In this creative writing exercise doctoral researchers wrote anonymously about a day of a postgraduate student. The diary entries are fictional and inspired by the writers’ own experiences.
Can’t really say if this is funny or sad but it’s the first day of my phd program and I need to ask myself a sincere question:
Should I honestly be here?
I met this guy and now it feels like my schooling is some kind of an obstacle between us, EVEN THOUGH WE JUST MET.
Am I really this pathetic?
he seems not taking anything very seriously and it makes me feel a bit anxious to show that I do.
Am I the type of a person that would for real prioritize her social life behind studies?
Note to myself: Leave him immediately, or maybe after the following weekend, but not later than before the next assigned paper….(approx.)
A ray of light in the midst of a morning haze, I open my eyes
A new day
I hear the sounds of early morning traffic
Time to get up and go climbing
I carry the equipment with me
The route lingers
Species and plants that form consistent patterns on the land
Suddenly an unfamiliar flower with emerald green and violet emerges
An interesting anomaly
Interacting in a vivid motion
How to capture their life without taking a video?
Open wide spaces and trails that narrow down
The equipment gets stuck on the ground
I stumble and lose my compass
How to find a way without a clear direction in sight?
In a moment of frustration I take a side-step that allows me to reach a steep platform
A surprising view unfolds, calling one to take a break
Chatter of the sparrows distracts pleasurably
Other climbers join
And the walk continues
waking to November darkness, I dragged myself up by the scruff of my neck, not unkindly. Sleepy legs went to the bathroom, the kitchen, the wardrobe – a clothed, coiffed, cleaned, and fed body. It was happening, slowly: becoming a functioning creature, ready to exit into the outside world, to head to the office.
I felt a satisfied hum stepping out of the house, delighted to be outside and walking the familiar route towards the metro. Fresh air, wet asphalt, the leaves turning into a dark brown mush on the ground with a swampy smell; if you’re lucky, somebody walking their dog that is excited to be living and outside.
I got to the office. The tall trees in front of the building had by now lost all of their leaves, which only seemed to emphasise their height, skeletal branches swaying slightly in the breeze. I could feel a slightly bitter taste in my mouth – the season has changed and time has passed again: isn’t it so that you should be further along? Shouldn’t you already have done much more? As usual, I shook it off and headed towards the bright lights of the arched windows, telling myself briskly that I’m here, now, that’s what matters.
I stepped into the foyer. I could feel the almost imperceptible rumble underneath my feet, coming from the cellar, at times building to a louder roar. It seemed the dissertation was relatively calm this morning.
I climbed up the stairs, their stone edges worn round and shiny during over 100 years of others doing the same. The kitchen upstairs was quiet, traces of life only in the dirty dishes in the sink. I got a coffee from the machine, mentally going over my schedule for the day: no meetings, no deadlines, no lectures to give or attend – in other words, a possibility to focus on working with the dissertation without disruptions. I downed the rest of my coffee, took a deep breath, and started descending the stairs all the way into the cellar.
The cellar door was heavy, absorbing some of the tremors and sounds emanating from the dissertation prowling around the basement. Opening the door, I felt a wave of heat and an almost overwhelming smell that reminded me of electricity and fresh books. Slowly, trying to avoid any sudden movements, I went down the last few stairs, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.
The rumbling was stronger this close to the dissertation. Once you got used to it, it was almost calming – a vibration that you felt in your chest, reverberating through you. At times, it growled more loudly. While this was a somewhat disquieting sound, it did help locate the dissertation.
I lit the lantern and noticed that the dissertation had eaten up the references I left in the trough the previous day, only scraps of charred paper left. Very good. The reference manager, however, lay mangled on the dirt floor, teeth marks puncturing its once-so-smooth surface. Perhaps I should have known better than to rely on proprietary software.
Another roar, loudest yet. It was right behind the corner.
Heavy legs took a few steps. You did not get used to this, the thrill and terror of encountering a creature this massive of your own creation. As usual, at first it was difficult to see anything because of all the smoke and steam caused by its breathing. Remaining still, almost frozen, the clouds slowly cleared up.
It looked at me. We looked at each other.
Carefully, I reached out my hand.
To wrangle? To hold? To pet?
I did not know.
It’s been four years since I started. It’s been three years since I did my fieldwork. It’s been almost two years since I went to the office regularly.
Doing a PhD during a pandemic – what could go wrong?
At the beginning of the first lockdown, I was almost a little excited. ‘Finally, I can really concentrate on writing. Maybe I’ll finish my PhD in a year. I have all this time for my projects and hobbies.’
Soon, reality hit me in the face. Hard. My energy started draining; days that were previously packed with reading, writing, baking and knitting turned gradually to a dull mush. Every day is the same. I wake up at 7, brush my teeth, do some yoga and eat breakfast. I open my computer and check the email. I check Twitter. Make some more coffee. Procrastinate. Feel guilty enough to open the document that I’m working on. Manage to do (or not) something useful. Stop working at 5 pm. Go for a walk. Eat. Read a book or watch Netflix. Brush teeth, go to sleep.
How to stay motivated in this situation? How to stay connected when you are so isolated? How to build or keep up your network? How to remain optimistic with the constant new setbacks and restrictions?
Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last week’s workshop in Italy proved that I’m still interested in research. I’m still interested in my topic. Research can still be fun and exciting.
Perhaps it is not research that I’ve grown to hate, maybe it is the inhuman conditions that we are living in.
November 3rd, 2021
Today was a good day. I got a fair number of things done without feeling too overworked. I have tried waking up earlier so that I could have my work done before it gets dark. This means, however, that I must start working before sunrise, but I prefer it this way. I began my day by going out for a little stroll with the doggie and for a change, it was not raining!
As per usual, I had my breakfast (yoghurt and coffee) while checking the schedule for the day. I have tried to create a timetable in Excel, but I thoroughly dislike the software, so I have ended up using a combination of Google Calendar and a physical wall calendar. Not sure if it is the handiest system of all, but so far it has worked for me. I spent the rest of the morning running an eye over a couple of articles about consumption corridors.
After having leftover lentil sauce with pasta for lunch, I took a bus to Bon Temps, which is a café nearby, and continued working there. I had a great time although I did not get much work done apart from replying to a few emails.
It was already late afternoon when I finally came back home. I had forgotten that I had reserved the laundry room, so I ended up spending the evening running up and down the stairs between my apartment and the basement. As my last task of the day, I checked my notes for the presentation I will be giving tomorrow at the seminar. I hope it will go well, but I must admit that I’m a bit nervous. I think I will wind down by finishing the movie I started yesterday and then go to bed.
Last night, I finished writing a manuscript and sent it to peer review. Now, I am both excited and terrified to get feedback from the reviewers. It still feels uncomfortable to send something you have put so much effort in for such a long time to a stranger who will judge your work. Right after sending the text, I will feel relieved. Then, I will start to wait to get the feedback and think of things I could have done better.
When I notice the peer reviews have finally arrived, I need to first find a calm and quiet place to check it. I cannot look at the reviews on a busy day because after looking at those I cannot do anything else. Whether the feedback is mostly positive or negative, my first feeling will anyway be that I am not good and smart enough to do a PhD and be in academia. However, after giving some time for the feedback to sink in, I will start to see the value of it and get excited to make my text better. Thus, I feel that writing an article is an emotional rollercoaster. And so is working to get a PhD.
Sometimes, I motivate myself by thinking about the feeling when I have finished something. I might think the moment I sent my master thesis for evaluation or got my first academic article published, for instance. Thinking of that feeling gives me the drive to continue. Maybe someone would say that I sound too focused on my performance and the results. Yet, I do not feel so. The feeling of getting something finished does not lie in showing yourself and others that you have done something. Instead, it gives you the place to finally be free from the thing that you have done and reflect on the journey of how you reached that point from the start to the end.
Now and then, I also think of how it might feel to defend your PhD. It must be such a great feeling – after going up and down on the bumpy road of doctoral school. Maybe it is not even a single road but multiple with various intersections. After so many years, it must feel great to defend your thesis. Yet, I am still wondering, will I, on that day, finally know what I am doing and what is my thesis all about?