We all have those moments when we want to quit. Whether it’s a job, a project, or a deeply misguided desire to run a marathon – and it’s no different with a PhD. We have those little dark moments of panic and frustration when life on the other side of that ‘potential quit’ seems so enticing, like a long stretch of white sandy beach after a cold winter of hard work. Our brain freezes when confronted with an impossible hurdle, obstacle or a worry, and the only way forward seems to be backing out.
Sometimes I have dreams of jetting off to Paris and never coming back. A lot of the exciting stuff about the PhD seems behind me already by now, or has passed by in a blur when I was still struggling to scope out my research project. Now I have to start producing some serious words and the avoidance issues I’ve had for the last couple of years are beginning to surface.
As rational beings who generally love the comfort of the familiar and the safety-blanket of our routines and loved-ones, we also love to entertain ourselves with the fantasy of the ‘Perfect Other Life’ we could have, if we just escaped this one thing that’s bothering us and holding us back from true happiness. Day-dreaming about quitting is as part of the human experience as the need to breathe and the need to charge our phones. The idea of quitting is really another form of escape: it’s all about running away to a vague, undefined but brighter, glittering life. Sometimes we just want to escape a problem in our life, a road block in the bumpy journey towards death, and not have to face it.
During a doctoral program, the desire to quit can raise it’s ugly head many times. There are so many reasons to give up. Doctoral research is difficult, challenging, lonely, never-ending, frustrating. You can feel out of your depth, lacking support, navigating self-discipline, floundering around in ideas and struggling to make sense of your research. There are plenty of reasons to give up and take a train to Narnia / Hawaï / New York. There’s still student debt to pay off and we’re not earning or saving any money, or getting on the property ladder. We’re trapped in little bookish, dusty bubbles of academia that feel so far removed from the real world, making it difficult to form relationships beyond the department, institute, faculty or college we inhabit. But what are the reasons to stay?
I’ll often think to myself, if I were to describe my dream job, what would it look like on a day to day basis? I’d probably want something flexible, that allowed me to travel to Paris every now and then. I’d want to be able to work in coffee shops if I felt like it, and set my own goals and strategies, but with the opportunity to learn from the people around me and benefit from the support of those who are further along in their careers. I’d want to be able to use creative and analytical skills and apply them to a topic that I’m interested in and passionate about. I’d want to read and write about obscure, exciting ideas. I’d want to do something that’s challenges me every day.
I’ve just described my PhD.
When I first started this doctorate, I was repeatedly told that I needed to hang on to the ‘why’. Why are you doing this? Why do you want to do a doctorate? (Apparently, wanting to write Dr. instead of Ms/Miss in front of your name isn’t a good enough reason…) When things are difficult, we need to retrace our steps and remember why we started this in the first place. When was the last time you felt proud, happy, satisfied, or passionate about this thing that you now want to quit? What made you feel that way? How can you reclaim that feeling? If you can relive that excitement, passion, pride in your work – rediscover that emotion – then you can use it to tackle this latest problem. Your attitude can help make an issue clearer.
Sometimes the reality of our dreams are harder to live with than we expect. A dream-job will not make you happy overnight, because happiness is not defined by the absence of stress or the absence of fear or the absence of frustration. It’s easier to indulge in the idea of quitting when our entire identity is wrapped up in the one project that we occasionally want to run away from. If our entire happiness and sense of identity is tied to the progression of a PhD, it’s not going to make us feel good when we hit stumbling blocks.
So my advice to my future self is: next time you feel lost and want to quit, just take a moment to breathe. Put on some motivational music, talk to someone outside your speciality about the current problem, and try to remember the last time you felt proud about your project. It doesn’t matter if it was weeks or months ago: retracing those steps can help you reclaim your reasons for sticking at this for so long and find the motivation to tackle the current issue. I’ve recently downloaded Momentum for Chrome which bring a beautiful new image to your browser each day, and asks: what is your main focus for today? Focus on one day at a time. Look around: appreciate this life for what it is.