Monkey Puzzle

June. The deadline to submit the 10,000 word First Year Review document plus other logs and feedback to my supervisor, is rushing towards me. What have I learnt? 

  • That while I enjoy working on my own, I also miss not working collaboratively and instantly with another. Someone you can discuss an idea with right then and there, who is working on the same project with you. Millie the Mog is vocal but lacks insight. Ideally, PhDs would be collaborative but that’s simply not possible as you have to earn your spurs on your own.
  • That thinking can free you but also can be very painful, especially if your brain is getting on a bit and you can’t always remember why you’ve entered a room, or the name of that actor in your favourite film, or the name of your favourite film, or how the book you finished last Friday ends.
  • That younger people from all over the world are going to save us all. They are incredibly smart.
  • That I am in the right place at the right time for me.
  • That I have a lot to learn and I love learning new things.
  • That I need resilience more than anything else. 

What’s it like to work on a PhD? Sometimes my brain feels as if it’s been turned up to 11 like a Spinal Tap amp. Yet there are days when it feels like the valves can scarcely warm up to a 5. On those days, I doubt whether my brain is up for the cup. The much discussed and referenced Imposter Syndrome haunts all PhD student researchers. It is no respecter of the older student researcher who feels that they should be striding out confidently with their smart wheelie suitcase of experience thrumming along contentedly beside them. If the PhD is in an area where there is already a level of experience and knowledge, that would be different. But both older and younger research students have the same doubts and uncertainties over their abilities if the PhD is in unfamiliar and potentially shark-infested waters.

Imposter Syndrome can take the form of an imaginary Being, which may make it easier to confront. Perhaps you imagine a soul-sucking Dementor. I have a Sabotage Monkey. It’s in its mid forties, so no Spring Chicken (which might be someone else’s figure of horror). Yet it puts up a bloody good fight when it wants to control. It wants me to fail. Its calling is to set traps, talk with honeyed poisonous words, lie, cause anxiety, encase me in concrete boots of procrastination and inaction. It’s game for anything which could stop me achieving.

Procrastination is a tool of the SM which it deploys early on in a project. The procrastinator brain is not lazy. It turns a task over and over, working out all the angles, the opportunities, the downsides, even as its owner reclines louchely on a sofa breathing in Bourbon biscuits and swilling mugs of coffee. Do not be fooled. The cogs and gears are grinding away in stressed over-wrought noggins. Academic solutions to procrastination involve well-meaning words like “Pomodoro”. Cue eye-rolling from arch-procrastinators. The hurdle which rises up like a Grand National Becher’s Brook before the empty seat in front of the study table has to be breenged through before a timer can be set.

And yet, there is hope! This article in the New York Times (from March 2019) was a eureka moment for me and for others when I shared it on Twitter. Perhaps it will help you, too. It explains a lot of the neuro and psychological aspects in the procrastinating brain and advises how to sidetrack it and reprogramme it. Don’t roll those peepers at me! Let’s learn the techniques in the article. What have we got to lose? Just those bloody Sabotage Monkeys from our backs (other Sabotage Beings are available).                   

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