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The Diary of a PhD Student: Is it normal for me to feel this overwhelmed?

Or, in this case, just before you start again.
So I’m aware that it’s been quite a while since I updated this space and I thought that rather than let the silence linger on for another uncomfortable month, it might perhaps be a good thing for me to actually write about what’s been going on.

It turns out PhD degrees are actually quite difficult. I know - who would have thought it? It also turns out that despite writing 30,000 words of the first draft of my novel, I had somehow still ended up writing my way down the wrong road. And this is where the cracks appeared.

For those who aren’t familiar with the process of doing a PhD - or at least, the process at the university where I’m doing mine - during your first year you are faced with the daunting task of going through Panel. It’s terrifying; the thing of nightmares, in fact, and I can feel palpitations building at the very mention of it. It was during the first few weeks of discussing Panel that it first became clear to me that maybe my book wasn’t going in the right direction - so, as if the Panel process itself wasn’t scary enough, I was also suddenly faced with the idea that I’d wasted a massive amount of time writing something that I wasn’t even going to use.

Side note: I have since realised that time spent writing is never time wasted.

I started the degree with a clear-cut idea of exactly what I wanted my novel to be, fully-loaded with blind ignorance towards the possibility that the more research I completed and the more books I read, that clear-cut idea was actually subject to change. The thought of starting over already was pretty horrendous to me, which is perhaps why I moved forward for so long with a style of writing that I’m now cautiously backing away from. The meetings with my supervisor began to terrify me because he was asking questions that I just couldn’t answer - in fact, never mind not being able to answer them, sometimes it felt like I didn’t even understand them. Which is perhaps a contributing factor to my change of tone/voice/style/everything: I was beginning to feel like if I couldn’t find rhyme or reason behind what I was writing, then maybe I was writing the wrong thing. Or at least, the right thing, but a wrong version of it.

The final push - that now, a week or so later, I’m actually quite grateful for - came during a work-sharing session with fellow PhD students who were asking questions about my protagonist that I hadn’t asked; having thoughts that I hadn’t thought of, and raising issues that I hadn’t even noticed, let alone considered.

That afternoon I stayed behind to talk to my supervisor and said:

‘Is it normal for me to feel this overwhelmed?’

It turns out that it is.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Similarly, it’s okay to feel scared, and doubtful; it’s okay to have too many ideas. It’s also okay to walk halfway down one road and then start peddling backwards because you’ve suddenly realised that you’re going in the wrong direction. In fact, it’s better to start peddling backwards.

So I’m now redrafting my novel. I’ve rewritten my prologue and I’m tentatively edging into the rewrite of my first chapter - and so far I haven’t typed a single thing. Pen and paper are the way forward, for the time being at least. I’m slowing my thoughts down, mulling things over, and taking my time to put one word in front of the other - rather than bulk writing one paragraph after the next. And - occasional moments of blind writing- and Panel-related panic aside - while it seems a stretch to say I’ve turned a corner, I think that I at least have the corner in my line of vision now.


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