PhD Survival Guide: Mount Everest Edition

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST IS EXTREMELY LENGTHY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. THE AUTHOR MAY USE AN ANALOGY FOR THREE THOUSAND WORDS IN ORDER TO PROVE A POINT.

In my attempt to relieve stress and distract myself from my doctoral work, I often take up month-long self-directed studies on a topic of my choice. With Wikipedia and YouTube at my fingertips, anything is possible, and extensive information, fascinating documentaries, and elucidating interviews are never far from my reach. Last month, I was particularly captivated by astrophysics. The month prior, it was chemistry and elements. This month, it’s extreme mountaineering, from Mount McKinley to Mont Blanc, the Eiger to Everest.

Make no mistake, I am neither an astrophysicist, nor a chemist, nor, most certainly, a mountaineer. I’ve never even been rock climbing, and while I can attest to having hiked some wonderful local mountains such as Garibaldi, mountaineering is not a pursuit that I have any real desire to engage in.

Yet, in re-reading Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air, and having watched several documentaries on various expeditions, I can’t help but think that one mountain in particular—Everest—looms as a meaningful metaphor for the dogged pursuit of ambition, excitement and thrill, even amongst deadly risk and extreme mental and physical suffering.

As I’ve learned more about the art and science of climbing Everest, the strategies and tasks involved in doing so, and the devastating illnesses and deaths that occur on the mountain, I find it hard not to look at the PhD through the lens of climbing the highest peak on earth.

I recognize that climbing an 8,848m mountain and doctoral work are not exactly the same thing. Yet, given that both are immense tasks, risky, and, more importantly, optional and inherently-privileged pursuits in life, I wanted to share my thoughts on how I am learning to tackle the looming peak in my own life.

THE MAP

The following map is an adaptation of a map of the Southeast route to the summit of Everest, a well-worn route that takes climbers through a vast array of dangerous terrain, with five main camps along the way: Base Camp, and Camps 1 through 4. At this time, you will note the “doctoral” landmarks with which I have replaced these camps.

It takes nearly two months to achieve a summit of Everest, and because the effects of high altitude can so quickly put the body into shock, a slow acclimatization process must take place. In a technique pioneered by George Mallory, a British climber who undertook three trips to Everest (eventually dying on his third attempt for the summit), climbers will ascend to each camp to acclimatize, then descend to the camp below to rest. This slow process ensures that climbers’ bodies will adapt to the air oxygen rates, which plummet, at the summit of Everest, to just 30% of the oxygen contained at sea level.

I want to pause here to note, that just as in a summit of Everest, as in a PhD, it takes an awful lot to make it as far as Base Camp. While there is a whole debate over inexperienced climbers paying their way to get to Everest (just as there is some debate over unprepared or under-qualified students ending up in doctoral programs), to have made it so far, to have completed a Bachelors’ and/or a Masters’ degree is no small feat in itself. It is, indeed, the foundation upon which doctoral work is built, and must be recognized as such.

CAMP 1: Coursework

By the time you get to your doctoral coursework, you’re already familiar with the demands of graduate level classes. Naturally, anxiety hits early, as the newness of the doctoral program, and the expectations (perceived or real), can make this stretch extremely precarious. You’re working to really prove yourself, and it is technically demanding to produce papers, presentations, and final papers at a level that is striving to make itself distinct from previous graduate work. Like traversing the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp 1 on Everest, the plentiful opportunities to fall into the surrounding narrow crevasses (the pressures for each small assignment) that make this stage particularly challenging. Don’t fall (into the trap of expending too much energy here). Watch your step!

CAMP 2: Comprehensive Exams
Comprehensive exams are shitty. They feel like the worst, terrible, stupid, bullshit torture that you’ve ever been through in your academic career, and you might start to develop paranoia that faculty members are gleefully laughing amongst each other, knowing that their students are suffering through what they once had to go through in their own training. (They’re not, by the way…I don’t think…)

If you’re in a traditional exam format, you might have to haul your ass up to Camp 2 with a few months of reading behind you and a week of sleepless and frantic writing that verges on complete madness. If you’re in a department like mine, you spend five months reading and writing two take-home papers, which is no less arduous, just that the writing is spread out over a longer period of time, and is a different kind of challenge. (In my case, you feel like you have more time to procrastinate about getting stuff written, and stay up late writing blog posts like this one.)

Because the exams mark the halfway point of the PhD, there is something very psychologically rewarding about making it through them. By the time people reach this stage, most wear their sleepless nights like a badge of honour. I should point out that I don’t agree with a lot of the mythos built up around the comprehensive exams. The week-long writing-frenzy rarely produces good and/or useable work, and the months-long take-home paper (to be written without consultation from the committee members) often gets students into a bind, at their defense, whereby five months of work can quickly be made obselete. A crucial misstep in the comps could have been pointed out, even subtly, during the process, if only small consultations were allowed, and can save the student from having to descend all the way back to Camp 1.

This stage also marks a very dangerous phenomenon: ISOLATION. Given that many Masters’ programs are coursework-based, and that the first year of the PhD is also generally coursework, once you’re into your comprehensives, you might face isolation in a way previously not experienced. You’re alone, reading and writing. A lot.  This is where “doctoral altitude sickness” can really start to develop, and rather quickly at that. Remember to leave your house, call people, and do things. Shower. Eat.

LOOKOUT POINT: Conference Crest

Oh, look, a delightful landmark so quaintly given an alliterative name! Conferences, by the time you’re halfway through a PhD, are expected to constitute a sizeable chunk of your C.V. Presenting your material to others is a difficult skill to master, and given that public speaking tends to put the proverbial fear of God into many people, it’s not to be taken lightly. I tend to be of the mind that one doesn’t need to freak out over them: they’re meant to be discussions, not public roasts. (And if anyone does start in on the roasting, then they’re either bad at giving criticism, or…they’re just assholes.)

CAMP 3: Prospectus

Back to the joyful ascent. If this were Everest, you’d be climbing up to a small ledge at 7,470 m (24,500 ft). The summit still feels quite far away, and to get to Camp 3, you’ve got to conquer the Lhotse Face, the “1,125m (3,700 ft) wall of glacial blue ice.” The prospectus stage of doctoral work sounds about commensurate. In the total vertical ascent, it seemingly only comprises a small portion of the total work (the prospectus ranges, usually, from 5-10 pages), and yet the demands are supremely high: a concise, clear roadmap of your dissertation. Some people breeze through the prospectus, but for others, it can be a formidable challenge, and the gateway to (what seems like) the liberation to finally just do what you’ve come here to do all along: WRITE YOUR DISSERTATION. The prospectus process does require patience. It’s all part of the same type of work, but a different format, one that will serve you well if you have to do similar summaries of your work, such as for book proposals. It is a relatively “small” task, but no less maddening and frustrating.

LOOKOUT POINT: Publications Pass

“Publish or perish,” that’s what they say. Given that one is getting close to the so-called “death zone” in our little metaphorical ascent Everest, I can’t help but cringe a little at how eerie that sounds. Publications, are, according to Ye Olde Academy, what will secure you a job.Well, a finished dissertation, and publications. You are expected to have at least one publication (in a good, reputable journal) by the time you’ve finished your PhD, and working on articles in addition to your other work will take up a lot of your time. Don’t get seduced by it. One, remember that published articles reach a limited audience, that the peer-review model is largely based on outmoded forms of hierarchy and “gatekeeperism,” and that what you want to aim for is that finished dissertation. Get the most mileage from your work: you can use chapters of your dissertation as fodder for your articles, and vice versa. And, please, for the love of your sanity, don’t take a rejection or a revise/resubmit too personally: they’re not anti-you, they’re just profs doing their job, and if one journal is unreasonable in their expectations, the problem might be the journal’s expectations, and not your paper. Send it off to another journal. As you can tell from my sarcasm, I’m quite firmly of the opinion that most publication and peer-review is, for the most part, a holdover from the old guard, and I much prefer the ways in which the internet and peer discussions have made idea-sharing and legitimation of ideas much more accessible and democratic. This is my advice: Don’t perish from publishing.

CAMP 4: Dissertation

This is the final push in the PhD, and while it is not perhaps the most technically demanding element (given that you have already gained all the research skills and paper-writing skills beforehand, and carried projects out in smaller scale), the biggest pitfalls in attempting to write the dissertation are the same as trying to summit on Everest: exhaustion and madness. On Everest, once you’re out of Camp 4, you’re in the death zone, the area above 8000m where the air is too thin to sustain human life. In addition to pulmonary and cerebral edemas at high altitude, hypoxia (the lack of oxygen) can cause delirium and poor decision-making. Coupled with the sheer physical exhaustion from climbing, it’s a wonder that more people don’t just accidentally step off the face of the mountain to their deaths.

Exhaustion and poor-decision making sound an awful lot like some of the stories I’ve heard from dissertation-land. You will find yourself staring at the same project, the same chapter, the same articles you’ve been studying for the past 4 years. Add in a fervent desire to summit and finish, because you’ve made it so far already, and very few people will opt to drop the PhD at this point. I truly have nothing but admiration for those who push through and finish, but I also have deep admiration for those who know their limits. Given the rates of depression and anxiety in graduate school, I don’t have to point out that burnout, stress, and academic pressure can culminate in severe physical and mental illness, and, in the worst cases, suicide. I’m not saying that these can’t occur at any stage in one’s career, but when the desire to finish is so close in one’s grasp, one can unwittingly find oneself in a very precarious position. I’ve seen people say that they just want to “take one more step,” write one more chapter, try one more time…and end up more exhausted and depressed than they ever needed to.

Finally, there is also a common misunderstanding that the dissertation is supposed to be refined enough to be a monograph, and that it will be THE CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT OF YOUR CAREER. It is neither. A dissertation is not a ready-to-publish monograph, and it is also only meant to be the first major project of your academic career (if you are continuing in that path). Everest is significant and amazing for climbers, but you can bet that they don’t stop climbing just because they’ve conquered it. (In fact, there are other mountains, such as K2, that are much more dangerous and technically challenging than Everest, but, obviously, simply not as high.)

The oral defense of the dissertation, too, is a sub-hurdle of the push to the summit that must be recognized for its own unique challenge. After all the work you’ve done, all the writing, it’s a time-limited, short, but ultimately extremely daunting task to undertake, especially when you’re exhausted and just want to be given approval to graduate. On Everest, this would be the infamous “Hillary Step,” a 40-ft rock wall that you have to scale right before approaching the summit. Must be fun to climb that when you’re exhausted and oxygen-deprived. (P.S: Always sleep and eat before your defense, and don’t hyperventilate: oxygen deprivation at sea-level sucks, too.)

All of the dangers and suffering aside, I will admit that the PhD summit is awesome. At the end of your dissertation defense and approval, you get to wear what amounts to wizard robes and an oversized beret with a tassle. You get (yet another) fancy piece of paper with your name on it! You get to be “Dr So-and-So”! There’s a lot of cool stuff about that moment when you finish.

But while you celebrate amidst all the hoopla of graduation, I want to warn you’re not finished yet. And I’m about to tell you why.

THE DESCENT

John Mallory, son of George Mallory (who, as I mentioned earlier, died while trying to summit Everest in 1924), said “to me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.” Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first man to summit in 1953, echoed John Mallory by posing the following question:

If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

This, ultimately, is the true test of doing doctoral work. It’s not simply about finishing your dissertation and graduating. If you cannot descend–if you have deliberately left your health in a state of precarious disrepair, if you have lost your spirit to continue onwards, if you have left your relationships in a state of neglect or destruction–then I do not think you can call your doctoral work a success. Here, then are some alternative ways with which to measure doctoral success:

  • To be successful is to finish with enough energy to continue, whether it is to a post-doc or a job search in academia, or in the challenge and excitement of a career outside the academy.
  • To be successful is to feel as though you wrote something that you are proud of, not something that you felt pressured into writing by others.
  • To be successful is to finish without having neglected or destroyed your personal relationships because you are too consumed in your work.
  • To be successful is to finish with as much physical and mental health as is possible.
  • To be successful is to have to have taken care of others on the journey, and never to have benefited or looked away from others’ suffering. Much of our climbing is done roped-in to others, not alone….whether we acknowledge it or not.

The big question then, is this: do we all have to summit? Do we all have to pursue or complete our PhDs?

The answer, quite simply, is a resounding NO.

Two very close friends both knew their limits, and did not finish their degrees. Some might say that they quit; I say that they saved their own lives. Leaving the summit behind is not easy; many grieve for the lost dream that was so near, and I believe that it is appropriate to do so. And for those who might judge? If they are fellow climbers, I would tell them to realize how close they, too, tread to uncertainty, and that it may be by sheer luck or circumstance that they are still well. If they have not climbed, I would point out that they have not even yet set foot near the mountain, and as such, have no purview to be a jackass to you about your choice.

Only you can make the decision to start or finish this kind of work. And yet, if you dare to climb, here are some guidelines and necessary equipment as you begin or continue your ascent:

You will need the following:

  • A nutritious diet and plenty of exercise, both of which strengthen your brain, as it is your main tool – you wouldn’t climb Everest with a dull ice axe, would you?
  • A workspace conducive to productivity (whatever that may look like for you).
  • A comfortable resting space, preferably not in the same room as your workspace, or, if it is, set up so that you feel prepared to sleep well.
  • A good team of guides (your supervisory committee). Do not settle for any less than those who will work in your best interest, and be there for you at every step of the way. Do whatever you can to find these people. A good committee can absolutely make the entire process easier and safer. Do not, under any circumstances, tolerate guides who lead you off the path, completely ignore you, verbally abuse you, and so on.
  • Other guides. Your graduate program assistant, most especially, is going to be your best friend. Do not piss him/her off, and please thank him/her for all the work he/she does to make your journey easier.
  • Good relationships with fellow climbers (your colleagues). Professional networking is not the only thing to do with your fellow graduate students. Socializing and downtime, as well as sharing the struggles of the path…these are key. The friendships you cultivate here can make things bearable, even when everything else makes you cry endless or drink profusely. My colleagues listen to my struggles, the ones ahead of me in the program generously offer sage advice, and many of them also send me adorable cat videos to cheer me up when I’m sad.
  • Support people. Family, friends. Try, if possible, to carry on as usual with these folks. Remember to talk about things other than your work with them, too! Ask how they’re doing. Savour your time with them.
  • Things to do while you’re resting. Take up a hobby in your spare time. Volunteer. Do sports. Make art, play music. Find things that are life-giving and feel normal, things that comfort you and make you feel good.

I’m going to put this last one separate from the rest, because I believe that it is so, so important, and I don’t want it to get lost, as this is KEY. This is what this entire, lengthy, metaphor-milking blog post has been all about.

You must have the ability and the resources to reach out for help. Learn who you can talk to, both in your department, regarding academic issues, and in your personal life. If you are working with sensitive or triggering material, please remember that it might make you that much more vulnerable to burnout. Check in with people along the way. Learn the signs of stress and burnout in yourself, and ask others to look out for the same. If things get really bad, please call your local crisis hotline or visit counselling services on campus, or a private mental health practitioner, because this is what I want everyone to know and believe:

A PhD is thrilling, astounding and life-changing, but like summiting Everest, it is never truly worth dying for.

May you all be well. To those who have climbed and turned back, to those who still climb upwards, and those who have made it back safely: I salute you, and have been honoured to share this journey with so many of you. To those who support me in my own adventure: thank you. I love you more than you can possibly know.

________________________________________________________

Installation – Ove Kvavik, The Descent, 2009

From the artist’s website: There are over 200 bodies on Mt. Everest, most of them died on the way down from the summit. On the engraving on the wall there is a quote from a surviving climber that says: “Those who die don’t die on the way to the summit, but on the descent.”

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10 comments

  1. And those (like me) who have not been on this journey will never really know the challenges and remain spectators with limited insights.

    1. But you have lots of love and support for me, even if you don’t necessarily get the ins and out of my process. And we’ve all been on other, different journeys, with different insights…I’m just grateful that you put up with all of my excitement as well as my moments of despair, Mum! xo

    1. Thank you! I’m finding that the thrill of researching things on the side has really helped to re-fuel my tanks for my own work….and you’re right, it’s also helping me re-think some of the questions in my thesis that I was stuck on!

  2. As a ph.d.-student who almost lost herself and her family and died (suicide) on the way up, I salute you on your point of dropping out and the efforts not being worth it. After a pause I decided to continuing climbing in a more joyful way.I have my life back.It took me long time to realize how much I suffered and that there is an alternative: not finishing. Thank you for high lightning alternatives with such a strong metaphor. A good friend told me to stop and write a book: ‘Why I didn’t finish my PhD’. Many people suffer and like me, they don’t realize that there is a fruitful, clever and good alternative. Keep writing about it.

    1. I am so glad that you managed to find an alternative – it sometimes feels so difficult in the midst of it to see leaving as an option. I keep telling myself that the degree isn’t worth it if I’m suffering needlessly. So glad you have your life back 🙂

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