Monday, February 27, 2017

Running to stand still – this is not a sprint, it's a marathon

I haven't written anything here in a while and I feel a bit embarrassed. I know I really shouldn't as this really isn't mandatory educational activity, yet I do. But why?

Doing a PhD can take years, four being the mythical norm. There's definitely a point in doing the right size of a dissertation to fill just that, it is just a thesis after all. Doing something for four years and ending up with 250 pages (monograph) or four articles and a lengthy introduction (not a monograph) isn't obvious though. It needs to be learnt and we tend to learning while running. Lots can happen in during those years. Funding issues, change of supervisor, change of school, ill health, kids – life, you know.

Initially I started with a too small topic. Threw that one in the bin and ended up with, what almost always feels like, a too large one. Don't get me wrong, it's doable. At least I think it is. But then I've been doing too big projects all the while, so I might be blinded or conversely on to something. Now that my schedule is set, the funding is in and I'm well on my way, stopping has become unfathomable. This may sound harsh but that is where I draw strength from. I tend to paint my self into a corner to learn how to climb up the walls.

Occasionally the climbing gets tough. My dissertation project so far can be split into the following stages:

1. Initial fumbling in search of something significant (topic, money, guidance)
2. Smooth sailing with funding and a theme with lots of materials
3. Early crisis due to outside factors leading me to course correction (exchange in the UK)
4. Deepening understanding of the magnitude of the project
5. Crisis, the valley of death too deep to see from but too far to turn back
6. Climbing out and learning what all of this really might be about
7. The grind (this is where I'm now)
n. Graduation

Now, this is going to be different for everyone. As far as I can say only the valley of death seems to be a constant. A doctoral dissertation is too big to do on one go. Whatever the topic may be, ideally the project is pedagogically exactly about this. Learning to handle too big projects. Everything else is more or less incidental.

I knew this, but little did I understand. People I respect had told me of the valley, but only when I trampled over my misguided hubris in that Sisyphean darkness, did I truly learn what it meant. It really was dark, because I had just returned to Finland, alone in October. Well, I had to believe that the only way would be up. I say believe with conviction because there's always a deeper hole. The belief allowed me to focus on the essential though. Cut out all the noise and focus on what was important. Don't mind the red flashing lights.

It didn't take long to finally understand what this was. I had been here before, when "my" ship almost sank (literally) and my gran almost died – the same week mind you. I was running on pure stress hormones, and that's not good.

Stage six wasn't about getting the thesis done. It was about learning to live with myself and the work. It was about re-learning to look at my mental dashboard for danger signs, operationalising self-assessment and progressive reflectivity. Only through such fundamental changes in my relationship with my self could I ever manage the increased work load, if even then. We'll see soon enough.

Following an exasperated moan of being overworked, I friend and mentor berated me recently. "It's never getting easier, don't fool yourself!" And it won't if I stay this course. The further along I get, the more I'm loaded with this and that, a project here, a lecture there. And I love it. The thesis is slowly setting into the grind. I know what I'm supposed to do and I do it everyday. It's work.

Meanwhile other stuff happens with increasing regularity. This forces me to sprint while running a marathon, to juggle three different things at the same time. Sound familiar? Just like work, right? The thesis lives a life of its own. There's definitely much to learn still, but at the same time learning time management, resourcing and saying no still goes own.

I still have to drop stuff and focus and this is where I'm with the blog. I want to do this. It's just that I don't always have the time for it.

I will take this up in the next project meeting though. Just clearing my thoughts with this incoherent ramble has helped me onwards and upwards. Yet another inch towards redemption...

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