It’s been a year. Literally. Metaphorically. You name it. In my last PhDiary entry, I was optimistic, cheerful, motivated to embark on this journey. I think essentially I haven’t changed, I still love my project and I’m more than motivated to continue my studies, but the first one and a half years of my PhD have also been the biggest struggle in my life so far.
But let me give you a small recap of what has happened since last year.
The great things that happened: I managed to bag a scholarship and extend it for another year (big yeay), I got accepted to an international conference (I sadly couldn’t go though, keep reading to find out why), I wrote four chapters for my thesis. I am proud of all of these different aspects of my journey so far.
Getting paid for my research means I can organize my time freely so that I can plan as much time as possible for my project without other obligations to secure my financial situation. It took some work to apply for it (I qualified for the PhD scholarship offered by our university), but it was certainly worth it. You need to write an exposé to show people who are probably not experts in your field why you should receive money to work on this project, why this research topic is relevant for your field, why it merits funding. You also need two established academics to send letters of recommendation to the scholarship organisers. Obviously, it was quite a lot of work to write a convincing exposé and the waiting period was a little daunting, but in the end, I got it. I actually ended up on the waiting list first and had already started to re-work the exposé to apply for the next possible scholarship funding period, but eventually, it all worked out well.
When I received the email that my paper proposal had been accepted to an international conference celebrating the bicentenary of George Eliot aka Mary Evans’s birth, I felt proud and also validated: my topic seems to have impressed people enough to invite me to a conference full of “Eliot bigshots”, as my supervisor went to call some of the most acclaimed academics dealing with topics relating to George Eliot. I booked flights and accommodation an hour after receiving the email. Little did I know what was in store for me. Sadly, I could not attend the conference but I rehearsed my paper at the weekly PhD-colloquium in front of my supervisor and another professor, and it felt pretty damn good to present my results. So even though I couldn’t deliver my talk in Leicester, I like to think that that rehearsal run through showed me that I really enjoy presenting my findings and ideas.
Ever since I registered my thesis with the official people at the institute (my deadline is in April 2021), I made a habit of continually writing chapters. Fortunately, even though I had a rough patch this year, I never stopped writing or experienced writer’s block. My first chapter for the PhD was certainly the most daunting one to write. I think I was so scared to just start that I kept putting it off. But my supervisor helped me a lot and told me to start with something I felt more comfortable with: analysing my main primary source. From that moment on, I just seem to have found my rhythm. I regard every chapter of the PhD as a term paper. I write 20 pages on average. So think of a PhD chapter as a term paper for a Aufbaumodul. It takes me approximately two to three months to write a chapter. Keep in mind, however, that this is my work. My only work. And probably my only responsibility other than my own well-being. So if there are primary sources, I read them before I spend roughly 1.5 months on secondary sources. Then I read the primary text again. The actual writing takes one to 1.5 weeks. Then I leave the text for a bit and come back to edit it, before sending it to my supervisor. That’s how I work. It takes a lot of self-discipline and determination, and some days I too am not motivated enough to sit down and read another academic paper, but in the end I still like it and I find my way back to work.
Here’s what happened too (and what I don’t really talk about on social media): all the stress I had accumulated over the last couple of years, stemming from the need to work as much as possible on the project, took its toll on me, and my body just told me to stop. Which I didn’t do at first. A series of minor medical issues finally resulted in me rushing to the emergency room. Nothing too dramatic happened, but I was genuinely scared and also kind of trapped in this toxic mindset of thinking, ‘I guess things will be like this from now on’; I will not get better again. But I wanted to. And I fought hard. I talked to my supervisor, my partner, my family, and friends. I decided to take a longer break – because of all the work I had done so far, it wasn’t that much of a problem to take some time off. And it was a much needed break away from work. For the first time in years I felt that my thoughts weren’t clouded by assignments, or to do lists. I knew that eventually I had to get back to work but I enjoyed the time I spent on myself. And I felt myself healing.
Going back to work I had to overthink my work-life-balance. I always thought this term sounds ridiculous and I couldn’t take people or doctors seriously when they told me to just take it easy. But now I know that they were right. I really had outdone myself. I felt like I was running a marathon against myself. I wanted to please my friends, my family, my supervisors. Even though everyone kept telling me that they were super proud and encouraged me to take breaks, I felt that I had to keep up the pace I had worked at.
Well, how the tables have tabled. I realized that I love my work, but I love my life more. And even though my project is so close to my heart and I love spending hours on end reading about Middlemarch and writing down my ideas, I still have to remind myself that I too need time to recharge. Only when your batteries are fully charged will you be able to really enjoy working on something as complex as a doctoral thesis. (This is the most German I’ve ever sounded.)
To write a PhD is a major decision that will change your life in all sorts of ways, but what it shouldn’t do is crush you and your spirit. I always prided myself as being an enthusiast, I considered myself lucky cause I can call my passion my work now. But it’s also easy to lose yourself in this passion.
So what I am most proud of is that I endured and persevered.
It’s been one and a half years of productive research, continuous self-discovery and self-reflexivity. I’m growing as a researcher, but even more so, I’m growing as a person.
Maria was listening to sounds of the Üterus while writing this article.