Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Stupid

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few weeks. I wish I could say it was because I was being brilliant. It’s not. Instead, I’ve spent the last month feeling stupid. Dumb. Idiotic. Wrong.

This is because I’ve reached the hard bit in my research. I’ve reached the stage in my thesis where I’m researching the very thing that makes this thesis worth doing: the new approach that will actually make this an original contribution to the field. So far, this has involved researching approaches – and even disciplines – well outside my comfort zone. It’s involved venturing into new parts of the library. It’s involved trying to understand foreign concepts, then try to apply them.

And while I recognise that is possibly the single most important part of my research, I hate it. I hate it because it makes me feel stupid. And while I’ve been wallowing about feeling like an idiot, I’ve also been trying to figure out what kind of stupid I feel. And I think there are three flavors of stupid I’ve been encountering:

1) I feel stupid because I don't understand this idea clearly.
2) I feel stupid because this seems self-evident, so I must not understand it properly.
3) I feel stupid because I can't see how this topic is in any way related to my research. Even though it seems like it should be.

Like a box of budget Neapolitan ice cream, each flavour is disappointing in its own way, and putting the flavours together doesn't help. It's wearing when the stupid keeps popping up day after day, in article after article. And - much like with budget Neapolitan ice cream - there's only so much you can take.

I wish this post offer you three pieces of advice to help you when you're feeling this way. Unfortunately, I'm right in the middle of the stupid, so I don't have advice. All I can offer is the same perspective I try and offer myself:
1)  It’s possible the stupid will pass once ideas have had time to percolate?
2) Maybe I do understand this thing?
3) Maybe this is a moment of developing academic judgment?

Unfortunately, the stupid doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up any time soon. I still have a lot of reading to do. And while some ideas are starting to formulate themselves in my head, it doesn’t feel like anything definite yet. 

If I have answers, I'll let you know. In the meantime, I'm going to keep wading through the stupid. 


  1. I just went through a similar feeling with my first big postdoc grant application. I hope your experience will be similar, in that answers 1 & 3 are probably already true, and 2 will become so if you persevere. I don't know of any way to avoid 'the stupid', but even though it seems almost essential to face it from time to time, it does seem to pass. If it offers you some consolation, almost all the postgrads I've ever known went through it in the last 6-12 months of thesis, and it's as if it's a stage in the development of a genuinely tough and therefore worthy intellectual effort. Courage!

  2. That does offer me a lot of consolation. It's heartening to know that other people get 'the stupid'- even when writing a postdoc grant application. How did you manage the grant application? I hope it went well!