Climbing out of the valley

Catrin Pedder Jones on challenges facing PhD students.

Most postgraduate students experience a period of struggle where they feel a loss of confidence and motivation in their research. A term for this, ‘The Valley of Shit’ (TVOS), was coined in 2012 by Professor Ingrid Mewburn on her blog The Thesis Whisperer, and it has proven very popular, with over 10,000 shares on Facebook as of January 2019. The Thesis Whisperer blogged again in March last year that the TVOS post is consistently her most popular. So I decided to write a piece for PsyPAG’s A Guide for Psychology Postgraduates: Surviving Postgraduate Study. In it I explore TVOS further and outline practical strategies for psychology postgraduate students who find themselves there.

The first of these is to take time to understand your degree, your supervisors and yourself. The next is to search for people who have also experienced TVOS; this vital step helps reframe it as a ‘normal’ part of postgraduate study. The final step is to generate strategies based on your reflection and new social circle. For example, to tackle perfectionism promise yourself that you will submit work after one or two proof reads. Ditch the student mindset by avoiding Red Bull fuelled all-nighters, and instead treat work like a marathon to be completed in increments whilst looking after your physical and mental health.

Reflecting on this article and TVOS, I’ve come to wonder whether it is a unique phenomenon specific to postgraduate study, or if TVOS applies to academics at all stages of their careers? If so, should the resources and advice about TVOS for postgraduates be available to all? Perhaps those who have trudged through the valley several times before are better placed to hold their nose and power on when things get stinky? The most interesting thing I have encountered about TVOS is that it is universally understood in the academic community and is almost seen as a rite of passage. It is this attitude I find challenging as TVOS is something which can usually be avoided with the right support. If you are further along in your career and have also experienced TVOS, what strategies have you developed to cope?

Catrin Pedder Jones
PhD Student
University of Bedfordshire, Luton
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Illustration: Tim Sanders

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January 2019

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