September 2005: While queuing to sign the paperwork to register for the third year of my PhD, I was talking to a student from astronomy who mentioned seeing one of his fellow students struggling to get his thesis finished before the final deadline. It wasn’t the usual case of being a bit stressed and tired in the run up to submission, desperate to do the final editing, or a last-minute crisis like trying to get it printed and bound. The poor guy had been awake for over 36 hours trying to write new material. It just wasn’t finished. The words that stuck in my head were, “his face has gone grey”.
I didn’t want to be that guy, but it scared me that I could easily imagine myself in the same situation. I’d been there before. I could feel his pain; the racing heartbeat and the gut-wrenching self-recrimination, knowing that he was perfectly capable of doing it earlier.
I had always been a serial procrastinator. During my undergraduate degree, I constantly left work until the final possible moment (or later). There was a set pattern; after coursework was set, I never worried about it until the deadline was looming. Even by the time it became urgent, I’d still find myself doing other things; anything other than work. Still, I managed to get through on late nights and buckets of coffee.
When I reached the final year of my PhD, I had little in the way of results, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and was wasting huge amounts of each day stuck on the internet. It felt like I was working – I was expending energy anyway – but without any forward momentum.
It seemed I had no control over the outcome of the research. I’d put hours in; sometimes it’d work out, more often I’d get nothing, and sometimes I’d end up undoing work I’d already done. My default would be to go and waste half an hour on the internet when something went wrong, or when I just couldn’t find the motivation to do anything productive, so then I’d end up feeling guilty about not doing enough work.
In the summer of my final year, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I didn’t have enough results, time was running out, my personal life was a mess, and I absolutely believed that I was going to fail. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and the whole thing seemed pointless. I had trouble sleeping, which in turn meant I couldn’t function during the day, and the whole cycle just continually reinforced itself.
I’d become extremely irritable, even shouting at a first-year student for doing nothing more than asking how it was going.
PhD’s are supposed to be difficult; at a basic level that’s the whole point of them. But when it affects your mental and physical well-being, something has to change. In July 2006, two months before my funding was due to run out, I hit rock bottom. The mental defences I’d built up against my situation, which largely involved carrying on as normal, were blown apart.
I was depressed and desperate, but was forced to actually face up to reality rather than simply trudging on waiting for something to change. I realised that if I was stressed, miserable and getting nowhere, then I was doing something wrong.
Where do you go when things aren’t going to plan?
So what did I do? Work longer hours to try to make up for lost ground? No. I relaxed. I started looking after the simple things, like my mental health, by taking a walk around the campus when things weren’t going right, rather than defaulting to checking email. I could think the problem over and go back to it when I was ready.
That one habit alone saved my PhD. Without spending any more time in the lab, and far less time at a computer, my productivity rocketed. I started getting results, started to regain confidence, and started to think that I might actually pass my PhD.
Where you go, physically and psychologically, when things aren’t going exactly to plan can have a massive effect on how quickly you can get back on track. My old default habits of reverting to the internet to fill up time and avoid the problem whenever I lost momentum were destructive, but not in an obvious way. It took a bit of trauma to force me to actually asses them.
Often, physically stepping back from the source of stress can help gain a new perspective, but I think the key is not to let information in as a distraction, and let the brain engage with the problem in a relaxed way. In any kind of research, things will go wrong at some point and we can’t always control everything, but we can always choose how to respond. The point though is that it needs to be a conscious choice, not just reverting to habit.