The first six months in three moods

It is now my third month into this PhD journey. Here are some trail markers so I may remember this confusing stroll I have had for the first quarter, summarised in three moods.

The tedium of the drawing board

I started out with what I thought would be a clear-cut topic: the domestic and regional roles of the BAKAMLA in maritime security. I thought it was just a matter of refining my theoretical approach, gathering empirical evidence, and drafting a reasonably persuasive argument.

Then I quickly learned the value of not being attached to a single idea.

During the first month, I kept racking my brains to come up with a decent “problematization” and “contribution”. In other words: what made my research unique? I soon realised—with help, of course—I was thinking too small. The research I had planned to do would have been sufficient for a journal-length article, not a hulking PhD dissertation. So I returned to the drawing board again.

I repeated the process, over and over again. Every single day, just silently working at my desk. Sometimes things would just flow. Other times, I felt like bashing my head against the wall. While I did solicit some advice from other colleagues, ultimately, I was alone with this problem.

I read on international maritime law, global governance, political theory, securitisation, fisheries management, maritime history, and even civil-military relations, with specific mentions to Indonesia. None seemed to be “right”. I retraced my previous steps in the maritime security and Indonesia studies literature in search of a gap to exploit, to position my research, no matter how small. No matter how much I read and explored, nothing seemed to adequately answer that nagging question at the back of my head. There were fragments of an answer, but not the answer itself.

At the end of the day, all I needed was a quick session with my supervisor. He made me realise that my contribution need not be grand; a small contribution is good enough. So, I set out with a new goal in mind: I will be the one who will uncover how maritime security has been governed in Indonesia.

Once I had that goal in mind, the path to the end seemed clearer. I had a rough idea what I had to do. And that’s what I intend to focus on in the next three months: clarifying the plot and building my world.

The highs of collaboration

When I first received the invitation for a conference in Kuala Lumpur, I was rather sceptical. First, I didn’t think I was important enough to warrant an invitation, especially to speak on nuclear proliferation in the maritime domain. Second, I did not recognise the inviting organisation. But after dispelling the second half of my scepticism, I decided it was a good idea to fly to Kuala Lumpur.

Though the meeting was short (just around 8 hours; just slightly longer than a one-way flight from Osaka to Kuala Lumpur), it easily became my highlight of 2022. Granted, the bar had been set so low due to the pandemic, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

It was refreshing to finally meet other academics and professionals in person, and that opportunity allowed me to rediscover why I’m in this field to begin with: it’s all about the friends that we make along the way.

The lows of non-production and rejection

Let’s start with non-production. I have this tendency to judge myself harshly based on my perceived productivity. It’s a sure-fire recipe for burnout, but I’ve internalised it since I started my Masters. The idea of simply not making an advance, no matter how small it was, be it a few words on the page, was frightening.

There were some days where I simply could not churn out any words or make even a small advance. These days tortured me. They prompted me to think, “Was there something wrong with me?” The guilt of “not being productive enough” made me resent myself even further.

So sometimes, I would push myself harder. I’d work non-stop for hours on end, staring at as many PDFs my dual-monitor setup would allow, running as many tabs as my RAM could muster, and racking my brains trying to make a small advance or just a few more words on the page. When I felt tired, I’d drink a bottle of coffee courtesy of the conveniently-placed vending machine in the student lounge.

Looking back, it seemed like they intentionally stacked the machine with five different variants of coffee and two flavours of Monster Energy.

I realised deep down these were unhealthy habits. But I said to myself, it was for a good cause: finishing my PhD in the shortest time frame possible.

Until I finally had my first untriggered panic attack in the middle of the night. It was the most indescribable terrible feeling I had experienced so far.

Naturally, the next day, I was drained and exhausted from a lack of sleep. I decided to not work for the day and just focus on recuperating. That experience made me realise I can’t keep pushing myself too hard without consequence.

Then, there’s the sinking feeling of being desk-rejected. I’ve handled many rejections before, but this time, the two rejections I received felt highly personal. It made me rethink why I am doing this research, and whether it has any “academic value” so to say. The dearth of positive reinforcement also made me question whether I was even on the right track, or was I just simply not good enough for the academic world. All I could do was vent these feelings with my significant other and close friends, until they receded.

The only way out is forward

I’d say within the first six months, I’ve learned a lot not just about my field, but also about my self. These months have really tested my perseverance and challenged my preconceived notions on productivity, mental health, and the “hidden curriculum” of the PhD. There’s still 2.5 years in the process, and all I can do is continue to move forward, one step at a time, one word at time. And all the while not forgetting to take a short break here and there.

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