I’m not supposed to talk about emotion.
I’m a physicist, I’m male, and I’m English, which pretty much means I’m supposed to be like this man…
I should be logical. Detached. Follow the steps to a solution and be done with it.
And you’re not supposed to be emotional during a PhD. You have to be detached from the data… like a machine working your way through day after day.
There is one small problem with this approach though… it will ruin your life.
Logic vs Emotion in your PhD
OK, so you need logical, rational thought and you need logical processes and procedures to get the work done.
But there is no denying that emotion plays a huge role in a PhD, as it does in life generally, and it massively affects your ability to do the rational work you need to do.
I’m sure you know some PhD students getting close to submission whose entire demeanor has changed. Maybe they are irritable and get angry quickly. Maybe they are panicking or unable to concentrate. Maybe they are losing sleep and sinking into an exhausted physical and emotional wreck.
At best, they will just fight through and eventually submit after a torturous final push, but at worst it can affect their relationships with others and their physical health.
If this is the case, logical approaches won’t work because emotion drives your behaviour far more strongly than logic does.
Procrastination is a prime example. You might know exactly what you need to do and how to do it. It might be easy, and there might be no logical reason why you can’t do it. You probably even want to do it, but still you just can’t.
This is usually because there is an emotional brick wall in the way. What else can it be, if there is no logical reason?
But when it happens, we tend to try to rationalise our way out by setting deadlines, making timetables, setting timers, but then if these don’t work (and who can honestly say that they always do?) then it just leads to frustration which makes the whole situation worse.
There so many time-management techniques, it’s hard to know which ones to use.
In fact they ALL work… for about 2 days until more deeply engrained habits return.
Time management cannot work without first addressing the blocks to full engagement with the work which are deeply rooted in your emotional subconscious.
Is this you?
If you are doing a PhD, you probably did very well in school, near the top of the class year after year from the age of 5.
You were probably told you were good as a result… Given the gold star or the certificate for achievement… Maybe placed in a different class with the other good pupils.
Your parents were probably proud of you and your A+ results. But it probably also put a weight of expectation on you.
If this was your experience of academia from the age of 5 until starting your PhD, then there will be a deeply rooted correlation between your academic success and your sense of self-worth.
The shock of the PhD
A PhD is not the same as school or university. It is a fundamentally different thing, and requires different skills.
So the success you had earlier is no guarantee of success in your PhD, and many PhD students struggle.
Acknowledging conflict, anxiety and vulnerability
This struggle, if it goes on long enough, can turn into a deep sense of anxiety which cannot be shifted just by working harder.
It is founded on a conflict between the way you view yourself (intelligent, talented, good) and the way the world appears to be (no matter how hard I work nothing goes my way, I’m not as good as other students, I am not good enough, I am going to fail).
So the conflict is between your high expectation of yourself, and the vulnerability that comes with the possibility of failure for the first time in your life
If you acknowledge this conflict, anxiety and vulnerability, then you can do something about it.
Trusting in your own ability
It is scary to acknowledge your own vulnerability, but denying it will not make it go away.
If you acknowledge the possibility of failure and trust in your ability to cope with it, then your expectation of yourself is in the ability to cope rather than having to succeed at all costs. There is no longer a conflict.
If you block it and deny it and blame the circumstances around you it will only grow. This is what most academics do.
The frantic academic
It’s a tragedy that it is considered normal for an academic to be frantically over-worked. It is a greater tragedy that we see this as the route to success.
You will hear academics talk about stress as if it is a badge of honour… “you think you have it bad… I worked 80 hours last week and had to finish 2 grant proposals and a conference abstract in less than a day… and I had to pick the kids up from school before coming back to the office…”
There is something wrong if this is the way your life ends up, and it is not a working model you should aspire to.
You can never fully engage with the work if you cover vulnerability with mere busyness and hard work.
The question should not be, “how hard am I working”. The question should be, “how engaged am I with the work?”
Ask yourself what you would do if you had no fear, then try to work out what you are afraid of and what you would do if that happened.
Trusting in your ability to cope allows you to fully engage in the work without hesitation. Then if you add time management and hard work on top of a calm emotional state, you will be literally unstoppable.
Emotion and Logic
It is not a question of logic vs emotion. The two are not separate, and you cannot function effectively with just one or the other.
It’s like having two wheels on a cart; you need both in balance in order to go in a straight line.
Are you trusting only in logic?