A PhD during the Holidays

Over the last few years – from before I started my PhD through this holiday season – I have noted a peculiar similarity amongst my fellow researchers: declining states of mind. (This is not new: read here.) Whether working through the season instead of seeing family and loved ones, or going home and constantly feeling that the time spent with family comes at the expense of academic achievement, the choice – whatever it may be – orbits around a mentality that PhD research demands singular focus and commitment, damn the consequences.

This year has been difficult for me, personally and professionally. I am a very social individual, and the entire PhD process has put such proclivities beyond reach. My daily routine consists of waking up by 7:45am, getting a couple cups of coffee in me, then saddling up at the desk until my partner returns from work (usually between 8-10pm). When I’m not at my desk, I’m typically lost in thought about what I should have written (as opposed to what I have written) or I’m thinking about what I will write the next day. I find myself obsessed with reading others’ work in my field, worried sick that another academic has sought to research the same topic and has made a better argument than my own. The only saving grace is that my niche of the international legal world is not as vast as others. Decision paralysis is a familiar theme: do I take an intellectual left or right? How will this relate back to the overarching subject matter? Will this be the straw that breaks this camel’s back when it comes time for the viva defence at the end of the PhD?

A couple of months ago, have found myself mired in a rut and flirting with a spiralling dalliance with depression, my partner suggested we go to my family for Christmas and New Year’s. With both of us being from nordic countries, the prospect of a white Christmas in Canada was already tantalizing on its face, the ability to reconnect with those responsible for making me who I am doubly so. (Now you know who to blame!)

I had underestimated the effect this trip was to have on me. From the moment we stepped out of the airport into the -30°C Toronto winter air, a switch went off inside me. I was… home?! But it was pulling into my mother’s drive when it hit me full force what had I given up for the PhD.

The process can be dehumanizing. Nothing else matters other than the words you write. Your personality? Inconsequential. Your personal life? Unnoteworthy. The fights you have with friends and family over why you’d rather be at the books than spending time with them? That’s a ‘you’ problem, not a ‘PhD’ problem. And so it goes, slowly you drift away into your own mind, neglecting those that actually care that you exist in exchange for subjecting yourself to external criticism that comes a distant second to incessant self-critique and diminishing self-worth.

What started as a planned project that was to be simply achieved by sticking to deadlines has transmogrified into a supermassive black hole of unanswered questions and spontaneous bouts of irrational intellectual inadequacy. Considering that the general civilian population tends to hold the opinion that academics are self-righteous and overly confident, I can only suggest a day in my head will disabuse them of that position. I have a pathological fear that my work is not just wrong, but very, very wrong, despite it being based on evidentiary research.

I was self-confident before my PhD. I miss those days. As the famous paraphrasing of Socrates goes, ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ (The actual saying goes “What I do not know I do not think I know either.” Plato, Apology 21d) Even those things I think I know, I constant revisit the question whether I really do know them, or only think I know them.

This self-imposed psychodrama does wonders for crushing one’s spirit. I shudder to think of those that may not have been as insufferably pompous as I was at the outset. But this brings me back to the holidays.

Entering into my mother’s house – what can best be described as Santa’s workshop – I was able to let slip briefly the intellectual tailspin and remember what it was like before the PhD. In other words, what it means to be human and not some festering boil of obscure legal jurisprudence. What makes me interesting to friends and family I’ve seen is much more three dimensional than the written word. I had forgotten the value of such things.


I am a PhD researcher doing work in the field of my choice. I have been able to take this momentary vacation to rejuvenate my mind. I am looking forward to getting back at my work when I return to Britain. (It may be the only thing I’m looking forward to in Britain, but that’s another post for another time.) I have taken a step back, to take two steps forward.

In my book, that’s progress. I wish the same for my fellow researchers, whether you went home or not. But take time to remember you are human beings. You are more than your work, and you always will be. This is just another chapter in our lives, with ones before it, and definitely more to follow.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year’s to you all.

P.S. My thanks in particular go to my PhD supervisors. They have both been extremely supportive – more than I deserve. It was also been a privilege to be able to teach at universities during my research. The combination of these factors is never far from my mind. I look forward to redoubling my efforts and engaging with you both in the New Year.