February 6, 2015
Today I met with my supervisor one to one. He’d contacted me last week (as he knew I’d had quite a rough one) and asked about a potential chat in the near future. As it had been awhile since we’d spoken, I’d gladly replied that it would be great to connect. After sending the response and setting up a time I didn’t give the meeting much thought until this past weekend when it dawned on me that I was a second year doctoral student and in a program that is about 4-ish years in estimated length that would put me right in the middle. I wasn’t totally sure where I had read it, but 2 years in seemed like when all the cool doctoral kids probably had at least have written a dissertation rough draft, or was the 2 year mark when said “cool kids” had already completed the revisions? Either way….eek!
So my supervisor has contacted me about a potential chat in the near future. And though it was most likely a chat inspired by things unrelated to my academic progress…I’m a second year student with a gut feeling that a potential chat wasn’t going to be a time for us to swap conspiracy theories about the Bachelor or who we thought was going to win Project Runway. If I was chatting with my supervisor the mental health check in is just code for checking up on me and my research direction, making sure I’ve got a clean APA record, am up on my article reading and generally conducting my life in a manner befitting a doctoral student. Suddenly meeting with my supervisor sounded way more like going to the principals office meets getting caught sneaking in after curfew meets executive interview and if I’m not prepared and ready to impress with some serious doctoral student-y data…I’m in big big trouble.
And so I began to do what any high performing (and high paranoia) person does in a situation like this namely figure out what I can quickly cobble together to show that though my Twitter feed may tell otherwise, I have indeed been working super hard doing only academic stuff….24/7. In fact, once I finish some final calculations I will have the perfect thesis direction that will not only be totally original, but also totally engaging and totally brilliant. My thesis will ensure the end to world hunger, tropical disease, and bring world peace through mobile learning and distance education. Oh, and as I’m a graphic designer, I will use all sorts of ground breaking arts based methodology, it will look fabulous, and quickly end up in the MOMA permanent collection. Seriously. It’s going to be the epic thesis of the decade.
Lucky for everyone, after a few frustrating attempts to write a thesis statement that managed to encapsulate all these ideas into a pithy statement, real life called me back and I had to once more divert my attention from the super important stuff of my thesis-fiction to the boring mundane of real students pursuing an education and real teachers trying to figure out the best way to empower said students. I tried a couple more times to craft the masterpiece that I was pretty sure my supervisor really wanted to receive from me but I kept on coming up with nothing beyond some key phrases and then ended up getting lost down an article rabbit hole regarding critique and communities and identity transformation. Though it was fascinating, it was what I’d read all during break it didn’t take me any closer to the whole epic thing I was supposed to have ready. When I went to sleep last night I told myself that my supervisor probably forgot about us meeting. Or maybe I would be too busy tomorrow to meet….maybe there’d be a blizzard. And the phones would be down. And the internet would be down. And of course with such a cataclysmic natural disaster, we could postpone our meeting until like next year maybe since by then I wouldn’t feel so ashamed that I had nothing impressive to show.
When I woke up it was sunny and clear. No freak storms insight. In addition due to some administrative issues that were more pressing, all my work meetings had magically been pushed to the following week. Seriously. It felt like the universe was against me as I couldn’t think of one legit excuse.
And then came the fateful call. I mentally steeled myself with seven syllable words and was all prepped to sound really smart when instead of saying “Well Lisa, tell me about your proposed methodological explorations and current ontological positioning in regards to your personal research and dissertation learning plan. Happen to have your gantt chart handy so I can take a look?” my supervisor said “So, Lisa…how are you doing through this whole thing? I know the events of last week must have really been difficult for you and I’d love to hear where your head is at after all of that.”
You don’t want to hear all the fancy words I’m about to spout off so I can convince you I’m smart and worthy of being a doctoral student…you want to hear about where I’m at in the aftermath of the messy human stuff that happened last week? It took a couple seconds for me to change gears but after a deep breadth and an internal reminder that this was a real, empathetic question and I needed to honor it by responding in a truthful way…we talked like actual humans. Together we shared our ideas on what it means to lose someone and the richness and blessing that is having a learning community of close friends. We agreed how important it is to have balance and take care of yourself and we talked about ultimately what it means to have a sustainable and fulfilling career. We also talked about narratives that shape the doctoral experience and academia in general and the strange pessimistic language that can so often creep in. We did talk a little about where I “should” be in my own thesis journey but it was more an aside than anything and the only concrete instructions I received were “focus on your coursework…this is what matters right now…the other stuff will come in time.”
It wasn’t a long conversation and nothing we talked about was all that profound and yet it kind of was profound for me because it made me realize that I need to be very very intentional that I don’t let all the “out there” voices about what being a doctoral student looks like define my own experience. When I enter into all the crises narratives about doctoral life and supervisor experience and thesis writing and all the rest, it turns what in actuality is a pretty amazing journey of wonder and discovery into a stressful drudgery marked by panic, anxiety, and shame.
In this crises narrative of being a doctoral student, my supervisor is like a bad character in a Dickens novel who I’m never going to be able to please thus I should never do anything but be subservient and minimize contact at all costs. In reality, I’m sure my supervisor has his moments but he’s cheering me on in this process and believes in me way more than I can imagine. He’s got a vantage point that sees much more than I do and even more he’s been through the process so if anyone gets it…he does.
Regarding my thesis topic, in the crises narrative, it’s like a leech wanting to suck everything out of me and nothing I ever give it will be enough. Oh, and in addition to sucking life out of me there’s the whole shame factor it inserts in return because someone is probably already doing research like mine only better and that person doesn’t choke every time they have to do APA. In reality, my thesis is my chance to create something intricate and beautiful out of living ideas and words and the stories that emerge out of my research. I get to weave all parts of myself into it and it in return will reveal things I can’t even imagine now. Like my own art work, I have a feeling that the more I can bring myself authentically to it, the richer it will become.
And so this is my new challenge…to resist the crises narrative and the panic train that seems to show up at my door every morning (and afternoon….and sometimes evening) telling me that I’m really behind and I’m only a true doctoral student if I haven’t slept or eaten in days….that balance is impossible and stress equals value. It’s time to resist the crises narrative that tells me that my supervisor only cares about word counts and conference presentations…that I need not contact him unless I’m totally resolved in my ideas and perfect in my execution.
It’s time to wake up each day and say, here is this new day. Today is not a crises, today is not a battle, today is not a meaningless drudgery. Today is moments that will hold wonder, and adventure and excitement. Today is moments that will hurt me and moments that will hold conflict. I am showing up for today and I am giving it my full self, as much as I know how because ultimately my narrative is good.