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Testimonial: The DBA Likes Stubborn Hearts

Isabelle Aoun, DBA graduate 2018
Published on
16 November 2018

Testimonials about DBA experiences in previous GEM Doctoral School newsletters on the “tough enjoyable” ride of the DBA made me ponder about my own journey. I, too, was in it for the same challenges and the credibility status. But, every DBA experience is uniquely lived and is dependent on a confluence of circumstances in one’s personal life. So, here is yet another perspective: the ride can be very bumpy and not enjoyable at times.

The DBA Likes Stubborn Hearts

The DBA is like life itself. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. And then there are worse days. But, there are also greater days when you manage to laugh in the middle of all the chaos, with a modicum of belief that you will eventually find order in that pandemonium, and you start connecting the dots of your research.

The major takeaway is the DBA takes up so much of your mental space and stretches you at the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical levels. A lot of these stretches reacquaint you with yourself. It is like a holistic cathexis experience for which you were not totally prepared. As you move from DBA student to candidate to graduate, the boundaries between those three “life stages” suddenly blur and fade away from wherever you are standing. Although, they seemed crystal clear at the onset of the DBA journey when your mind was set on the challenge and you were eyeing this straight path to the finish line.

So, let’s go back to when it all started

At the beginning of my doctoral journey during the recruitment of the Lebanese cohort, I was asked the question of how I planned to manage a DBA endeavor with a full-time job and my role as a mother (of 2 at the time, then 3, plus an adopted DBA “baby,” who was the most jealous of them all). I set about engaging in doctoral studies (the challenge seeker in you later humbles) with a strong track record of working with FMCG blue chip companies; multitasking and delivering under pressure was familiar ground. And so, with clueless optimism, I gave the typical answer: I would be able to switch hats and balance between life-work-DBA with proper time management, good prioritization, perseverance, and self-motivation. With perspective, I realize how blinkered my vision of my balancing act was in theory. Little did I know back then that the experience is by no means balanced. Life-work-DBA all happen at once (and not always in that order) in a brouhaha that is mostly impossible to tame.

So, did you say time management?

Picture this: You wonder whether you should get that literature review up to date, or reinstall Mendeley, which started developing a mind of its own, or maybe first prioritize that SPSS software glitch because it would make taming the beast of statistics less of a dream, or perhaps, you should proceed with this or that item on your field research list. You mourn—once again—the past, lost two terrible weeks spent at the hospital with your little one who was very ill and probably the next 10 days as well in convalescence now that he is in slow recovery, and you grapple with the crippling guilt of thinking just that. You try to sit at your desk (aka your laptop) anywhere you can to salvage time and work on your looming deadlines for a project you are managing, a course you are preparing, or a peer-reviewed paper after yet another revise and resubmit (quite healthy for your self-worth as an aspiring scholar) while trying to navigate broken sleep with eyes that can see the deadlines beating you.

You postpone your scheduled Skype meeting with your supervisor because not much has happened on the research front since your last conversation a month ago, even though a whole lot has happened on the life front, which has massively gotten in the way of your research life. Then, there is the scattered, close-to-nonexistent social life you are obstinately dragging. You battle the self-blame for not being there enough for your family, which has led your older children to associate you with that computer behind that closed door that has been keeping you from being part of their weekends and has caused your significant other to wonder where you went (but you dimly rejoice at the thought of him being an independent adult who can survive your lack of presence for a longer while).

You wrestle with the self-doubt of not being good enough at any of this (this is where anxiety levels skyrocket) because all you are doing is firefighting, left, right, up, down, and center…drowning in a waterfall of readings and notes, information, papers, and to-do lists. Those are some of the dilemmas at one point (crying in the corner not being an option here), and all of them are happening at once, you face, leaving in their wake an absolute deconstruction of the concept of time. Gradually, yet studently, you come to realize that there is no such thing as time management in the DBA cathexis. It’s just survival, like the hunger games, where you catch time before it kills you.

My message to you is this

The DBA experience will change the way you conceive of your life, from the way you live, work, love, think, feel, rest, and parent, to the relationship that you build with yourself along the way. It will put you in touch with all your vulnerabilities and teach you how to deeply call on your courage and on that reservoir of willfulness that you did not think you had. It acquaints you with your stubborn heart (the other side of that blood-pumping organ) that walks you to the finish line and gives you the nerve to be utterly imperfect while doing so. You tragically learn that good enough is better than perfect. (Perfectionists out there might lose consciousness at the thought of this.) You also learn to take multitasking to the next ultimate multilayered level—you start to delegate beyond delegating. It’s called letting go. Letting go of what you think you should be as a good mother—or any of your other roles—and simply be the only mother you know how to be, the only wife you can be, and the only DBA candidate (and add the partner, the employee, the friend, etc.) you can be.

This experience can take you down a raw path to face the motherly insecure part of you, the academic insecure part of you, Then, you summon your courage to fend off the bad days, and when you finally learn to find order in the chaos of your DBA journey, you will have acquired a lifelong skill.

One last piece of valuable advice

Family support (especially from your significant other) is the lifeline that sustains you. But, you need to find extended support within your own personal space because no one around you can entirely grasp the effect of the pressure overload you are under in the middle of it all. Personally, physical exercise is what worked for me. So, find time to exercise. Dance, box, run, yoga, lift, or whatever workout you need to reclaim your balance; your mind will thank you. The DBA likes stubborn hearts.

Isabelle Aoun, DBA graduate 2018.

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