Innovative Ageing

Life in the Doldrums

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Allyson Rogers writes about how she found her research stagnating in the doldrums and how she got the wind back into her sails.

Progress when researching for a PhD can be sporadic to say the least. Sometimes one feels incredibly driven and excited about the project, other times it can feel like wading through treacle. The latter is just how I have been feeling lately. It was whilst discussing general PhD progress, that one of my colleagues described his own situation as being in the doldrums, specifically referencing the maritime use of the term.

Wikipedia’s 2018 entry on the doldrums suggests it is a colloquial maritime expression referring to parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean affected by low-pressure in an area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm.

“The doldrums are also noted for calm periods when the winds disappear altogether, trapping sailing ships for periods of days or weeks. The term appears to have arisen in the eighteenth century, when trans-equator sailing voyages became more common. Since this zone is where two trade winds meet, it is also called the Intertropical Convergence Zone. They roughly lie between latitudes 5° north and south”

That is an apt expression to describe my situation. At the same meeting as my colleague highlighted his state of being in the doldrums, other PhD students at the same stage (toward the end of the second year or beginning of the third year of research) nodded in agreement, admitting to similar feelings, so it does not appear to be abnormal. The wind has gone from my sails somewhat and I feel like I am not getting anywhere at any speed.

Or at least I did feel like that. Since the conversation and meeting where this state of doldrums was discussed a few things have happened, but I’ll come on to that later.

First, I think it is important to discuss another definition of the doldrums. Collins English Dictionary (2014) gives the following as the first two definitions of ‘doldrums’:-

  1. a depressed or bored state of mind
  2. a state of inactivity or stagnation

It is easy to understand how the state of feeling like there is no wind in your sails can lead to a feeling of stagnation and boredom or even eventually depression. PhD research is a unique thing. By definition, nobody else has done precisely what you are doing, and it feels very isolating. Family members and friends, even other PhD researchers often do not understand the research because it is so specialised and nuanced. Colleagues are often in the same situation, in that they are consumed with their own study, or at a stage where they are being very productive. With the best will in the world, supervisors are very busy and can only help so much. It is not surprising that many postgraduate students suffer from depression. PhDs can be a very lonely place and I think we must all practice saying the word ‘help’ when we need to. It is not a weakness but a strength. My own situation demonstrates how this can really work wonders.

So, back to my own state of the doldrums. I noted above that some things have happened to help me along a little. The first was declaring at that meeting that I was floundering; that I did not seem to be finding anything, or at least anything related to what I set out to find. One member of the department offered to discuss the situation with me to give a different perspective. Just the act of discussing where I had started to the point I am at now was enlightening. It helped me to understand my own assumptions, what I might be overlooking. A further meeting added further insights. We also looked at my PhD personal journal, containing my own thoughts, plans and feelings as I progress. I had not looked at it for a while. This reminded me to keep up with the journal entries, however sporadic or short. Every thought, every connection, every possible theorisation helps to create the whole cohesive picture, and reading through them helped me to see the bigger picture again.

I also presented at the PGR academy conference in June. The presentation slots were 10 minutes long, leaving 5-7 minutes for presentation and 3 minutes for questions. Some of you out there will know that 5-7 minutes is not long to explain a PhD research project. The process of downsizing my slides to a concise explanation of what I am doing, why I am doing it and what I have found so far was a very useful tool in clearing my mind of superfluous information and focusing in on what I am actually doing. Attending the conference also provided the opportunity to find out what else is researched within the department and ideas for my own research: a way of accessing participants, a model, a theory, all sorts of ideas and connections can be made at conferences by listening to other people’s ideas.  Another benefit of presenting at this conference was the combined wisdom and experience in the room. An academic within the College of Human and Health Sciences, the wider department in which the Centre for Innovative Ageing sits, offered to talk over how I might access difficult to reach information from participants. I have since had a meeting with said academic and my supervisor which led not only to the discussion of methodology ideas, but a renewed confidence in my own abilities, my research and the work I have already done.

On reflection, ‘in the doldrums’ is a difficult place to be but I think it is a necessary part of the research process – as long as you are honest about it and talk about it. Being a bit stuck encourages or even forces reflexivity, consideration and evaluation of methods, practices and work undertaken so far. As a result of being in the doldrums, I have thought about revisiting my data, adding to it or revisiting participants to access information in different ways. The more thorough and rigorous the process of data collection, surely the more reflective of reality the result will be. Certainly, I believe that is the case for the study of mobility aid use, my area of research. More importantly it is the iterative process, reiteration of ideas and processing of information that enables progress. Talking is an overlooked tool in the PhD I believe. Talking over your PhD with others can really help to reinvigorate your ideas, your insight and your motivation to make the next move. It doesn’t matter if the other person does not fully understand; you are not necessarily looking for them to provide answers, it is the process of talking about it that helps. I think the best advice I have for anyone who is feeling in the doldrums with their PhD (or any other situation for that matter) is don’t panic and talk it over. Talking helps to straighten out your thoughts, remove the block and get you moving again.

Allyson Rogers is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Innovative Ageing, investigating Age Friendly Communities for people with Mobility Difficulties.

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