Accepting the Uncertainty

19 October 2018

My PhD confidence crisis crept up on me so slowly that I barely noticed it. There was no tectonic shift—I love you PhD, I love you not—nor was there any acrimonious fracture of my supervisory relationships or mounting distain for my topic. But when the words of Dr Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go! started resonating with me and perfectly described my PhD trajectory, I knew it was time to take a breath.

One of the advantages of research is the ability to choose your own direction, a freedom which is simultaneously thrilling and enormously frightening. For me, a person who has difficulty deciding from menus with photographs, the potential for choice was overwhelming.

“Should I turn left or right… or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?”

There is a good reason that boots fall lighter upon well- trodden paths.

I started a PhD to research the effectiveness of groundwater management during drought. My research statistically examines how well groundwater management plans achieve environmental protection and supply security under various climate and implementation scenarios. But it is a big topic, and early on, my mind leapt from scheme to scheme like a mouse in a bucket, and I flailed to net ideas that fled before me. Then my direction crystallised, I published a bit, presented a bit, and thought I was on cruise control for completion. And then came the final phase.

The path bifurcated. My supervisors urged me to take one path, yet I yearned for the other—uncertainty analysis. Championing my cause, I won my first technical argument with one of my supervisors, which in itself, felt like an epic PhD milestone. Yet, I was on a downward arc; pin-wheeling the length of an incline, unsure if I was going the right direction but powerless to stop.

Then suddenly, uncertainty was everywhere, and it rose around me like swamp gas.

Uncertainty is intrinsic to a PhD, where the purpose is to do something novel, something clever, something that has not been done before. The thing about doing stuff that hasn’t been done before is, that sometimes, it doesn’t work.

“Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.”

Doubt insidiously seeped into my consciousness. Am I following a white rabbit down a narrow hole, or walking down a not-so-good street? “What if this fails?” whispered a sly little voice in my head. And then anxiety flourished, and I convinced myself that I had flung years into the abyss for naught.

What I didn’t realise was that anxiety is so common among graduate students it is almost handed out with a student card. A PhD can be scary—not like clowns in the forest kind of scary—but more of a deep, pervasive, unease that leaves nerves jangling and sharp. An apprehension that things will not work out, concerns about appeasing supervisors, maintaining good standing, publishing and presenting, not to mention getting an academic job afterwards—which these days, seems about as likely as randomly generating your own phone number. Maintaining productivity under that level of uncertainty is not easy.

This tornado of self-doubt marooned me in a slump. And: “Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”

The trajectory of a PhD is so topographically varied that at times the trail resembles a coiled sea monster. I’ve worked 20- hour days and 20-minute days, and sometimes I need to step back and reset my perspective. And that is ok. For a long time, I lashed myself with recriminations at any perceived failure, as the earnest bespectacled student I so desperately strived to be.

Chatting with other PhD students who understood the challenges of graduate studies infinitely lifted my spirit, be it commiserating with friends over espresso martinis, or appreciating the faceless creators of “PhD memes” that reminded me there were others out there who have endured the process; a secret community in the ether, every meme a little ping of solidarity.

Now that my compass is fixed upon uncertainty, my research worries have retreated to the horizon, smothered under the volumes of knowledge I need to absorb. Who would have thought there is so much to know about not knowing.

While uncertainty is unsettling, it is the fundamental nucleus of a PhD, the spark and the question. It is the “I wonder”.
Now it is up to me to implement it.

In the words of Dr Seuss, “Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!”

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