The DPhil Diaries: Virtual Valentine’s Day, 5th week blues and facing rejections

Culture Life

Image Description: Nupur Patel’s DPhil Diaries

5th week started off with a bang with the arrival of Valentine’s Day. Admittedly, on a normal year my boyfriend and I aren’t usually the grandest celebrators of the day. That’s not to say that we’re the cynical type, complaining about how ‘commercialised’ it all is (which is probably true!), but it’s definitely a more casual affair for us, and we don’t always celebrate it every year. A funny and corny card might be exchanged and if we’re lucky to be in the same place at the same time we’ll treat ourselves to a nice takeaway in front of a good Netflix film.

This year it felt necessary to take Valentine’s day a little more seriously. Asides from being a nice day to celebrate the one that you love, for James and I, it meant another opportunity to spend more quality time with each other. It was a Valentine’s Day like no other. Zoom became the ultimate wingman, giving us the means to have a virtual date complete with a great takeaway and conversation. We both splashed out on all of the good stuff from Byron: burgers, chips and cider. It felt like a brilliant treat after the pile of corrections that I threw myself into the previous week! Of course, the evening wasn’t the same as it would’ve been in person, but I was pleasantly surprised by how natural it felt. We laughed like we usually do, caught each other up on our weeks and by the end of the night (a good few hours later!) we found ourselves staring at exciting properties to rent in his city. The latter was good motivation to keep going with the thesis and to look forward to the future beyond long distance and the pandemic.

Zoom became the ultimate wingman, giving us the means to have a virtual date complete with a great takeaway and conversation.

On a separate note, I’ve never been a fan of Valentine’s Day just being about romance. In fact, some of my best memories have been for Palentine’s Day, which I follow more strictly every year! I’ve always loved the chance to celebrate the love that I have for friends and family who have been a hugely important part of my life. They’ve been my best confidants, supporters and companions, and in the past I’ve taken the time to show them how special they are to me. In recent years, I’ve sent my mother and aunts flowers and cards, exchanged heartfelt messages to my best gal pals and sent friends some much-needed care packages to show them that I’m here for them. When we’ve had the opportunity to be together on Valentine’s Day, we’ve stuffed our faces with good food and laughed until our bellies have hurt going over our funniest memories together.

Speaking of which, quite possibly the most iconic Palentine’s I’ve ever had was when I was an undergrad. A good few years ago, my best friends Jessi and Anastasia suggested that we attend a ‘Galentine’s night’ at the Oxford Union. We were promised a night of Bridget Jones complete with indulgent chocolate and Chinese takeaway. What actually ended up happening was that bits of chocolate were passed around in bowls across the different rows of people, and the Chinese takeaway that we were salivating for turned out to be really cold ‘Super Noodles’ which were left at the back of the room for the whole night. Don’t get me wrong, the film was great fun, but it wasn’t quite the night that we were expecting!

By the end of the event, we found ourselves sitting in silence in my dingy student room with our Mission burritos having finally accepted that a Chinese takeaway was not on the cards. Ah, good times. The sheer sadness of the situation eventually made us burst out laughing. Eventually, we managed to turn the rest of the night into a fun sleepover, staying up for hours laughing and chatting. While it sounds like it was an absolute disaster, we made the night our own, and in later years it has ended up being an amusing ‘remember when that happened?’ moment to reminisce about.

I’ve always loved the chance to celebrate the love that I have for friends and family who have been a hugely important part of my life. They’ve been my best confidants, supporters and companions, and in the past I’ve taken the time to show them how special they are to me.

As an Oxford student, I think it’s great that this Palentines Day has coincided with 5th week blues. Focusing on some form of quality time with others has been something positive for me to set my mind on during a week in which many of us can often feel quite down. I’m not really sure about how I feel about 5th week blues. When I first joined Oxford I found it quite odd that there was what seemed to be a designated week for feeling down; it felt quite complacent to make feeling down a tradition in the calendar and in many ways the whole institutionalised aspect of it felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy in which I started to feel lower because it was an expectation that I should be.

As I’ve spent more years in Oxford, of course, I have realised that it is perhaps more complicated than that, and as we all hit the middle point of term, it is very normal to experience a burnout. It’s equally thoughtful that many people in Oxford can recognise it and offer resources to help students and staff who are having a hard time. While this week doesn’t account for the individual experiences that we have with mental health, as this fantastic article explains, and it runs the risk of reducing serious issues to ‘blues’, at the very least it’s a way of talking about mental health and relating to each other. In the midst of my own troubles, I’ve found it really heartening to see different members of my College checking up on others and signposting various events and welfare resources.

To maintain some level of positivity for myself during 5th week, I’ve tried to inject more of the things that I love to do to relax. With a few sunny days in sight this week, I’ve made the most of walking around Christchurch meadow with the sun warmly resting on my back, Loki has offered me some much-needed cuddles and we’ve had some good opportunities to hang out with each other as a house, especially with Pancake Day falling on Tuesday. Erwan once again pulled out all of the stops with his pancake feast, and even kindly left me some to have the following morning. The way to my heart is Nutella, and my oh my was I spoiled this week!

I tried to give a bit of that TLC back to my housemates in the form of food. I made another banana bread… (I realise I have a problem). Also, as part of my share of the weekly cooking roster, I finally succumbed to the feta pasta TikTok trend. I’m never normally one to follow trends, mainly because I don’t realise they’re happening at the time until many months later(!), but this recipe seemed to be at the forefront of all of my social media, and so I just couldn’t resist! Despite my millennial tendencies telling me to avoid TikTok at all costs, before I knew it I found myself by Tesco’s cheese aisle and one thing led to another… Jokes aside, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the trend; the recipe turned out really well and it was a lot less hassle to make it compared with the other recipes that I make each week!

Despite my successes in the kitchen, I unfortunately received some disappointing news this week. Towards the end of the week, I found out that an article that I had spent many months preparing was rejected by a top journal. To say that I was gutted is an understatement. I don’t want to sugar-coat it for you all, I had poured a lot of hard work into this article which was a small chunk of my thesis. While I’ve never been super confident about my work, in this case I was hopeful that it would entice some interest from my reviewers. To be fair, it did, and the comments that I received were generally positive, but sadly they weren’t enough for my work to be featured. As I sat there reading through the same email again and again I felt more and more demoralised. The final outcome felt like a reflection on me as an academic: I saw myself as a complete failure.

The truth is that this getting something published in big journals is really difficult. Despite knowing all of this in an objective sense, it didn’t stop the rejections from feeling like a sharp pain in my side. In that moment, my imposter syndrome was reignited, and I started to question my intelligence. I think a lot of this stems from the deep-seated habit of basing my self-worth on work. Since A-Levels, I built my identity on my grades and the slightest “failure” was almost too much to handle, as if it said something about me as a person. While I’ve gotten a lot better at breaking away from these unhelpful associations, now and again they do resurface and make me feel quite rubbish about myself and my thesis. As many DPhil students will tell you, over time the thesis starts to become almost part of you; you pour in so much blood, sweat and tears that any kind of criticism can sometimes feel like a personal attack on your intelligence, when really they’re there to make your thesis better. There have been so many times when I’ve felt stupid after presenting my work to various colleagues, wondering how on earth I managed to get into Oxford in the first place. Yes, even DPhil students have imposter syndrome!

As many DPhil students will tell you, over time the thesis starts to become almost part of you; you pour in so much blood, sweat and tears that any kind of criticism can sometimes feel like a personal attack on your intelligence, when really they’re there to make your thesis better.

I don’t really have any amazing coping mechanisms for dealing with these moments, and in general it’s all so personal that you have to do what works for you. Often, I give myself a bit of time to mull over my sad feelings and then try to distract myself with some fresh air and time with friends and family. Since my support network hasn’t been that readily available during the pandemic, it has perhaps felt more difficult to pick myself up and move on from the rejection. It sounds like a bit of a copout but with time I will be reminded of the fact that rejection really is an important part of life and it shouldn’t be seen as a failure or a personal reflection of my abilities. It’s an inevitable part of life and it doesn’t mean that I’m not good enough at what I do. Time heals a lot of things, and from past situations, I know that I will fully appreciate these moments as a learning experience.

Whether you’re a first-year undergrad or an ancient finalist DPhil student like me, feeling down about “failures”(I don’t really like this word) is natural and it’s important to validate your feelings about them. But also know that while it’s inevitable to experience these difficult moments, they’re momentary and good things are also in your path to success.

I hope that you are all doing okay wherever you are – we’re over halfway through term now, we’ve got this!

Image Credits: Tian Chen – The Oxford Student Creative Team, Nupur Patel

 

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