Coasteering, Part 1

Coasteering: the sport of climbing and swimming around a rocky part of a coast.

Or: trying to work your way along the coast by any means necessary.

My last post, written two hundred in years ago in March, was a happy, sparkly post, full of fist pumps and not giving up. ‘You can do it’ I chirped. ‘This is a lesson in remembering that this stuff takes work, lots and lots of work’, I optimistically told myself before falling headfirst off a cliff into my own positive attitude.

You see at that point I thought all I needed to do for my secondary APR* in June would be to tidy up my methodology chapter for the third time, strengthen my argument and send it back to my supervisors in a nice big bow, done and dusted. I could then revise my literature review, submit my paperwork and sprint for the finish line.

Only my tired old-lady brain had other ideas. In April I hit a wall of confusion. I couldn’t seem to grasp anything anymore, the chapter turned to dust in my hands. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what I needed to do; I just couldn’t seem to do it. The more I wrote, the worse it got. It was like that story of the magic porridge pot, too many words everywhere, nowhere for them to go.  I felt oddly out of control and lost. I had let go of the reader’s hand miles ago and they had sensibly gone home.

I submitted what I had done to my supervisors, with the usual accompanying list of apologies, pointing out my errors and intentions to do better. The feedback wasn’t good. I had taken something in a decent-ish shape and trampled all over it. They advised me to restructure it and submit it again in a week: a sensible piece of advice but one which threw me into deep, deep panic. I don’t cope with changing deadlines very well, because I plan my work carefully for one big non-negotiable reason: the school holidays. By this point we were in April, and said school holidays and two significant birthdays were all on the horizon. That was a very hard week and involved a lot of crying and working around the clock. It wasn’t comfortable.

On hindsight, I needed a break from this chapter – I hadn’t had one since January – time to read, reflect and then edit again. But when you have caring responsibilities and non-negotiable commitments, time to reflect is hard to find. There is often no other time to push your work into, you are paddling so fast around those rocky coast lines that before you know it, you’re drowning. For the first time since starting the PhD, my self-confidence crashed, and my resiliance crumbled.

It’s times like these the support system you have kicks in. My PhD BFF is Kristin O’Donnell, and without her, I would have gone under. She talked me down, let me go over every single anxiety in tiny, tiny detail, and reminded me that I could do this. And if things weren’t perfect, so what? And as with all jobs, the next day in the office is never as bad as we imagine it might be, and slowly, bit by bit, I managed to get the porridge back into the pot and close the lid.

When the deadline came around, I had managed to restructure the fourth version of my methodology chapter and revise my literature review. They are still not perfect – they will never, ever be perfect – but as Kristin often tells me, they just need to be good enough. Afterall, a PhD is a training programme for what comes next.

I try to end these posts on a good point. On the bright side maybe I’m a little less naïve now than the last post (sink or swim, right?), but my faith in establishing a support network remains. Doing a PhD is hard on multiple levels, at multiple times, and I still have a long way to go. I couldn’t do it without the support network I have, but at least, for now, my methodology chapter is ok. For now, I’m still here.

The next post – coming very soon – will spill the beans on what a secondary progression review feels like (so was the methodology chapter really ok?), the value of conferences, and the thrill of (almost) being published.


* The aim of the Secondary APR is to assess your progress towards completion. It takes place in your second year if you are full-time, and around 30,000 words (around 2 chapters) is required. It is the same as a primary APR in format, but more challenging.

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