Slaying those gremlins

The PhD is a wild ride.

On the one hand, it is wonderful to spend so much time exploring what is an interesting topic. I mean, it has to be interesting for you to want to spend years understanding it, right? For me personally, it is exhilarating to create, challenge, and build upon ideas; to contribute to knowledge and to think about a topic in a way that it may never have been thought about before. It is these feelings that brought me to academia in the first place.

On the other hand, it is no stretch to say that the PhD can frequently be monotonous and isolating, especially for those in the social sciences and humanities where research is not team-focused. And it is these feelings that have had me, at times, contemplating quitting my PhD program. And not only contemplating quitting, but also consumed with anxiety, questioning my self-worth, abilities, and capacities to do the PhD.

It is in these moments, lost in the maze of my mind, that my inner “gremlins” have run wild and free. These gremlins set vague and high expectations, always sneakily moving the goal posts. These gremlins sit quietly on my shoulder, whispering comparisons and criticising my performance. They throw parties at night while I try to sleep, reminding me of all the things I have both failed to do and still need to do. These gremlins cause me to re-write a paragraph over and over and over again, trying to find the perfect phrasing to “make it good enough” for my supervisors’ time. They grip at my chest, either paralysing me in place or causing me to work at a frantic pace.  Needless to say, the gremlins are exhausting and the experience has definitely not fit with my romanticised image of the PhD process: lazing about, reading interesting books and articles all day, doing some writing, and engaging in academic debate  over a pint with my peers in the evenings.

I feel that only now, at the tail end of my PhD, I have begun to understand my gremlins. Yet, with that understanding has come a desire for connection with my peers, for learning, for support. I believe that we are stronger together. Too often we think that we’re in this alone. That no one else is going through the same things that we are going through.

In my experience, however, virtually every other PhD student I have encountered has, and is, struggling with their inner gremlins. I’ve also found that a theme of “struggling alone” is inadvertently fostered by some universities, in that there is a lack of support programs in place to genuinely nurture connection and “real talk” between students, professional staff, and academics. In some instances there is an attitude among established academics that the struggle with the gremlins and the isolation of the PhD is a compulsory experience, a kind of hazing or baptism through fire, in order to weed out those who are perceived to not have what it takes to walk within the elite academe.

I’m not saying that doing a PhD is easy, or that it should not be challenging, or that there is a complete absence of supportive researcher education programs out there. I am saying that the struggle with the gremlins should be more widely acknowledged and spoken about in order to develop more resilient researchers. I am saying that the attitude that the PhD should be some kind of mentally traumatic and isolating experience is one that only produces broken academics.

So, that is what this blog is for. To foster some kind of connection with my PhD peers, to share our experiences and resources, and to learn from each other. I hope that you will join me in slaying these gremlins, one by one!

4 Replies to “Slaying those gremlins”

  1. It is so refreshing to read such a clear articulation of the PhD experience. I particularly liked the reference that “entally traumatic and isolating experience is one that only produces broken academics”. A PhD should not be seen as a wound from battle but an indicator of commitment and academic rigour. Bon chance gremlin slayer!

    1. Thank you! I like to think that the PhD is equally a test of resilience as it is a test of original contribution and research ability.

  2. This is a well written article Gremlin Slayer!

    Your gremlins have moulded you into the warrior you are today. One does not earn the ‘Doctor’ title by simply submitting a paper, but through the struggle you have to overcome in creating it.

    1. Thank you! I totally agree and would love to see the struggle discussed some more.

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