Writing the PhD Journey – the need for balance?

Stanley, P. 2013. Writing the PhD Journey(s): An Autoethnography of Zine-writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 44 (2) pp143-168

While I find autoethnographies absorbing, I tend to react to them in a not entirely positive way. It’s not that I don’t think they have academic legitimacy – I do. I like the honesty of autoethnography; the foregrounded acknowledgement that memory is flawed and experience is subjective renders the genre more trustworthy to me, not less. What irks me is the angst. While Stanley feels there is a dearth of writing on the emotional and personal experience of doing a doctorate (compared to the more common focus on learning journeys and professional/academic identity), I feel like I’ve seen quite a bit of it, and it all tends towards the negative. At least Stanley apologises for painting her PhD as ‘a type of purgatory’.

But… my own autoethnography is currently underway and there are some useful methodological pointers here for me. In blending reflective, personal writings with critical analysis, Stanley has taken a approach that draws on both the evocative and the analytic ends of the dichotomy presented by Anderson in his 2006 paper (notes on which will follow).

I am taking a similar hybrid approach in my own autoethnography (on psychedelic drugs and doctoral study), using memories from my own lived experiences in conjunction with other literature to generate theoretical arguments. I am calling my documented memories ‘epiphanic fragments’ in a nod to David Aldridge’s 2013 article on educational epiphanies. I liked Stanley’s call for ‘textual playfulness and experimentation’ (p148), though I wouldn’t describe her or my approach as particularly experimental – compared to some pieces I’ve read recently.

It is interesting, this focus on doctoral study and how it intersects with life. One could say, this is life. In life we challenge ourselves. We encounter things; ideas, perspectives, that are strange to us. We place ourselves in new environments and encounter new problems that disclose aspects of the self and previously unseen connections between the elements of our lives. Sometimes we embrace the challenges we set ourselves, and sometimes we get scared and avoid them. Life is an identity metamorphosis.

I find metaphors most telling at their breaking point. What is the difference between a true, geographical journey, and the metaphorical doctoral journey? One is that when our embrace of the doctoral challenge happens to loosen, we find ourselves surrounded by a range of comforting alternatives (the sofa, Facebook, the contents of the fridge). Compare this to the task of purchasing a train berth from Goa to Kochi. I found this task challenging in so many ways (if you know anything about me, and if you’ve ever travelled by train in India, you will understand why), but I did it because it was the only way of getting home. When we consider that a similar driving force enabled Aron Ralston to cut off his own arm in Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004), we understand that it is not the doctorate itself that is causing us difficulties; it is the presence of alternatives that seem more rewarding in the short-term.

Procrastination was not an obvious cause of Stanley’s angst; she completed her thesis in good time and claims to have maintained 16 hour daily writing marathons (N.B. this doesn’t sound very sensible). But stress-eating comes from the same place; the need to comfort ourselves when anxious. A very wise person gave me some very simple advice for those moments when I am tempted to look down the Facehole, or make yet another cup of tea: Take a deep, slow breath. Hold it in. Let it out slowly. It works.

Essentially, I don’t want to read about how difficult it is to do a doctorate; and I don’t think it’s always helpful to frame the experience in those terms. I think it manufactures angst. Maybe I am in what Rogers (1967, p132) would describe as a ‘fixed’ state; failing to recognise my feelings and personal meanings, and unwilling to communicate the self (incidentally, a lot of the patients Rogers quotes in ‘On Becoming a Person’ are graduate students; and their accounts in my view summarise quite effectively the negative emotions doctoral candidates experience). Maybe I just think we have a responsibility to ourselves and our readers to present a more balanced view. 

I’ll close with the words of Mary Schmich, immortalised in the Baz Luhrman song ‘Sunscreen’:

“…worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind.”

Aldridge, D. 2013. Three Epiphanic Fragments: Education and the essay in memory. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46 (5).
Ralston, A. 2005. Between a Rock and  a Hard Place. Simon & Schuster, UK.
Rogers, C. 1967. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Robinson, UK.
Schmich, M. 1997. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. Chicago tribune, 1 June.

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