Lessons from the past

In September 2010 I defended my thesis on Stoic philosophy and this summer the journal Mnemosyne published my summary announcement in their section Dissertationes Batavae. Needless to say I’m quite proud, but also it feels very strange to encounter work from the past again in this way: it partly seems to come from a different world. Two years ago, I could not imagine being where I am now. Finishing my thesis was a struggle. How I would have loved to know some of the things I know now!

That love and the sense that I was not alone feeling like that have helped me for the past two years to shape my dream of assisting struggling PhD’s and postdocs in a personal and professional way.

Many PhD candidates that approach the end of their project develop a “less love / more hate” relationship with their thesis topic. Often the key to reversing that development and keeping engaged is to change or widen your perspective on your topic and your project. This is surely difficult and can also be scary, because you have to go on thin ice and be prepared to make grand gestures that you feel may not withstand close scrutiny. I’ll give a personal example.

Barely two years ago the words and ideas behind my introductory summary in Mnemosyne fully engulfed my mind, but I could hardly believe I would ever again be enthusiastic about the topic of my thesis. Yet, if I approach it now from a broad and present-day perspective I can still feel some of the fire. What still comes to mind when I reread my introduction: amazement about how more than 2 millennia old theories and ideas can still teach us a lesson that is very up to date and timely. In my PhD project I analyzed Stoic philosophical engagement with non-philosophical, layman views about nature, the gods, and the good. In a way, this is similar to some types of exchange that happen nowadays between the scientific perspective and religiously oriented views. Science is supposed to be exact and objectively true, while (from a scientific point of view) religious claims about the world, god, and the morally good are vague and prone to error if true at all. As the Stoics put it (or so I argued in my PhD thesis): (Stoic) philosophy has a firm claim to truth in these matters, whereas traditional myth has only a dim understanding at its core that is to be re-interpreted from under layers of incorrect, superstitious phantasies. The Stoics approached these mythical ideas that often lay very far from their own doctrinal truth with admirable open-minded and respectful attitude. Imagine the most dominant scientists of our time so seriously engaged with the widest range of religious views known (not just the Western monotheists, but also Eastern and polytheistic views as well as New Age, etc.), using quasi standardized scientific interpretative methods backed by an epistemological theory! Despite the slightly smug superiority of the Stoic/scientific stand, isn’t this an awesome attempt at being open to other viewpoints and at creating harmony between apparently totally opposite views?

So far for my own example. What is the bigger story you tell about your research? Please share it in the comments: your fellow PhD’s and postdocs will be grateful for the inspiration and hope you give them.

Are you currently in a ‘more hate’ relationship with your thesis topic and do you wonder how you can ever rekindle your enthusiasm? Drop me a line and I’m sure together we can rediscover your fire!

4 replies
  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    Hi Claartje, congratulations on your new publication! Also, your blog integrates so nicely here, still elegant but also practical, your readers can browse into different sections easily.
    I like it that you used your own personal experience to make an example of your relation with your thesis, before and after you completed it. I am sure that most PhD candidates start out with a lot of enthousiasm about their research but most of them end up frustrated and perhaps even disappointed. Why is that? Perhaps it is part of growing up and realizing that the world of research is not an ideal one (as just about anything). Or it may have something to do with the hard work involved, the dedication and discipline that it requires -it can be very tiring. From another aspect, it gets less and less satisfying when you reach a point where you know a whole lot about a tiny little aspect of a very special subject but you seem to lose perspective on the way.
    So, it is a love-and-hate relationship all the way. For me also, as I am soon reaching the end of it (hopefully). There are days that I wake up, make myself a cup of coffee and get down to work, fully concentrated and devoted. But there are also days that I simply hate it, I don’t even want to look at what I wrote the previous day or even worse I don’t want to read anything at all for the rest of my life. Of course it is temporary and I’ve come to realize that everything else that is going on in my life affects my productivity in a serious way. What I miss most during the “hate”- days is motivation, perhaps someone to discuss this lonely process with or to reinforce my willingness to complete it or to sipmly remind me that it is worth doing it and that I can handle it. If that doesn’t work either, next step is to accept that it is just one of those days. Actually I am having one today 🙁 (maybe subconsiously I am here to talk about it?) Well, perhaps tomorrow will be a more creative day, right? Cheers!

    Reply
    • Claartje
      Claartje says:

      Hi Anna,
      Thanks for coming over to visit my new blog space: glad you like it!
      The way you describe about your current relationship with your thesis indicates to me that you’re nearing the end, indeed. Hang in there. It’s okay that not every day is as happy and productive as you’d like. To accept that is, I think, the fastest way to regain your concentration and motivation. Another thing that really helps, is to commit to just 30 minutes of thesis writing a day. That’s all you have to do: just 30 minutes and you can reward yourself with something nice whatever after that. If it happens to be a bad day, there’s no need to reproach yourself for not looking at your thesis for the rest of the day after those 30 minutes. If it happens to be a good day you are, of course, free to continue for as long as you want, i.e. for as long as you feel the fun in it. 😉
      Hope this helps! Let me know…

      Reply
  2. Anna
    Anna says:

    Hi again Claartje and thank you for the advice and support. I wish someone had told me about the 30-minutes-technique when I started my PhD, I know I would have been less stressed and frustrated, more productive and I would have probably avoided the burnout. In practice I have come to realize during the last couple of years that my day should not end unless I’ve written something, even if it is just a paragraph and that really helped me to get back to work the next day. The 30 min. limits can be even more helpful, because it makes you feel that there is an end to the torture when you are not into it. Other days it can liberate you and then you can go on for much more. The thing is: PhD is not a speed race, but rather a marathon -you only need to keep a moderate rhythm but for a long period of time.
    You know, I honestly wish I had some councelling during these years, not like the one you get from a supervisor, but one that an external and sympathetic consultant with personal experience on the same process can offer. I really think what you are doing can be very helpful for a lot of people, keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Claartje
      Claartje says:

      Anna, you’re a wonderful woman for admitting that you’d have liked to have had some counseling during the past couple of years. I’m sorry to hear you did not receive it so far. That your supervisors could not provide this kind of support is not saying anything about them: empathic counseling of the process from someone who is not directly involved in your PhD is simply something they aren’t trained to provide, nor is it their role to provide it.

      I’m not sure how close to the finish you are at the moment. You can send me an email and we can figure out a way to do some e-coaching (email or skype) to pull you through the last stages of finishing “the thing”, if you like and if you feel it could still be helpful.

      Doing a PhD entails learning an awful lot, not just about one tiny, little aspect of a very special subject, but first and foremost about yourself, your relation to your work and supervisor, how to communicate, how to manage yourself effectively (in terms of psychological health, besides the more obvious time management.) When you’re nearing the end of the process, you wish you had know from the beginning some of the things you only learned along the way. Don’t feel sorry about that, because it is healthy: you recognize what you’ve learned along the way.

      Reply

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