I doubt my doubt is more doubtful than yours
This is a blog for anyone suffering a moment of doubt with their PhD.
Firstly, I am fine. Slowly making progress. Quickly approaching a deadline. These two factors are on track to converge.
Secondly, it is also fine to not be fine. And if in doubt about that, the network you are part of within the PhD community is a good place to straighten yourself out.
The foolhardy measure
As a pretty outwardly relaxed person, and exceptional at masking whatever is going on within (especially to myself) I regularly consider my foolhardiness based on those above two possibilities. This is important for my mental well-being. In essence, it goes something like this.
#1 Be hardy: reading, writing, and revisiting.
#2 Don’t be the fool: know when to reach out.
A practical example
This is fresh in mind – because this week I had a few doubts to unravel. It is normal, but this one was big enough to prompt this reflection – my way of writing my way clear – until the next.
My latest example
The big doubt mid-week ended well. So I thought perhaps an example will help you work out your current flavour of doubt – i.e., whether it is one that is fine, or the one where you need to reach out. This is my foolhardy – always partly hardy, and partly fool – this is reflecting upon which better had my measure.
No two PhD journeys are the same. I suspect no two transfer processes are either. Indeed, if you are not in the UK – this whole process may be alien to your own PhD journey.
The PhD status: The first draft of my Transfer Report will be with my supervisors by the end of this month (June 2023). This is a big deal – because the Transfer Report feeds into the transfer decision. The transfer decision is a go / no go. If you are “no go” – you go no further.
My PhD status: I am now deeply invested in my specific research focus. Three key examples of how that starts to look.
 My research problem is clearly outlined, researched and supported robustly with literature evidence. Robust enough to have been accepted as a development paper at the British Academy of Management conference in September.
 My research question is most clear. “How can differences in intentions inform governance frameworks and reduce threat of conflict in inter-organisational projects?” – supported by six objective which each link tightly to aspects of this one research question. These are hard won over several months of iterative challenge and reworking. My supervisors pushed me really hard on this – thanks to them for that. Both question and objectives have also now been aired with my peers within the Leeds Centre for Projects – and faced their friendly critique.
 A significant review of literature; a focus of methodology and supporting worldview; and an outline of a research plan are well researched, extensively written (a vast text – vast) but a long way from being written succinctly (a long way). The literature review, methodology, and plan form the backbone of the transfer report.
Hardy or fool?
There is nothing in that last paragraph to indicate excessive doubt. So far, so normal. But I can assure you that there is lingering doubt living still through every stage up to and including this point – even now it still does. Never prolonged. Never unduly critical. Just a constant edging towards more progress, and new doubt – all of that is more hardy than fool.
Last week’s doubt was a little deeper than most I have had in this first year of my PhD. The hard stop deadline adding a little more bite. This too, I concluded to be more hardy than fool. Situationally, that extra bite would have been stoking up my inner chemistry to make my brain’s amygdala pump out more angst (and with it more self-doubt); and with that more inner chemistry comes a repeating spiral that adds a little more. My advice (and all advice others have given me) is just keep reading, writing, and revisiting. Still more hardy than fool.
However, I think there is a point where that self-diagnosis and the safe return may not so easily be read towards. And if that is you, it really does pay to talk it through. Supervisors do this for a living. Peers go through it, too. Do not allow yourself to sit and stew. Don’t be the fool, being hardy.
I repeat the following to ensure it is noted. Situationally, that extra bite would have been stoking up my inner chemistry to make my brain’s amygdala pump out more angst (and with it more self-doubt); and with that more inner chemistry comes a repeating spiral that adds a little more. This is situational, it is not the normal. If this is the normal, you are spiralling the wrong way. I am not at the deadline yet for my transfer. But I am past that block to clarity that was building my doubt. I just kept reading, writing, and revisiting.
It also pays to know yourself well. That was a lesson I found out the hard way. I doubt very much I would have had the means to do this most hard thing I now do (this hard PhD thing), if I had not. Much like PhD journeys however, I think the individual path to know oneself is uniquely ones own. I will offer a glimpse here of each, as they relate to me. Firstly, it was therapy, a deeper understanding of psychology, repositioning my empathy that helped me. My wider blog deals with aspects of that.
Secondly, and more easily, I can expand on the exit of my doubt this week. For me, I wrote myself out of the trough I was in a few days ago. Others may talk their way through. Or find a way to redraw a diagram. Or perhaps have a plan they just need to stick to. Me, I need to let my brain free to be. That may be a rewriting, or redefining, rework a few smaller parts. That might lead: [i] revealing something new, [ii] reflecting and reshaping what I thought I knew; [iii] or just reclaiming my understanding, the justification, [iv] or reveal the weakness of a claim. It is a plunge into detail, then remove myself from that detail and plunge into something else. From that repositioning I will rewrite some more. And if that fails, I will write to myself. Those notes can be emergently revealing – if that sounds exceptionally odd, I provide an example in the footnote below*.
No doubt: there will be more doubt
That’s all for now. I very nearly did not write this blog. My doubt is still too near. Doubt enough to wonder what this will read like if my go / no go has me the wrong side of that nagging fear. That’s why I also write in reflection. Writing to my future self – whilst I still know last weeks self here. That may help you. It will help my next foolhardy moment – of that I have no doubt.
to be continued…
* I woke up and felt this note waiting to be written. That will sound weird, but after a decent sleep my ideas are sometimes clearer before I start thinking of them again. This note turned into an industrious 72 hours: “It’s not about doubt at this point. It’s about refocusing upon the priority. And thereby clearing the fog, to rediscover the clarity. It is horizons that I am seeking to expand. But am I thinking about that too literally? Horizons but not looking out, instead revealing other mountains to look back upon. Or key items on the landscape to descend upon, and if necessary dig a little or ascend and look straight down. I am not describing other mountains that can be seen the same way. I am describing the view of my focal interest, from that found vantage point. My [Hermeneutic] circling claims that vantage point from which to see. To see the same focal point. Just seen differently. That is the object subject, but existentially one in the same. This is asking what we are being, in this PPP World [DN: my object of enquiry is Public Private Partnerships, the World probably Heideggerian – i.e., being-in-the-world]. How we are behaving. Reasoning behaviour based upon the active goal, as understood from that perspective. How these various perspectives relate us: to that world; to each other; and how governing all that is relatable differently. How that is us being in this seen world.”