Advice for PhD students often revolves around avoiding procrastination. But what about students who find it difficult to pause or slow down? Gabriel García Ochoa shares a sincere account of how he keeps the “hungry ghost” at bay…
When it comes to my professional life, my attitude always borders on obsessive compulsive. I say “borders” only because I haven’t been diagnosed with OCD yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is in fact one of the things I’ve been struggling with for years.
This became a problem when I was writing my PhD. Six months before starting my candidature, I came across a flustered student in the last stretch of her thesis. Priya had to submit her PhD in two weeks. She was a caricature of a disgruntled postgrad: wispy strands of black hair floating by her cheeks, bloodshot eyes, glasses askew. She looked at me like a delirious castaway ready to take someone hostage for a glass of water. “Write every day!” she said, “No matter what, every day! 500 words!” Then she turned a corner and disappeared. I have no idea what became of Priya. I hope she’s ok.
But I do know what happened to me after that. I took her advice to heart. The moment I started my candidature, I wrote 500 words, every single day. For four years. Either transcriptions of notes on the texts I read, thoughts on those notes, thoughts on my thoughts, the feeble outline of an argument, a conclusion, a literature report… I managed to produce a prodigious amount of what can only be referred to in polite circles as “absolute crap”, and from that steaming pile of useless writing, I managed to condense a decent enough PhD thesis.
Priya’s advice was great, and it’s the same I give my current PhD students. Not to write 500 words every day, but to write every day. To face our fear of writing, and build a corpus that can be modified, honed and edited, or in a worst-case scenario, discarded once we realise those lines of thought were dead ends. For me, however, it was practically lethal.
By the time you finish reading this paragraph some of you will roll your eyes and shake your heads, and either think or whisper something along the lines of “get over yourself, that’s not a problem”. Well, this is a problem for me: I’m too disciplined. I’m too rigid. And I cannot not work. It’s exhausting. It’s the source of tremendous anxiety. Even as I write this my palms get sweaty and my breath more agitated. I know that popular lore has it that there’s endless procrastination during a PhD, but I can’t procrastinate and I can’t relax, and no one tells you what to do when that’s your problem. Every support session and special seminar at university seems to be on “Focusing”, “Productivity”, or “Time and Project Management”. When I was writing my PhD, I woke up at 5:30am, started writing at 6:00am, and finished at 5:00pm. Every day, weekends included. I had no problem with time management, or dedication, or motivation. But I was a wreck. My compulsivity feels like a Gaki, the hungry ghosts of Japanese Buddhism. It’s never enough. I have to keep going and going and going… There’s a positive side to it, of course: if you manage to endure it, you’ll probably over-achieve, and that comes with some perks. But I was a tangle of anxiety, too taut and stressed to enjoy any perks that may have come from my hard work.
A year and a half into my candidature I thought I was having a heart attack. It was only an anxiety attack, but that put things into perspective. Sort of. I tried mindfulness and meditation, finding a place of quiet and stillness in the pool of my awareness where I could reflect and find some headspace. It didn’t do the trick, so I kept researching and asking questions. I stumbled into yoga (I also stumbled during yoga, when I closed my eyes in Vrksasana …) and that helped. I started going to the gym every day, religiously, propelled by the full force of my burning compulsions. Running, swimming, yoga, weights. I’d never exercised in my life. I thought it was a waste of precious time that could be spent reading, or talking to a friend, or really, doing anything but. But with chronometric precision, I made my way to the gym after each writing session.
To my surprise, the headspace, the stillness and the calm, came after jogging. My breathing changed. I could inhale all the way without that clog in the sternum. The laps in the pool took my hungry ghost by the hand, gave him a pat on the shoulder and asked “What’s going on? Chill. Let’s sit down and have a chat.”
What I’m sharing with you is not a “success story”. I had the good luck of finding a coping mechanism that keeps me healthy. But the hungry ghost is still hungry. My anxiety lies in deep, subterranean pockets that I seem to mine into with every new project. I managed to finish my PhD (just…) without it finishing me. I’m not 100% sure how that happened, but working out played an important part in it.
If, like Gabriel, you’ve had to learn to manage your anxiety, we’d like to hear from you: how have you coped with it? What strategies have you set in place? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below. And remember that most universities offer Counselling Services in case you want to talk to someone about a suitable coping mechanism for you.
Gabriel García Ochoa was born in Mexico City. He is a writer, academic, and professional translator. He is a lecturer in Global Studies, Translation, and Comparative Literature at Monash University. He studied at Harvard University’s Institute for World Literature, where his research focused on the works of Jorge Luis Borges. His first anthology of short stories, The Hypermarket, will be published in 2019 by LCG Press. His research has been published in the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research, Intercultural Education and Reconstructing Identity. You may reach Gabriel at email@example.com