Monday, 10 December 2012

Surviving the PhD Apocalypse

In my last post, I wrote about how I'd experienced the worst, lowest point of my PhD.  I'm calling it my PhD Apocalypse.  Partly because that feels like an adequate description of the devastation I felt when I lost everything, but partly because it's currently relevant and sounds cool.

As you might have guessed from the return of my slightly weird sense of humour, I am feeling a little bit better about the whole thing.  Not completely better, but a little bit.  And I felt that it was important to tell you how I got here, because I know damn well that I am not the first person to go through this and nor will I be the last.  So I hope that in some way, this might be useful for someone out there.  If nothing else, it can serve as a reminder that I can get through the hard times.

First of all, I really did spend about two weeks wallowing.  My PhD apocalypse pervaded my whole life.  I was very depressed.  I didn't want to get out of bed - some days I didn't - I didn't want to do anything or talk to anyone.  I just wanted the whole world to go away.  I think I only actually cried once.  The rest of the time, I was in this sort of depressed stupor.  I was miserable.  

I don't really know if there was another alternative to that.  I felt like I had physically lost a part of myself.  I had to grieve.  And there was a part of me then - and now - that is slightly scared about how deeply this affected me.  At the end of the day, this is just a PhD, but it still made me completely bottom out. 

This is the really important part.

Eventually, time passes.  You sleep a lot, you get a little distance.  But the most important thing I did to start feeling better was to tell people just how miserable I was.  You see, I'm a coper.  I'm a smile-and-get-on-with-it sort of person.  So although I'd told people what had happened, they didn't realise how much it had been affecting me.  This led to me feeling like no one cared, which led to more vicious cycles of MEH.  However, once I told people just how bad I was feeling they really rallied around.  There's nothing anyone could do, but they were there for me, patient with my bad moods and just really supportive.  They made all the difference.
So if you find yourself in the same situation, Step One is tell people and ask for their support!

Step Two is a lot easier and more fun.  It is: Take time off and do fun stuff!

I'm fortunate (in however a twisted way that is) that this happened at the end of the semester.  If it had happened during the middle of term, I would've lost my chance to recollect the data for six months.  Being close to the end of term meant I'm also finished teaching, so I don't have that to worry about, and it's nearly the holidays.
I decided to start mine a little early.  I took time off just to get my head back on straight.  I slept lots, saw friends, played computer games, read two books in a day, wrote, sewed, coloured in and baked cookies.  Slowly, these things restored me to myself.  They reminded me that I have a life outside my PhD.  Doing that also highlighted just how narrow my focus had become - I'd been so all-consumed with my PhD for so long, it felt bizarre doing other things.

I can't stress enough how important I think this time away is.  I'm still doing it, although I'm in the office today and will be tomorrow and Friday.  I still wince and shy away from talking about my PhD in any context (though I'm being brave today for a meeting with my supervisor).  But allowing myself this time away, this time to relax, unwind and forget about it all, is restoring my sense of purpose and just general happiness!  I know that it will allow me to come back in January, raring to go, sharply focused and determined.  

The biggest lesson I can give you from my experience is that time off isn't always a bad thing.  Sometimes you just need it.

And with that sentiment, I also want to wish you happiness for the holidays.  I'll be back to blogging - and more regularly - in the new year.  So here's to surviving the real (not-true) apocalypse, and have a very merry Christmas.  All the best for 2013.

See you on the other side!  


  1. just want to support what you say about the benefits of time off. Last May, I was working towards submitting my thesis in September, but all sorts of stuff went belly-up at home and I took a period of intermission. It allowed me to breathe and to be and to do normal stuff. Now back on track and doing final edits to thesis, but in a whole lot better place than I would have been without the break.
    Keep smiling - you'll make it!

  2. Thanks lizit! I am feeling much better for it, it was definitely the right choice :) Glad you're back on track too. Good luck with the submission!

  3. hey katy,

    glad to hear that u're back on ur feet. :) wishing u a happy new year!