Writing up, or the elephant in the classroom

‘How’s the work going?’ ‘When are you submitting?’ ‘You must be quite stressed?’

For some students, these sorts of questions are enough to provoke severe anxiety, leading to hours of crippling inertia. For others, they are white noise, while for a lucky few they are a gentle boot up the backside resulting in bursts of productivity. Over the coming months I expect to be asked these questions more and more frequently but (as yet) they don’t particularly bother me.

I have words on paper. In some chapters those words are little more than chaotic collections of half-thoughts and (as yet) poorly-referenced arguments. But as someone with an anxious disposition, I take comfort in those scatty collections of notes. ‘At least I have something to work with’, I try to tell my nervous self whilst bashing my forehead against the keyboard. Or perhaps my sense of comfortable and steady progress is just a deceptive calm before the perfect storm of unread sources, ill-considered arguments, and previously unidentified secondary literature all coming to my attention at the eleventh hour. Perhaps.

There have been several pieces published recently on the subject of mental health in academia, especially among students completing higher degrees. Many of these critiques suggest that issues of mental health are taboo. I have certainly found this to be the case. As academics begin to do what academics do best and conduct research into the scale of this problem, and as more people give testimony about it, we may start to see important changes in policy and in attitudes towards mental health. But for now, sadly, it’s the elephant in the classroom. For some, the ‘writing up’ phase of their research is marked by an unwritten code of silence. You might be asked how the work is going and whether you’re stressed, but there is an implicit expectation that your answer will be an optimistic assertion of timely completion and inevitable academic success. Indeed, these questions are often followed by well-meaning but cursory assurances on the part of the questioner that ‘you’ll get there in the end.’

Part of the problem is that people are very keen to be nice to you when you’re writing up. They are well meaning and want to feel like they’re helping you. They want (perhaps for their own peace of mind) to picture you enjoying a difficult but manageable challenge – a challenge that will ultimately make you a better researcher and place you squarely on the path to a successful career. If they begin to think that you might actually be struggling they would feel compelled to involve themselves in a situation where they are ill-equipped to help. Sadly, the paradox is that they can often cause more angst in their attempts to be supportive.

Another part of the problem is that writing up a PhD can feel like the most solitary of experiences. This is especially true in the humanities. Your department or faculty may offer good selections of workshops or seminars but in those final frantic months you’re less likely to attend them. You probably have friends and family that care about you and regularly ask about how it’s all going. But when it comes down to it, you spend your days in cold and uncomfortable archives or cold and uncomfortable libraries where the silence is deafening. Alternatively, you sit day after day at a desk in your room, seemingly cut off from the world outside your window.

Now in my third (and hopefully final) year of doctoral research, I’ve seen many friends go through the dreaded ‘write up’ and come out the other end relatively unscathed. Many, in hindsight, valued the additional pressure of a looming deadline. Some have told me that they just ‘worked hard’ and ‘didn’t faff about’. For some students, completing the PhD without support was a matter of pride. As one student recently complained to me, people should not assume that you ‘must be stressed’ by writing up. You’re simply dealing with the challenge in your own way and are taking pride in that sense of self-reliance. In some respects the ‘write up’ is blown out of proportion and invested with more menace than it warrants. I wouldn’t be writing about it otherwise.

But for others the ‘write up’ is a daunting (and even traumatizing) process. For these students it is unhelpful to say that, perhaps, they just shouldn’t be doing a PhD. Just because you struggle emotionally or mentally at various points throughout those three or four years does not mean that you’re not cut out to write a thesis and write it well. Neither is it helpful to say that students who are struggling emotionally or academically should simply utilize their university’s counseling or support services. For some, the prospect of seeking help can be as stressful as writing the actual thesis. As one anonymous academic observed a few weeks ago, there is a perception among students that to seek support is to admit defeat. To seek support might suggest that you’re just not up to the demands of an academic life. Yes, an academic life can be a solitary and demanding one. Yes, there is a level of uncertainty or instability that doesn’t accompany other career paths. But let us keep in mind that, at the tail end of a PhD, these aspects of academia are being magnified.

Let’s also keep in mind that, when it comes to writing up, every student’s experience is unique. Even if the people asking you questions have been through the wringer and written up their own theses, they cannot fully appreciate how you’re feeling. They cannot make their own experiences commensurable with yours. We all develop our own ways of coping with this particular pressure. Paradoxically, I’m finding an outlet from writing up by blogging about writing up. I’m also drinking an inordinate amount of tea and eating an excessive number of chocolate digestives. I know of other students who have adopted more creative (and perhaps unhinged) methods. One completing PhD student got through the final slog and overcame the oppressive silence of their room each day by having ‘conversations’ with the people they wrote about in their thesis. It didn’t particularly matter that most of those people had been dead for many decades.

This blog post is not intended to make a profound statement about the stresses of student life or academia more broadly. It’s simply tabling a subject that has been discussed many times amongst friends and colleagues. I would, however, be interested to hear about the experiences of students who are completing, or have recently completed their theses so do please leave comments below.

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