Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dissertation anxiety

I told myself that I would allow myself to blog for five minutes about how guilty and anxious I feel about starting back with a paper. I have a paper which I have done virtually no work on since February 2005. I see these dates and cringe, and realize that the current version may be better-written and have slightly more background information, but I have done no actual research on this paper for 2 1/2 years. I think about all the time that I wasted over the past two and a half years, and contemplate that this is more than half of a college career, and that in fact the literature review now needs more articles because I had such a delay. I think about all the papers that I will have to write after I finish this paper, even just to finish my dissertation. Once the dissertation is done, I have to submit it (in two separate papers) for publication, and then I have to start in on two projects that I owe to two different research groups (one obligation is 1 year old, but they keep writing to me to ask how I'm doing; the other obligation is probably about 3 years old, but I don't actually know.)

Meanwhile I am accruing more research debt by having accepted this postdoc which requires me to work on this project. I have done work on the project before arrival here, but haven't done any work since. I had the option of a postdoc which would have required nothing of me in the same place. It had some practical disadvantages, and (dating again) they wanted me suspiciously too much, but if I had that postdoc I would be making more money and would have no responsibilities other than to finish my own work and go to occasional seminars. I pass the building of that other postdoc every day and sigh.

My credit score is stellar. My research debt is in the crapper, and realistically I think that I really am in deep trouble to have accepted more research obligations because I can't see that I will fulfill all of my obligations in the time-frame that I have for my postdoc research. That is, at some point I will need to put a lot of work into the postdoc research, and I will then be in danger of not finishing my dissertation, or at least my owed articles. I am gradually gradually climbing out of the hole, but it is painful. I avoided this paper for the five semesters and three summers, partly because at my proposal defense, my committee, which had a full year to critique this paper, came up with all kinds of new and impossible objections and made me defend myself on the spot. And partly because of the usual syndrome of seeking instant and social gratification in teaching rather than the hard and solitary work of research.

As I get back to the paper, ideas which were once clear in my head (I think) are now cloudy, and I wonder if I will ever be capable of high level research again, or will I be one of those professors who produces mediocre low-level research for the rest of their career. It is also embarrassing that I can't find all the files on my computer which are associated with this paper, and it will take much longer to reassemble everything than to do it in the first place. I also missed the chance to submit it to something really top-notch, which I could have done if I had written the paper within a year, rather than within 3 years.

The clear answer to all of this anxiety is that I'm looking way too far ahead. The answer is that this afternoon, I have one definite task to do. I will do that task, and then I will have one fewer task to continue. It's an enjoyable task, once I find all the files. But as I look for the files, the thoughts come to my head that I can't believe that I misplaced all these files.

I'll leave you with an anecdote. A guy writes to a reknowned rabbi in a distant village saying that he keeps having intrusive thoughts, and he is coming to visit on such and such a day. It's pouring and the journey is hard, and finally he comes to the rabbi's house. "Rabbi, I'm here," he shouts, knocking on the door. No one answers. He goes around back, and there is only one entrance to the small house. He shouts and knocks for a full hour before giving up and slumping defeatedly against the door in his fatigue and sleeping in a puddle on the doorstep. In the morning, the rabbi opens the door and discovers his visitor. The guy says, "Rabbi, where were you? I arrived last night and knocked and knocked for a full hour. Why didn't you answer the door? I was sleeping on the doorstep, so I know that you must have been home when I was knocking."
The rabbi says, "I can decide who I allow into my house, can I not? Now, about these intrusive thoughts you are having. . . "

1 comment:

Chicago Man said...

This blog is just as good as "A Philosophy Job Market Blog". I have papers that I need to edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, and then edit some more that i've literally hidden in the most crowded drawer of my home office. Figuratively, I have hidden such papers somewhere in my (Freud's) tripartite mental landscape. I have a paper to give at the APA (American Philosophical Association) next year and a paper to give at a regional conference next month. The latter hasn't been touched in some time. Over the last several days I have been gathering books and papers to prepare myself to update the piece, but I seem to keep gathering as if I am really going to read all of it. Is this called hunting and gathering? I will read them, at least most of them. I think they call my perfectionism OCD. Some refer to it as philosophy. By the way, how is my German and Greek? Plato says it's all recollection, so where is Socrates when I need him. I very much enjoy your blog.