Two impossible things

This year has been incredibly challenging. The nexus of two impossible things – a PhD and a global pandemic. 

To start with a caveat – yes, I am fortunate to be living in Australia, where our daily lives have largely returned to ‘normal’ and we have not been marred by widespread death and disease. Despite assertions by the Australian federal government to the contrary, the state governments here have essentially pursued eradication of COVID-19 in the community and succeeded. 

“As a child of boomers, who raised us on the pretext… that anything was possible – this has been a crushing and fundamental shift.”

I also believe I am fortunate to have come into my PhD with more direction, more relevant experience and perhaps more self-knowledge than a lot of PhD students might. I started my PhD older than most, with clear direction, strong collaborations and project-planning experience. I started with a personal plan that would ensure work-life balance and sound mental health. I started with extreme motivation. My three-part thesis was set. All that was left for me to do was execute the thing. 

But my PhD, conceived in 2019, was set to rely on fieldwork in Singapore and Malaysia, places now unreachable – and they’re just across the ditch! Even with the advent of the vaccine, I no longer expect a return of accessible international travel before the end of my PhD in late 2022. 

You might hazard this is an overly skeptical view, but 2020 enforced in me a sort of ‘don’t just plan for the worst, but plan for the pits’ approach to life, alongside a sense that it’s safer we don’t expect anything to come true until it’s literally happening. As a child of boomers, who raised us on a pretext grounded in their own life experience – that anything was possible – this has been a crushing and fundamental shift.

So I have spent the last 6 months attempting to reimagine my PhD and it has been gruelling. Gruelling for the effort required during a period when the world is falling to pieces and I sometimes want to too. Gruelling to have to diligently, carefully and consistently pursue opportunity in a zeitgeist characterised by mountains of uncertainty, gulleyed by rivers of disappointment. 

How can I plan when I don’t know the world we are coming into? When universities are calving away teaching and research capacity in the name of COVID-imposed financial pressure? How do I find optimism and motivation in a PhD that feels continuously threatened by shrinking possibilities?

And I must say I am sick of hearing people say this year is going to be better. As far as I’m concerned that will mean nothing until I see it to be true. When COVID cases continue to spike – yet again – in many parts of the world. When a huge proportion of our populations intend to refuse (in the name of global conspiracy) or at least resist the vaccine (with a perhaps legitimate (?) desire to watch for longer-term effects of the medicine); how else am I to feel? Do you really feel optimistic?


The PhD journey has been hugely transformative for me. For one, before I started, I felt sure that ‘all those suckers’ who find PhDs difficult just didn’t have their wits about them like I did. What an ego!! I thought I’d find it… easy. After all, everything else in my academic life had been. Challenging at times, sure, but easily surmountable given some moderate effort. 

In practice the PhD has proven many times harder than I expected (and consequently I have developed great reverence for anybody who has been awarded one). Participating in research at this level has required me to completely reshape my relationship with myself; to break barrier after barrier of resistance within myself. 

When things feel insurmountably hard, I can’t shrink back. I have to resist the urge to retreat and elect, instead, to persist. When things get impossibly confusing, and I feel some amalgam of stupid, lost, bored, frustrated and helpless, I have to continue pushing. And these barriers can be brutal to break down! I can be stuck in one of these quagmires for weeks on end. 

Now add to this intellectual and personal battleground the global pandemic. Atop the already-prevalent uncertainty and fluidity of academia, the future uncertainty and changing circumstances associated with COVID-19 has made the carrots dangling along my academic pathway look terribly small and translucent. Are they really there?

I know not everyone is feeling these impacts in this way. I have colleagues on their own PhD journeys who, despite disruptions to their fieldwork or research plans, appear to be plodding along unperturbed. For the last six months I have done a stellar job of comparing my reactions to theirs and piling pressure on myself about it, under the pretext that I’m obviously silly for not being more okay, because they are, so why shouldn’t I be? But I now realise it might be better to accept that I do feel perturbed. 

So I want to state with honesty that I have felt the impacts of this global pandemic hard AND I’ve had enough of glossing over the challenges of this year in the name of maintaining some optimism that I don’t feel. 

This piece is just to ask – that although there are solutions (and I bountifully appreciate the support and generosity of my supervisors, collaborators and the broader academic community in facilitating my hunt for these alternative pathways) – can you please stop immediately offering solutions and assurances, and start by listening?

Can you please, first, before telling me that I’ll find a way through it, before offering substitutes, before reassuring me of my progress and achievements so far, before positing how much the world will improve in the next six months… as the first step in this dialogue, can you please just stop and hear me?

This year has been incredibly challenging. Honestly, it’s been pretty shit. And that’s all there is to it. The end. 


A brief postscript. 

In other parts of the world, worse affected by the pandemic, I can only imagine how some of my postgraduate peers must be struggling. Power to all those who are. Please feel welcome to comment below or connect with me on Twitter to share your own experience.

My small offering is to share the reassurance I have found in this article on Feeling Stupid and, more recently, in the 1974 classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, which touches on themes relating to the personal journey involved in learning new things. 

2 thoughts on “Two impossible things

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  1. Dude. Thanks for telling your “how COVID totally screwed me” story. We all have one, and interestingly to me, they are all different, even if we are “doing the same thing” like a PhD; it’s kind of mind-boggling. (Eg.or me, I was lucky that I was only a month into my PhD before I had to change it, and it was fairly straight forward even though I couldn’t do my Norway field work.)

    My struggle came from COVID related illness onset, preventing me from being able, to of all things, sit down comfortably at my work station to read/write. Or drive. Which is more annoying that it sounds. It slowly developed into a chronic pain condition I’ve been trying to correct for the past 10 months. (I’m currently squatting on my desk chair with my feet going numb to write this and I still live in my own self-imposed 5km driving radius unless I get on a train.)

    Part of what has made it so hard a problem to deal with personally, is that hilariously – even though we are all “going through this together”, no one has any idea of what it’s like to suffer through my particular problem, like I don’t understand anyone else’s COVID “special” either. It’s an awful collective helplessness. My wish is that I could talk to someone who understands my condition because they themselves have *actually* experienced it, because no one understands at all, not even those who are officially treating it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dude right back at you. This sounds incredibly tough, and I’m sorry to hear your COVID year has been compounded by health issues. I experienced persistent pain following an injury during my Honours year, and totally relate the doing acrobatics on your desk chair in order to manage the pain and discomfort. Pain can limit our focus, motivation and capacity surprisingly much.

      On the point of having others who understand your particular problem, I’d like to recommend a couple of blogs. Check out the Get Well Soon blog, which is written by people who experience chronic pain. Also check out this particular post on the Lonely Conservationists blog, about managing pain in academia.


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