Monday, April 22, 2013

The things no-one tells you about doing a PhD that you should really know

(I could do a visual analysis of this image and tie her worried expression to the content of this post but really... it's just a gratuitous inclusion of Vogue editorial. 
Image: Annie Leibovitz for Vogue US)

During the course of my candidature, I have often stumbled over common truths about the experience of doing a PhD that I wished someone had sat me down and told me when I started. These common truths often blasted apart my preconceptions of what 'everyone else was doing' and allowed me to understand the parameters within which we work. This was a huge relief. And lately, I have been reflecting on my experiences of being a post-graduate student and have wanted to dot point them out here on Fashademic in the interests of just-starting PhD students everywhere. 

It should be noted, of course, that I'm in the Arts and Humanities, so this advice may not translate perfectly to my quantitative friends in the world of Maths and Sciences who may be working on group projects- but maybe there's some crossover? It should also be noted (look at that phrasing! proto-academic alert) that I'm working in the European (and Australian) style of PhDing which sees us spend all our time drinking tea and reading books  being very diligent indeed as we spend three to four years (or more) researching one project of our own devising.

So with the qualifying out of the way, let us proceed to the things no-one tells you about doing a PhD that you should really know:

1. There will be days where you just don't feel like doing your work- you just don't want to, or you can't, or you need a break. My advice to you, gentle PhDer, is take the day off. It is not a crime to have a break when you need one, and if you feel guilty about it, it might be time to rethink how you organise your work and on what basis you measure a day as successful. 

2. Your literature review. This will take longer than you think it will, it is harder to work on than you anticipated, and you will have to do significant rewrites of it at the end of your candidature anyway as more will probably have been written on your topic by then. It's inevitable, and it's also okay- just get on with it and do a database search every few months to stay abreast of useful new research. 

3. Which brings me to point three: sometimes work takes longer than you expected, longer than you planned for and wrote on your wall planner. That doesn't mean you're a failure, but that work such as we're doing takes time. This is a take-home my friend Becky recently helped me with. I was standing in the kitchenette in the ARC making my twelfth cup of tea of the day and angsting with her about how I had hoped to finish my chapter one draft by the end of February (it was, by then, the end of March). The update for you is that it's now almost the end of April and I'm still working on it. Have I felt good about this? No. Have I been working as hard as humanly possible to get it done (and balance my other commitments like teaching)? Of course. So what can you do? Thanks to Becky's advice, which was that she has experienced the same thing and that it's not unusual, I have accepted the situation as it is, and will just keep working hard. It will get done eventually and really, you can't work harder than you can work. Feel free to write that little bon mot out on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen. Simplistic but true.

4. Which brings me to point four: talking to other post-grads. Having a group of friends to debrief and demystify this process with over the past few years has been invaluable. Chances are what you are feeling other people are also feeling, and sharing it can be a great way to find support and advice- or give it, based on your own experiences. It also means when you're having an unproductive day, you have someone to groan with who understands your predicament and can frogmarch you to Ralph's for a hazelnut affogato.

5. Think of your PhD like an apprenticeship. I thought I had all the skills I needed to do this project already when I started it. I'd done two theses before, felt like I had mad research skills already, and had consistently got excellent marks for my writing- AKA set for PhD domination. And yet in the first year of my candidature, I had an ongoing crisis of confidence. I was meeting other students who seemed so much smarter than I, so much more equipped for the demands of this kind of work, and so much more at ease talking about theorists I had previously never encountered (see: Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Lacan.) While I got good at the wise nod and thoughtful 'hmm' when  immersed in conversations about theories I had frankly never, ever heard of before, all the while my mind was whirring: surely I'm not smart enough to do this? Has someone in enrollments made some sort of terrible mistake, leaving some Lacanian would-be expert staring sadly into the depths of a mirror and asking why they didn't get offered a place? (boom tish.)

The problem was expecting myself to be at a completion level of expertise at the beginning of my candidature- which seems really silly in hindsight yet which is also completely understandable. What I found to be a healthier perspective was to acknowledge that I still had much to learn- and that that was not only okay, but was also kind of the entire point I was doing the PhD. As I researched, I discovered amazing thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Gaston Bachelard, Pierre Bourdieu (not his writing so much- sorry P.B. But his ideas are very brilliant so he totally gets included) and Susan Sontag who have deepened and enlarged my perspective on anything and everything from winding staircases to social organisation. From wider reading, my writing has improved; the way I shape ideas has become more rigorous and complex; and, on another level, I have learned something of what it is like to be an academic, always juggling five very important obligations and ideas at the one time and doing my level best to give all I can to each. It's an apprenticeship. 

5. Doing a PhD can be a heck of an emotional rollercoaster. As I said, you can feel not smart enough at times, whereas at other times you feel so clever it's like light is shining out of your fingers and toes (just me?) Doing work of this kind is ongoing, arduous at times, and very personal- it's your ideas on the line, your writing, and the work becomes precious to you as representative of the best you can do at the time in which it is undertaken. Understandable, then, that when you have a really productive day/ace a seminar presentation/get an article accepted you feel invincible and when you stare at the screen dumbfoundedly all day you go home wondering why you're even doing it at all. I find it helps to acknowledge that you're going to have off days, and it's not the end of the world. Take a night off, get some good sleep, and tackle it again tomorrow- you just never know when a super-productive day is going to surprise you. And enjoy those when they come! And they will. And they're great.

6. This article: Useful. Markers start with the bibliography? They see spelling errors as indicators that there might be deeper errors in the work? GOOD TO KNOW. 

7. And most importantly: try to stay in the moment and enjoy the process. I find looking at submission as the only goal of your candidature an incredibly unhelpful state of mind. It means that you miss the satisfactions that come during the day-to-day of doing your work and reinforce why you're doing your study. It's a privilege not everyone gets to experience, this swathe of time to read, write, think and connect with other like-minded people. Moreover, you're working on a project you chose, that you designed for yourself- shape it how you want it to be, research what you want to, and work hard at justifying the contribution you will be making. Knowing how your work will add extra knowledge to the world is a really great encouragement when you feel flat. 

8. Lastly, a word of wisdom from a friend and former tutor who once encouraged me by explaining that of course my work looked obvious and unoriginal to me- I was the one who had spent weeks immersed in it. But to other people unacquainted with it, it was offering something new and interesting. Always words that I return to when I'm exasperated by my own work.

I'd love to hear what you think- other PhDers, have you got any advice to add? 

See also: The Thesis Whisperer, The Times Higher Education


  1. From (ahem) recent experience: when researching include too much rather than too little information. Spending six months chasing up a quote with just a name and page number to go off is *not* the best use of your time when you're about to submit!

  2. Fantastic blog post, Rosie, thanks a lot. I'm a PhDer in marketing in Glasgow, Scotland and I completely agree with you on the frustrating and long-haul aspect of the PhD, but also on the positive aspects of it - thanks a lot for sharing and please, do write that visual analysis of the vogue picture - you can totally get a paper out of that :) cheers, Laurence

  3. Great post, Rosie! Totally agree about the take a day off if you need it advice and the realization that your research isn't boring and unoriginal to everyone else. I would just add something like "Don't wait to have a life until after you graduate." I've found it very important to have a good balance of non-school activities (church, sports, time with friends) to keep me sane. Especially important in longer programs (I'm coming up on 6 years!).

  4. Thanks guys for the great additions, all so true!

  5. Thanks for the post! I love #3 best. It really is unfortunate that a lot of works don't end up getting done at the time you expect it to, especially when thinking of PhD thesis ideas which really is a time consuming process. I guess it's all about perspective. No matter how bad the work load gets, it's important to be patient and count the blessings. Not everyone has the luxury of getting a PhD title in the first place after all. And we'll definitely miss the experience once we graduate, so might as well celebrate the hardship for now.

  6. My pleasure, I'm glad you liked it. I completely agree- there's no point wishing the time away or complaining about how much work it involves. Even though you can never anticipate what a PhD involves, it is an incredible privilege to be able to do one. Here's to rising to the challenges in good grace!

  7. I turned to your post before any of the other entries on 'why do a Ph.D': I have just completed an Arts and Humanities Masters and am wondering if it would be insane to continue. I want to use the knowledge gained and it's a very 'live' way to keep expanding one's thinking - but I am reeling a little from the last minute angst of my recent submission. That will go and I want to get on while it is still fresh. Any thoughts?

  8. Hey Anon. That is an excellent question, and I completely understand the bind you feel. First of all, huge congratulations on finishing your Masters! I hope you are in the midst of outrageous celebratory revelry right now.

    My immediate thoughts are these: I think there's a lot to be said for doing a PhD at the right time in your life. While jumping in while your topic is "hot" (emerging, relevant etc.) is one thing to take into consideration, another is what a PhD involves: long-term commitment to an ongoing work, continued reading/writing/thinking/publishing/presenting (which requires sustained energy and dedication), and three to four (or six if you're in the USA) years of your life. I think of it like a particular lifestyle.

    So it's definitely worth considering how the prospect of that makes you feel. If tired, it might be a good idea to take a year to do something else, and stay involved int he world of ideas by exploring options for publishing sections of your Masters thesis(both in academic journals and non-academic forums: get it out there!) and continuing to read around areas of interest to you so you're still engaging with your subject area. Know that PhD programs aren't going anywhere, and there are always ways of finding new insights into your subject even if you're not the first to publish on it- so it's never too late to enroll in a program, basically.

    But if the prospect of jumping straight back into the post-graduate life is energising and exciting to you, then go for it! It can be an incredibly rewarding, satisfying experience and if you love thinking and ideas (which it sounds like you do) then it's a pretty wonderful way to live.

    Good luck with your decision!

  9. Vastly overrated as it is certainly not the be-all-end-all in life. Ideas on paper are just ideas. Change the world by practising what you so passionately preach.