On questions and questioning

What do depression and the PhD process have in common? (This is not a setup for a joke. I’m sorry.) The answer, as I came to discover recently, is their tendency to force our attention towards new questions; questions that are unexpected, overdue, crucial for our development, and illuminating in their own way, even when they are unanswerable. These questions are invariably not what we expect when we fill out the ‘Research Questions:’ rubric on our funding bids, and not even the questions we stammer out when a well-meaning auntie asks, for the third time, what it is that we do again.

The question that depression directed my attention towards was posed by a mental health professional who asked, ‘what do you do for fun?’ I had no answer. As I came up short I was forced to consider the possibility that I may be in worse condition than I had even realised. Fun and joy belonged to the past, like weekend trips to Amsterdam or friends dropping by unexpectedly. I didn’t remember how to have fun. What is it anyway, I wondered, and do I really need it in order to hit my research targets?

I’m lucky to receive plenty of support from both my home institute and my funding body, with University of Stirling’s varied and rich menu of training opportunities and the Carnegie Trust’s more targeted approach towards leadership and coaching, in addition to the interpersonal mentorships I’m able to cultivate via both institutions. I don’t fault them for not covering ‘is fun necessary?’ in their training portfolio, yet, as I was in the depth of a depression-induced writer’s block (or was it a writer’s block-induced depressive episode?) I contemplated such seemingly simple questions. What’s stopping me from writing? Am I doing this wrong? Should I be reading, writing, working differently? After I could not answer those, I came up against the questions I did not expect and for which I received no training. How do you write? How do you read? What is ‘work’, exactly?

Sometimes it pays to observe the walls blocking our paths

So how do you write? Do you make a framework of bullet points first, then flesh out individual paragraphs, then fill that out with details until you have a polished chapter on your hands? What happens if you misjudge at the start where the research will take you, and have to restructure on the fly? Is it better, then, to start from the hypothesis and then write to think the issues through, and let the research lead where it may? How do you find the time for that; since writing to think will result in a lot of drafts, and a lot of discarded material. Is it better to aim at good prose, taking time to craft the sentences which will stand on their own from the beginning? Or is it better to be quicker but less refined? Is there a thesaurus involved? A dictionary for us non-native speakers?

How do you read? As a student of literature, I have several modes: reading to explore and familiarise, reading to spot a specific pattern, reading for style, reading for enjoyment. Can I do all at once or should I aim to separate readings for each? What exactly is the path that leads me to that blissful state where I know my text – be it a novel, a poem, or an entire oeuvre of an author – from back to front? How should I take notes on what I read: paper or digital? Are coherent summaries better than scribbled notes on the margins? Are those colour-coded post-it notes overkill? How much time spent shopping for stationeries can I justify with good conscience?

What do we call work? How to apportion the days and the months to achieve that dreaded and desired state of ‘productivity’? Treating your PhD like a job is recommended, yet a 9-5 is not always suitable for the creative process that is a humanities thesis. How to move around the disparate building blocks of research – reading and writing, mainly – to avoid burnout of a specific task, yet accomplish what needs to be done? Does necessary downtime count as work? What is downtime, if I enjoy my job? (What is fun?)

My houseplants, meanwhile, had an excellent summer and have no idea what I’m talking about

The nature of the act of writing means that these questions differ from person to person, and only answerable by trial and error. As the late and luminous Ursula le Guin wrote,

…there are no recipes. (…) The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

Is turning ‘why can’t I write?’ into ‘how to write?’ an improvement? I don’t know. I know I did not expect to start out my second year of postgraduate research with questions that appear simple yet are crucially important. And it is deeply disorienting to have my confidence shaken in the very things I thought I excelled at: writing, reading, working. I do feel, however, that asking these questions is necessary and will prove to be beneficial to me in the end, regardless of my final answers.

Postscript. I intended to write a post on depression and the PhD, but the topic has been thoroughly and excellently covered on this very blog. On the one hand, it’s an unhappy reality that I have a lot of company in this particular misery; on the other hand, I’m glad that there is sensible advice out there. I have little to add, except, perhaps, that if you are unable to remember how to have fun anymore, please call your GP.

Zita Babarczi is a Carnegie Scholar based at the University of Stirling. Her PhD explores conspiracy in popular fiction and representations of women, gender, and second wave feminist thought, from the 1960s to our present day.


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