Recognising the slump

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This is not a call for help, nor a cry for attention. This is an affirmation to anyone else in this position that what you’re going through is a common occurrence.

Not too long ago, I blogged about how a run-in with tonsillitis left me all but useless for a week or so. While I still had the motivation to keep going, I lacked the physical ability to do so.

Now, though, the opposite seems true. I’m getting up early, enjoying the brighter and warmer weather, eating (a little) more healthily… yet my motivation disappears as soon as I see another video to annotate, or paper to read, or article to edit.

In short: I’ve slumped.

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Slumpcat.

But why? I mean, I’m currently being paid to research an area that truly interests me; an area that has been synonymous with my name by most of those who have ever known me. This is my thing, this is my jam.

So wtf is going on, me?!

Perhaps you’re reading this because you’re thinking the same thing: an area of research that you once fell totally in love with is now calling you three times a day, and you’re not picking up the phone. If this bizarre analogy somehow resonates with you, then the following may sound familiar. Here are a few things that I’ve had the chance to reflect on over the past few days… and they’re pretty honest.

My work is worthless

The more I look over my research, from literature reviews through to the data I’m working with, the more I think that there is no value to my work. It’s well known that the knowledge you contribute doing a Ph.D is, in the grand scale of things, minuscule. We’re talking a subfield of a subfield of a sub-discipline of a main discipline that is only one-twelfth of a university faculty, at best. This is augmented, sadly, when using one of the most useful tools I’ve had at my disposal during this process: Twitter. I’m connected to a large number of linguists, and when you see their posts about their work in the same field of study as you, you really start to question how useful your own contributions will be.

I don’t want to continue in this particular field

This might be a little more specific and a little more extreme than what others think at this point, but let me make it clear (especially if any of my supervisors happen to read this!) that I am not dropping out midway! While I’m working to bring two areas of linguistics together, I’m finding that I’m just not suited to one particular area anymore, mainly for the high level of politics surrounding it, and my status as an ‘interloper’ in a community. I may be reading too much into it, of course, but this has been playing on my mind for months. I do know of people who have done their Ph.D in one area, who have then somewhat-to-completely shifted focus once employed, but this is for people who were entering the profession decades ago. Which leads me neatly onto…

Why put in my all when the academic job market is so limited?

In my previous blog post, I quipped about how my initial thoughts when joining academia included the excitement of landing the role of a lecturer and working with a likeminded team of educators in the HE sector… only to be faced with the fact that such jobs are becoming rarer than unicorn sightings. I do often think ahead of time – for better or for worse – and I have certainly been keeping an eye out for opportunities. But having seen first-hand how overly-competitive this market is, and hearing the horror stories of casual contracts, unfair work-to-pay ratios, and the pressure to keep 500 unevenly-spaced plates spinning while wading through a mixture of wet cement and treacle isn’t the most appealing. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been in the education sector before, and I know all too well about waking up at 7am, going to bed at 10pm, and having only 30 minutes to yourself during the entire day. I’m sure I’d revel the opportunity to be a lecturer… but the current lack of security and availability are enough to make you weep.

I feel far less knowledgable than many, many others in my field

This relates a little to my first point. Using social networks, I’m connected to more linguists that I know what to do with. While this is a superb resource on the one hand, it can also prove excruciatingly demoralising on the other. This latter may occur, for instance, when you read a published paper of someone who’s been studying their Ph.D for the same amount of time as you, which reads like a dream and goes far beyond anything you thought you knew about how to critically review theoretical stances. They have their personal desk in a shared office at a top university, ready to continue work on a highly-relevant and up-to-date thesis that their supervisors are experts in the field on, while getting ready to host their 3rd conference on a subject you didn’t even know existed in your field. So you just close your laptop, look out of the window for a few minutes and mutter to yourself: “How can I compete with that?”

Will I be a failure if I don’t continue in academia?

Now, I do know the answer to this one, and of course the answer is “no.” But… throughout the Ph.D process you are trained in the quirky ways of academia. You are pushed to present to other academics, to publish your work, and to network between learning institutions. These skills shape you into an academic, and while there are a plethora of transferrable skills from all of this, there’s still this impression that continuing in academia is the ‘one true path.’ Couple this with what I mentioned above, and you can see why the answer may not be so obvious at first thought.

I wish I knew how to get over this. The best stop-gap that I can suggest to anyone in this position is to do whatever it is for you that calms you down and takes your mind far away from academia. Go for a walk. Do a couple of laps at a pool. Eat your weight in sugary goodness. Have sex. Read something that doesn’t have an index or a list of references. While these (among other things) will help to clear the mind, they won’t be the kick-up-the-ass motivation that I’m still trying to find.

Of course, I’m not the first (and I won’t be the last) person to comment on this. For the more visual among you, this blog post shows how the Ph.D process can go one of two ways at this point. While I’m not quite sure of how to make this curve travel in the upwards direction again, I’m hoping that if you are reading this and are in this position right now, that you realise you’re not alone in this. It’s a horrible slump, and if I could find the magical motivation remedy I’d share it with everyone in an instant.

But for now I’m just going to stay half in and half out of the basket.

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