About six months ago, I hit a PhD roadblock.

I should have been embarking on what I hoped would be my sixth and final year of studying part-time for my PhD.  I shouldhave been pulling my discussion chapter together and sorting through the vast amounts of literature published in my field since I began.  I should have been starting to see the finish line – the light at the end of the tunnel.  Instead, I was watching my career come crashing down around me, and my mother battling cancer.

Fast-forward six months, and I still haven’t successfully negotiated the roadblock.  My PhD has been unofficially ‘on hold’ the entire time.  My career is still in a heap on the floor, and my mother is  ‘shielding’ from Covid-19.  I promise, however, that this is not a post about the coronavirus – others could discuss that far more eloquently than I.  This is a post to remind myself and my fellow PhD-ers that while some roadblocks might be inevitable, they don’t have to signal the end.

This is the longest break I’ve ever taken from the PhD.  I’ve spent the past few years telling my supervisors ‘I promise I won’t take time off, because it’s too difficult to get back into it’, yet my only experience of ‘getting back into it’ was following holidays of a few weeks at a time.  That was difficult enough.

Things are still a mess, but I can’t keep putting off the inevitable.  So, where do I begin?  Perhaps I’ll stay where I am.  That’s the kind of thought that has turned ‘a few’ months into six months.

You see, the ‘roadblock’ was just that.  I could have climbed over it, ducked under it, possibly even walked around it.  I chose, and I don’t regret choosing, to take time out.  I needed to spend time on what mattered at the time.  Where it went wrong was that, rather than only being held up by the roadblock, I found a manhole next to the roadblock.  Not a rabbit hole – we all know the dangers of those.  Rabbit holes cause accidents, manholes cause something very different.  Most people would look at the manhole, perhaps not even step on it for fear of falling in.  I removed the lid to the manhole and climbed in voluntarily.

It’s taken a while, but at last I’ve come to terms with it.  I need to get myself out of the manhole.  I don’t have a choice – nobody knows I’m down here!

The good thing about being in the manhole is that you have nothing to do but think.  First, you begin to think about what’s important – family, friends, chocolate.  Then, you start to reminisce – the good old days, the days when you knew where you were heading, the days when you had a plan and the plan seemed exciting.

The last time I felt this concerned about PhD progress was back in 2018.  I was doing fieldwork, and it wasn’t going well.  I had never done fieldwork like it, and I was nervous.  Yet a few months later, my fieldwork was complete – the months whizzed past, and before I knew it, I’d learned, adapted and succeeded.  I’ve had to go back to basics to get me re-engaged with the PhD.  I have to re-learn how to PhD.

Every part of the PhD is challenging.  Every part of the PhD is new.  Every part of the PhD has made me want to climb down a manhole and disappear but, in the end, it wasn’t the PhD that ‘made’ me do it – it was life!

I know I can finish it.  I just have to think about it differently.  I can’t continue to see it as something that’s waiting to trip me up, nor as something other people do.  I have to see it as what it is – a big, complicated project for which the end is as near as I allow it to be.  If I want, I can let the end be out of reach.  I can stay down here in my uncomfortable little manhole, wondering what’s going on above ground. I can hope someone realises I’m missing and comes to rescue me, or I can grab hold of the ladder and start to climb.

I know it won’t be easy. I know the ladder is made of rope that will burn my hands and sway as I try to climb.  I also know I’m the only person who can try to keep it still.  Will it be easy?  No.  Will it be worth it?  I certainly hope so.

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know how my climb will look.  What I do know is that I’m probably not the only PhD student currently stuck down a manhole.  If anyone reading this is currently down a manhole, I say ‘let’s climb together’.

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