Research paralysis -- moving past: "what's the point?"
July 7, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing what promises to be the last parts of my dissertation but am not handling the important and most basic questions well. How do I stay sane and somewhat productive in uncertain times? (longish details within)

I have a few months left to write my PhD dissertation and it's been a grueling, joyless couple of months (nothing new, I know). I've had to scale down a lot of social commitments, and through the writing process (I know this somewhat is normal) I've become very disinterested in my topic and I can't fathom my job prospects (this is a different battle). Often I find myself escaping to the world of fiction, long walks and other stress reduction activities that I've tried to convince myself aren't acts of procrastination but part and parcel to my hopes to maintain a degree of workable sanity. Some days are better than others: when I can write 750+ words and convince myself that it's enough and that I'll start again the next day versus today (see below).

The thing is, I know that I might be standing at a cusp of disaster. I had planned to co-present at a conference ever since last year (it's going on next week) but decided a month back that I needed the time to finish my dissertation and wouldn't attend. My colleague/co-presenter asked me to brief her on the presentation (the abstract for which I wrote) since she's still going to present on our behalf. The presentation is centered heavily on my research for which she by her admission not much to add (please don't ask me why I agreed to this arrangement in the first place).

Fast forward to a couple hours ago when I tried to brief her. Beyond a doubt I was completely lost, inarticulate and almost oblivious to her questions. I could barely explain the major theoretical concept and the relevance of my research. After mumbling off for a good half hour I told her that we should cut the session short, and that she should just email me written questions, and I would just respond the best I could in written form.

Although she was sympathetic to my stress and current phase of writing, as soon as she left, I asked myself: how the hell am I going to face a dissertation committee in the near future, when I can't even hit the slow-pitches down the middle of the plate? I know that stress has a factor in distorting my thoughts, but I also feel a pointlessness in explaining my findings, my arguments and my entire research. I am still feeling a numb yet tortuous realization: I will never finish this.

My writing process is already prone to sporadic fits and I meditate daily just to stay focused and not to derail myself, but I fear that the facade or veneer of calm that has gotten me through thus far is crumbling as I write this.

My question is: how can I avert this pending feeling of doom in the most effective way possible? I feel that taking deep breaths, and taking a walk in the park are good starting points, but what else might I do to shield myself from potential setbacks like this, and to minimize their impact? By the way, the clock continues to tick...thanks in advance.
posted by wallawallasweet to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
When I was getting ready to defend I too felt so much anxiety that it was difficult to formulate simple concepts of my project. I think as you have learned more about your topic, and no doubt have read countless research papers, you have accumulated so much information that you have perhaps become immobilized with your knowledge base. Is the field you are in wrought with differing opinions, research that shows results that provide varying theories of the same data? Mine sure is and I wouldn't be surprised if yours is too. What I would suggest is that you go back and focus on the research that you believe is best founded and logical, even if it doesn't agree with your data and conclusions. You can find similarities and then expound on possibilities of why differences are present. You get to discuss this based on your thoughts. Focus on just one or two ideas and support those rather than trying to summarize the entire field. I am certain you have a good grasp of some of the papers you have read, study those and feel secure you know what they are talking about. You don't need to go down the rabbit hole of looking up their references, and their references and so on, but maybe a few important references. No one expects you to know every theory, just the important ones and those that had an impact on your thought process. You will likely get excited again when you read one important paper that influenced you -- go from there and avoid the temptation to over do it. Good luck, we all need it!
posted by waving at 9:18 AM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites] really don't have to be perfect, just do your best.
posted by waving at 9:25 AM on July 7, 2014

Oh boy, I empathize. Are you exercising, hard enough to break a sweat, every day? And are you sleeping enough? And eating well? This is crisis time - so you need to make sure your basic needs are met.

I made a basic outline when I was about at your point - I told myself, "Okay, I know I have to cover these sections, and make these figures, and re-write part of the first chapter. What can I do every day?" I wrote quick blurbs for every section I had left, even if it was mostly nonsense like, "methods for this section, write about this data, don't forget scatter plot." It made me feel better that I had a plan.

It also helped me to look at my work in the big picture again - think back to your proposal. What literature gap is your research fulfilling? (If you can't see it because you are so stressed, have faith in your committee that you wouldn't have gone this far without them seeing value.) Think big, big picture - how is this work important to your grandma? Or your neighbor? Try to make connections even if they aren't obvious.

The conference came at a bad time - right when the worst feelings are happening, and when your brain should be focusing on other aspects of your work. Is there any way you can both withdraw? If not, do your best to prep her - worse comes to worst, just grab parts of your dissertation and have her read them out loud. It's not the best, but it'll do. When you face your committee to defend, you will be in a much better place. For one, your dissertation will have been written. Also, you will have a new clarity by the time you write your conclusions.

One of my mentors told us, "PhD students think they have to scale Everest. We just want them to make it to base camp." I wish I had heard that while I was writing, and not after I had finished. My mantra was "Perfect is the enemy of good." Realizing that I just had to get through this, and do the best I could without having a breakdown - even if that meant substandard writing and less than perfect tables - was the only way I survived without quitting. Good luck.
posted by umwhat at 9:27 AM on July 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Something that helped me:

In the narrow little area of your thesis topic you are quite literally the best researcher in the world. That's the nature of a PhD. The defence isn't an exam - that phase of your life is long since over. You're testing your committee's understanding of your work, correcting their misconceptions.

Don't be calm. Strut.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

Well, I'm not sure what field you are in, but I imagine you will need to find or fake great ENTHUSIASM about your project if you go the academic job route. That is, I think, pretty crucial in in landing a job, and maybe with a bit of distance it will be easier to find or fake it. However, I don't think this kind of salesmanship is necessary for the dissertation defense.

Again, I don't know your field or its norms, but in my experience being on the other side of the table I must say that most of the dissertations I've read really haven't been very good at all. Nevertheless, the candidates still got their degree (and sometimes honors!). The writing is often turgid, the tour of the secondary literature tedious beyond belief, and rarely is any new or interesting ground broken. I'm pretty sure my colleagues don't even read the darn things. But that's all OK because you are not actually writing a book. Moreover, you don't have to convince your committee that you have a good project. Rightly or wrongly that ship likely sailed when they approved your proposal (assuming your program is structured like mine). The bar is actually quite low: all you need to show is competence. And you are competent even if you are not, at the moment, especially eloquent or enthusiastic.

Try and think of the dissertation as your last little, unpleasant, hurdle before freedom (or before more bondage if you decide to try for the tenure-track)!
posted by girl flaneur at 5:48 PM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you all so much: quick update: meltdown has been temporarily averted.
Will do a combination of strutting, reviewing the 'big picture' and looking at the differences thru the key literature (btw, it's the wishy washing political science/critical theory field gahhh) and quick 7 minute workouts
posted by wallawallasweet at 5:49 AM on July 8, 2014

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