The PhD Horror

Most projects do not include horror clowns, dealing with gory rampages or angry ghosts, but doing a PhD can still be quite scary. Read on about the horror-like elements of PhDing…. Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

About a lifetime ago, while I was doing my English Literature degree, our class got Elizabeth Barrette’s Elements of Aversion as a handout to help with an analysis assignments. It creeped back up on me as I was drafting this, initially very different post. After some intense Google labour (because finding something is tricky when you do not know the author, title or many other details, apart from the purpose of the text), I have haunted it down and realised why it seemed a good match for our scary PhD moments. Elements of absence and presence have actually proved to be quite relatable to my own PhD story and to stories of others I have heard.

But it is time I stopped rambling and sent our hero on a journey to PhD-ville…

Elements of Absence

These motifs horrify by taking away things we depend on. They disturb our preconceptions, our sense of safety and comfort and how the world should work. They yank all our certitudes out from under us; they take away the rules we use to deal with reality. They twist and warp the familiar into the unfamiliar. They bother us with differences. (Barrette 1997)

  • The unknown: The hero might had friends or family members who have done a PhD, but they have not undertaken one themselves. Everything is new and unfamiliar, from working with their supervisor, to intricate lab hierarchy and the mystery of interlibrary book loans.
  • The unexpected: Some challenges our protagonist was warned about, like the dreaded final task of completing an 80 thousand words long piece of writing, but others they could not have foreseen. Authors, just like life, like to throw curveballs and the unsuspecting PhD student needs to pluck up all their courage and be resolute in dealing with these.
  • The unbelievable: Student’s partner, family and friends, all outside of the research plot, have hard time relating to student’s experience… You just sit and read and write, what is stressing you so much?
  • The unseen: Ideas that are hard to pin down. Elusive theories. An experiment that keeps failing for no apparent reason… PhD student is equally frustrated and intrigued by these mysteries.
  • The unconscious: The thesis slowly overtakes the time and thoughts of our protagonist. It is always on their mind, even outside of the office and doing research slowly changes the way they do other things and how they engage with other characters…
  • The unstoppable: Once the hero embarks on this journey, there is no going back. However, the PhD is pushing the boundaries of the genre, so stopovers might occur as well, and our hero will hopefully come back from these stronger, wiser and more determined.

Elements of Presence

These motifs intrude on our comfort. They crowd out our confidence, our feelings of self-reliance and dignity. Where nature abhors a vacuum, these horrors rush in, smothering us with their weight. They bother us just by existing. (Barrette 1997)

  • Helplessness: There are moments when the PhD student despairs over the research abyss, and feels like, no matter how hard they worked, nothing they do is actually benefiting anyone (or increasing their wordcount and h-index).
  • Urgency: Many of the challenges need to be dealt with promptly, and our hero is rushed to act, often yielding regrettable results and typos in abstracts sent to the most important conference in the field.
  • Pressure: It all starts slowly, with some benign reading in the field, but the pressure increases, as time and funding are steadily running out…
  • Intensity: There are slow days, slow weeks or months. And there are days when our PhD student is running around in frenzy; teaching, writing, presenting, doing outreach and public engagement activities… (Or maybe they just slept through alarm and missed the bus, we’re not judging, just narrating.)
  • Rhythm: Doing a PhD can be a bit like riding a roller-coaster. Sometimes the protagonist feels like they have defeated the monster and escaped the peril, but then somebody finds a new corpse (in what you thought was the last round of revisions) and then it all starts again.
  • Release: Post-viva state (I am guessing here?). World is back to normal. Or is it…..

To conclude, PhD has a lot of potential to be turned into a quality, blood-curdling horror-movie (or a majestic piece of trash cinema, if you prefer that). Luckily, there is support to get you through to the daylight.

You can share some of your scary PhD moments in this document or in the comments section. Go ahead, scare us!

P.s. And a procrastination treat, for all the hardworking researchers out there – this cool tool lets you generate your own horror plot. Enjoy!

Image credit: Alexa_photos / CC0

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