you work out what you are bored with, and work out how to either make changes or eliminate the boredom from your project so you can get back in and move forward.

If I am not good enough? Well, I don’t know what to do about that. I think I am. I think most people doing a PhD or a postdoc are, but often it’s not enough for others to think this. I have to, you have to, believe it too. Here, I think my solution is to just do the work, small bit by small bit (like this post), telling myself over and over that I am up to it, and that all I have to do is start. As a poster I read recently says: ‘Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try’. So, if you are on the outs with your PhD in whole or part, or with a writing project that is just stuck, ask yourself what it is that is creating the falling out, and see if you can’t at least try to make some changes that will get you moving again in a more positive and productive direction.

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