I finally took some of my own advice a few days ago and took a day-trip out to the Isle of Arran. It was going to be one the last nice days for some time according to the forecast and so I thought I’d hike the Goatfell. It was when I started struggling a bit with the heat and the climb, that I started reflecting, first that I need to start running more, but also that this was a great analogy for my PhD.
I began the hike with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step. I was off on a mini adventure and I wasn’t expecting the climb to be too bad. I come from a place where the mountains are higher and the trails are longer, but I always forget most of the trails start at about sea level and get quite steep quite quick. It was a beautiful day, but once I got out from under the protective shade of the trees the sun and heat started taking its toll. I persevered, but also as I left the patch of woods I could see the summit in the distance and realised it was a bit further and bit taller than I had first thought. But I kept on.
I was drenched with sweat and getting fairly tired by the time I started to ascend the pyramid summit. I was moving slow and it was a struggle. Despite my own pride I had to stop at least twice during that final stretch to the top. I began to wonder am I that out of shape? And then, laughing a bit to myself, I wondered why do I do this to myself? I looked around. It was beautiful and I was out among it on a beautiful day feeling alive. I was doing something I loved, in a place I loved, and it was worth the struggle.
It was then that I began to ponder my PhD. As I’m sure you’ve all experienced it doesn’t take much quiet space in your train of thought for your PhD to get a word in edge wise. I had begun writing a section for a chapter and much like the hike I had gone into it expecting the writing to go fairly easily and as normally happens it wasn’t. In many ways I had gone into my PhD not thinking it would be easy, but also not thinking it would be nearly this hard. I started to realise just like the hike my misguided expectations led to poor pacing and planning. It was like coming out of those woods and seeing the goal, the summit, much further away and the difficulty much more realistically.
When you think it’ll only take you a certain amount of time and exertion to do something you begin to feel like a failure when it takes too long or feels too difficult. I do this time and again with my expectations for my writing. The classic oh I can just crank that out in a day or two, but it always takes longer, which doesn’t make its completion feel like as much of an accomplishment. Also, the added struggle with the ideas, leaves me wondering if there is something wrong with me, if I’m capable of this, if I’m mentally fit enough for it. All leading to the imposter syndrome and a removal of much of the enjoyment I get from the whole process.
However, it was there on the side of the Goatfell that I realised the struggle is part of it. The struggle meant I was moving forward and pushing myself. It was a necessary part of reaching the top and honestly, if there hadn’t been some struggle it wouldn’t have felt like as much of an accomplishment and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. I think it’s a similar thing with writing. I have to accept that the struggle is part of the process. Those frustrating days where the words don’t seem to come or the drafts that come out looking like I felt on the side of the Goatfell are actually signs of progress and hard work. They’re necessary steps up the PhD mountain. They’re part of the process. I think accepting and embracing those difficulties will help me keep moving forward and enjoy the process more. Especially, because I’m doing a PhD for many of the same reason I walked up the Goatfell that day, I’m doing something I love in a place I love and I think that most of all will keep me moving forward. So, if you’re worried about some of your own struggles with your PhD and your writing in particular, try not to remembering you’re in good company and that most things in life worth doing are hard; that the struggle is part of the process.
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