The Valley of Shit

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: Thesis Whisperer


I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidence in himself, his topic and the quality of the work he had done.

Dave is not the only person who seems to be experiencing these feelings lately. I have another friend, let’s call him Andrew.

Andrew is doing his PhD at a prestigious university and has been given an equally prestigious scholarship. Like Dave, Andrew approaches his PhD as another job, applying the many time management skills he had learned in his previous career. He has turned out an impressive number of papers, much to the delight of his supervisors.

Again I was shocked when Andrew emailed me to say he was going to quit. He claimed everything he did was no good and it took a number of intense phone calls to convince him to carry on.

Both these students were trapped in a phase PhD study I have started to call “The Valley of Shit”.

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.

I feel like I have spent more than my fair share of time in the Valley of Shit. I was Thesis Whisperering while I was doing my PhD – so you can imagine the pressure I felt to succeed. An inability to deliver a good thesis, on time, would be a sign of my professional incompetence on so many levels. The Valley of Shit would start to rise up around me whenever I starting second guessing myself. The internal monologue went something like this:

“My supervisor, friends and family say I can do it – but how do they really KNOW? What if I disappoint all these people who have such faith in me? What will they think of me then?”

Happily, all my fears were groundless. My friends, teachers and family were right: I did have it in me. But boy – the smell of all those days walking in the Valley of Shit stay with you.

So I don’t want to offer you any empty words of comfort. The only advice I have is: just have to keep walking. By which I mean just keep writing, doing experiments, analysis or whatever – even if you don’t believe there is any point to it. Remember that you are probably not the right person to judge the value of your project or your competence right now.

Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help. Although you are alone in the Valley of Shit there is no need to be lonely – find a fellow traveller or two and have a good whinge if that helps. But beware of indulging in this kind of ‘troubles talk’ too much lest you start to feel like a victim.

Maybe try to laugh at it just a little.

You may be one of the lucky ones who only experience the Valley of Shit once in your PhD, or you might be unlucky and find yourself there repeatedly, as I did. I can completely understand those people who give up before they reach the end of the Valley of Shit – but I think it’s a pity. Eventually it has to end because the university won’t let you do your PhD forever. Even if you never do walk out the other side, one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.

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