Starting over…

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If there is no struggle, there is no progress. […] This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass, West India Emancipation (Speech of 3 August 1857 at Canandaigua, New York)

Oh, progress. The benchmark against which the passage of time finds value to the lowly PhD postgrad. Both the research work and the process of writing had exacted a toll on me, the full force of which I hadn’t fathomed until January this year. You remove yourself from your loved ones, your friends, your personal interests all out of an ever-present processional guilt that the expenditure of one’s time resources on anything but the PhD is intellectual desertion. I began the year writing a post about mental health challenges for those writing PhDs. Pot. Kettle.

And so, after consulting with my supervisors, I decided that I needed a break from the guilt. I needed to regain my humanity and reconcile with those to whom I had of late been so distant. It turns out that this break has also had the beneficial effect of allowing me some distance in time and space from the work itself, a sabbatical that brought a renewal of mind as much as spirit. In all honesty, the result of the Covid-19 global pandemic bringing everything to a screeching halt presented good reasons to reconnect (sadly, virtually) with those I care about. My break from studies also allowed me to be supportive of them, particularly given that my loved ones were all engaged either as front-line healthcare workers or behind the scenes in coordinating public health responses. I am glad and grateful that I could be there when they needed me. All this, of course, was coincidental and serendipitous.

However, I am now about a month out from restarting my PhD officially. This means restarting the grey-matter engine, sorting out my research schedule, and re-establishing a good daily routine. This isn’t just a matter of productivity. These are the seeds of making progress.

“But what of this struggle?” I hear you say.

Well, over the last 6 months, all that information that I crammed into my head in Years 1 & 2 of the PhD was percolating away. I’ve spent that time resisting the urge to break away from my personal life and slip back into an obsessive black hole. (My family refer to these as my ‘rabbit holes’.) I have had to think about what mistakes I have made on this journey, and what lessons I can learn going forward. On this, I have focussed on three points:

  1. Passion: Without a considerable degree of this element, I will not see the end of this project. I have re-examined my subjective relationship with the overall subject matter, recognising where my contribution may lay and concluding that (I believe) such a contribution has value.
  2. Traction: As progress is the product of struggle, one must know where to get solid footing. In my case, this involved taking a macroscopic view of the project and considering the direction of its constituent parts. Justified changes have been made and the new course charted builds on the previous work completed. Nothing lost, but reinvigorated by a clarity of purpose and a formal schedule of work to complete.
  3. Efficiency: This is where I must make the greatest gains. Though the quality of my work has been received well thus far, forward momentum will now require a correlation with quantity. This means writing. A lot of it. Part of that effort is to be reinforced by writing reflectively about each day’s progress, the evidence of which it is hoped will be present here in this journal.

I cannot guarantee that I will not lapse back into some bad habits going forward. I know that even if I do, I should not beat myself up too badly over it. But I need to revisit these points on a regular basis and take a measure of whether I am making the progress I need to in meeting the struggle head-on. After all, they don’t just give away PhDs…

While this post opened with the prescient words of Frederick Douglass, spoken just prior to the US Civil War, it seems that I should end with something of equal gravity. However, Star Trek will have to suffice.

Without struggle, you would not know who you truly are…

Simon Pegg & Doug Jung (Screenplay), Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Live long and prosper. See you back here in a couple days.

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