I had been planning to write about something else this month – something more politically charged. But then I had a bad day, one packed with frustrations, where you feel like you can’t do anything and nothing much gets done. So I thought I’d write about that instead.
It was a cold, bright Wednesday morning. If this was a novel, it would have been a gloomy and bitter day, the perfect scene for failure and disappointment. Instead the day was fresh, the sky was blue, and crispy leaves were strewn about the pavements: it resembled the backdrop I would choose for a happier experience.
This, however, would not be the day for carrying out groundbreaking research, or any research at all, for that matter. When I eventually dragged myself out of the house and sat down in the library, I fumbled at my computer, flicked through books, wandered among the shelves and checked my phone. I couldn’t do any work.
What I experienced was not quite procrastination though I am capable of that too. It wasn’t that I was finding other things to distract me, I was just not very good at the things I was trying to do.
Read more about Charlie's journey
I set myself a straightforward but useful task – type up some notes on some reading I had done. I would never make a great stenographer, but here I was like a drunk, boxing glove-wearing pianist, hitting the wrong keys, skipping over whole sentences and never quite getting the meaning of what I was transcribing. Writing was out of the question.
We have all heard of writer’s block but what about reader’s block? When I’m having one of these days, I struggle to follow more than a couple of paragraphs before my mind wanders.
I miss out lines, re-read sentences and at the end of a page, I can’t always tell you what I’ve just read. This, for me, is one of the greatest frustrations. At best, reading can feel effortless and not like work but at other times it’s like you’re swimming against the tide.
Given that my research is primarily reading and writing, it’s times like these when I don’t feel very inspired or indeed cut out for what I’m doing.
It’s easy to let one bad day filled with irritations and hindrances turn into something else: the feeling that your research is somehow inherently flawed or that you are incapable of doing it.
I also won’t remember that days before this I had had a productive time researching, and discovered something that made me newly excited and confident in my thesis. “Our moods”, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “do not believe in each other”.
When we falter in our research, we don’t remember all the good stuff we’ve done, nor can we easily imagine all the progress we will make.
A PhD is a long game. I’m lucky that I live with and know friends who have finished PhDs, because they remind me of this fact. One bad or good day neither breaks nor makes a PhD.
Academic research is not like other kinds of work. You cannot do it every day and for great stretches of time. It’s important to work regularly and often, if only so I can cut myself some slack and give myself time off.
In my previous line of work, I had annual leave, evenings and weekends away from the workplace and my tasks. While a PhD is in many ways not like a job, it’s a good idea to try to replicate that separation of work and the rest of your life, especially when our research is often something we carry around with us and struggle to put to bed.
When I was working in an office before starting my PhD, I used to think about how nice it will be to take myself away from work and do something else when I am struggling to find the motivation.
I could go to a museum, a bookshop, the cinema, or even just retreat home without anyone’s permission. So after this mostly fruitless session in the library, I decided to come home and spend the rest of the evening unashamedly watching TV, eating and, to my surprise, reading a trashy novel. I hadn’t lost the ability or even the inclination to read. It just wasn’t the right day for research.
Read more: 8 habits to help you get through your PhD