This year is the fourth year of what should have been a six-year part-time PhD by Practice in Creative Writing. Instead, it will probably be my last. While many researchers have been severely adversely impacted by the pandemic, I have found enforced solitude a positive boon. I’ve been lucky. But now, with only a bit of tinkering, tittivating and checking left to do, I suddenly feel lost.
I have been cautioned many times throughout this strange PhD journey that there would come a point where I would struggle, feel unmotivated, bored or despairing about my project. But it never happened. I expected it. I planned for it. I tried to keep one step ahead of my deadlines, so that when it did happen, I would have some wiggle room. But nothing. I can honestly say that the whole process, from start to nearly finish, has been a complete joy.
Completing a PhD is something I never thought I would have the opportunity to do. I was the first person in my family to go to university. I am still something of an anomaly. An outlier. This has been a blessing in many ways since I have never laboured under the expectation of academic achievement. Just the opposite, in fact.
But what now?
I wake up early every morning and sit at my desk. And I have nothing to do. It is too soon to start a new project. I have to let go of this one first, and I can’t complete it until all those bureaucratic hurdles have been passed – final formal review, submission, and, of course, the viva. This period of limbo feels like grief. I’m stuck. I know I have to move on. And I will move on.
But not yet.
I am not alone. It seems many people who achieve a long-held goal, suddenly feel empty. Some psychologists call it the arrival fallacy. Others call it a success hangover. The arrival fallacy is the erroneous belief that success will make us happier or better in some way. When we complete our goals and find ourselves unchanged, this can lead to disappointment. I don’t think I ever thought completing a PhD would make me happier – not consciously at least. I’m pretty happy with my life as it is. But a success hangover sounds much more like what I’m experiencing. I have had a blast. And now it’s nearly over. Of course, I haven’t yet succeeded, and it seems like tempting fate to claim a success I have not yet achieved. But even the possibility of imminent completion seems to be enough to bring on a hangover that has nothing at all to do with alcohol consumption.
Olympic athletes know this feeling well. They have trained for four years for one event. They have put everything else aside to arrive at the two weeks of the games in top form. They give it their all. And then they go home. And their diary is empty. There is no training schedule. There is nothing to aim for. They are ordinary again. Michael Phelps, winner of eight gold medals in swimming, started a campaign to raise awareness of post-Olympic blues, after shutting himself in his room for weeks after his wins. He helped launch the Permission Slip Campaign to inspire people to give themselves permission to take whatever they need for their own mental health.
This feeling is, I’m sure, temporary. Whether it is an arrival fallacy, a success hangover, or just a little bit of sadness that the party is nearly over, it will pass.
And there is, it seems, one certain cure for a success hangover – and that is to set a new goal, and start a new journey. And so, today, I am beginning again. Slowly, perhaps, but also deliberately. I have given little thought to the future over the last three years – after all, I expected to only be halfway through by this stage. But now I have decided that this year, alongside the tinkering and the titivating and the checking, alongside the final formal review, the submission and even the viva, I will be working on a new plan, setting new goals and new challenges.
I never thought that I would have the opportunity to do a PhD. And I have (nearly) done one. So, perhaps it’s time to take a good look at all the other things I thought I couldn’t do.
And do them, too. https://www.talkspace.com/mental-health-awareness-month