Board III: Five Stages of PhD Grief

You know the classic cocaine addiction story, where the person takes it again and again and again to try to match the original, amazing high?  My PhD boards seem to follow the same pattern.  My first board went really well, and I thought, ‘hey, boards aren’t so bad, people sit around and say nice stuff to me!’.  Unfortunately, my second and third boards didn’t live up to that standard, and I don’t think I’ll ever have a board that good again.  This week’s board was so disappointing that I’m going to dread them in the future.  My emotional trajectory during and since the board on Tuesday hasn’t been unlike the five stages of grief, in fact.

**1. Denial

Now, I’m not saying my board was _completely _negative.  Some nice things were said: I write well, I’ve got some interesting research, I’ve done the research in the right order (empirical first).  However, it’s very easy to deny those things to yourself when you’re compiling a huge to-change list from people’s comments that takes up two pages of a notebook; you think ‘everything is wrong!!!’.  A trace of denial has stayed with me as I haven’t actually got round to filing away the annotated copy of my work one of the board members gave me.  It’s just kind of sitting on my desk and I’m ignoring it.

2. Anger

Dammit, I spent _ages _researching and writing that piece that I could have spent doing something else, and I have to cut it down or lose it completely?  Grrrrr.

I may have got a little frustrated during the board because there were criticisms of my structure.  I wouldn’t have minded, but I made efforts to follow the structure that was suggested to me last time!  I’m beginning to think that it’s a prerequisite of becoming an academic that you’re never happy with the structure of anything - as soon as you say ‘yes, that structure’s fine’, you get booted out of the academy.  You try structure A; someone suggests structure B; you try structure B; they decide it didn’t work after all; you try structure C, then have to hand it in as there’s no time left, and then the comments include criticisms of your structure.  Now I’ve realised this, though, I’m just going to go along with suggested structure change with a sigh.

3. Bargaining

A disadvantage of a PhD board is that there are three people criticising you, which is a bit full-on.  An advantage is that when one of them says something to the effect of ‘I don’t see where this section fits into the thesis at all’, another can say ‘do this and it can’.  I wouldn’t say I’m overjoyed that I have to cut down my section on mid-twentieth century psychology experiments and do the work of adding a lot more modern stuff to it, but after all that work I did, it’s better than losing it altogether.  And can still use it for the Childhood Challenges conference if my paper is accepted, so it’s not a total loss.

4. Depression

I haven’t been hugely productive over the last couple of days as I’ve had a bit of a sense of ‘ugh, I’m NEVER going to get it right, what’s the point?’  Today I’m heading back into autobiography land having moped, been out to dinner, played games and watched a few things to perk myself up, and concentrating on my teaching instead.  Just keep swimming!

5. Acceptance

When I get around to filing away the work for this board, I’m going to leave it for a while, probably until the hallowed time when I’ve finished all my research and devote myself fully to writing.  And then I’ll probably feel a lot more enthusiastic about tackling the ‘to-change’ list and the volume of work involved.  Though my new structure will still be wrong.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK