Although there was a time when I wasn’t going to do any more scientific research, there was also one more thing I felt I had to do which I couldn’t shake. I needed to write up the project I did for Royal Peth Hospital, which involved collecting outcome data for patients who had a joint replacement. Otherwise the data would be wasted and the contribution of all those patients who willingly participated would not be recognised. So even though I still work part time for a Uniting Church, which takes up a lot of time and energy, I decided to just go and do it. And in the process get a PhD. A final full stop on my scientific contribution.
But it’s not easy, especially when other things in life, both good and bad, happen along the way. Weddings, and babies, and pregnancies which are a beautiful surprise (not mine I might add), and the pain of loss and the sorrow of saying goodbye. In the first few months I had such doubt that I could “just go and do it”. I even looked at how others have managed to keep going when things get difficult and self-doubt grows, to get some ideas on how to cope. What I got instead was horror stories!
I found blogs on the disasters that can befall someone on the journey, the shattering mental and confidence crises that others and maybe I am going to go through. And a mysterious psychological term called the “sunk cost fallacy”. This is a scary condition, where when one wants desperately to quit their PhD they can’t, because of all the pain and hard work that has already gone into it, while doubting whether the sheer amount of work to go is too much. Such torment.
But it gets worse. There will supposedly be a point when I am half way through and I won’t feel I have made enough progress, will be lost in the middle of an ocean of uncertainty and I will still have in front of me a couple of painful years to endure. This period is called by many, the “Valley of Shit” or the “Crisis of Meaning”. It appears almost every graduate student goes through this existential crisis. Yet it makes the whole thing seem incredibly daunting.
Help, what have I done!!
Then something happened to me the other day that made me feel warm and toasty inside. And not so daunted!
My friend who has been doing a PhD for about 10 years, yes I know, a long time, made some sad faced badges at the beginning of his journey. There are only a few of them given to people who embark on this crazy activity, and when the PhD is finished they have to pass it on to some other unsuspecting student. Well a few days ago it was my day. Alex, a co-worker has just finished after 8 years (crikes), and ceremonially gave me his badge to wear with pride until the day comes when I too hand mine in.
Well, I was both chuffed and horrified, but I proudly added the badge to my ID badge, and will wear the sad little face until the end.
It made me feel I belonged to some secret society, one in which only those doing it really understand the pain, the sheer horror of the ride and the fact that every now and then you will think, why the heck am I doing this!. A community in which I now belong, for better or worse.
Belonging is one of the essential items on life’s checklist. We yearn to belong, whether it is to a family, to friends, to a faith community, to even a sporting or drama group or book club. We are social beings and we do better when we are in relationship with people, when we share the ride, and can support and nurture each other along the way. I think we are meant to belong to others, and don’t function very well when we are isolated and alone in this world.
Someone asked the other day why on earth do I go to church. Well it is to belong to a community of people who seek to do this, support and nurture one another, but who are also open to seeing the sacred in life and who seek to better the life for those around us. I think Jesus and his teachings have often been misunderstood by our wider society, but this was one of his main messages, about love of neighbour, and about community, about sharing life together.
I not only work for a Uniting Church, but I also belong to it. Am I committed to those people, young and old who attend? You bet you I am. And I think they are committed to me.
But now I have another group!
Just as I belong to the Wembley Downs Uniting Church I also belong to the secret sad face PhD group. Hopefully they will be just as supportive!
For it’s going to be a long journey…