Look before you leap (part 1): 10 things you should know about a PhD but may not have been told

1.     You and your work are crucial to the future of humanity and the world

No, really. Fact is, society needs knowledge. Society is changing. We need new knowledge. We are constantly playing catch-up, as well as relying on people to get one step ahead and shape our visions for the future. Without research we are doomed. And without doctoral students, a huge portion of the research pie simply disappears. Estimates put doctoral research output at over 50% of all research output in some countries (eg. Australia).

But it’s not just that doctoral students provide an army of research worker-ants (though they do and are increasingly seen in this light at a policy level). The point is doctoral work is cherished because in many ways it is unlike much other research. In arts and social sciences, where we tend not to join existing projects in labs, doctoral students get to pursue research agendas that are much more independent of the foibles, whims, narrowness of vision, and oddities of assessment that plague competitive funding for academic staff. Even in labs, students try things out and develop ideas that might never otherwise get done. We simply couldn’t do without doctoral students and the research they do.

2.     You’re in an astonishing position of privilege: don’t waste it

You’ll almost certainly never get the chance to repeat the kind of research process that your doctorate offers. Thank god! I hear you cry, it’s painful enough the first time! But think like this: afterwards, if you continue to work in research (in HE or Industry) 3-4 years full time equivalent to read, develop questions, explore methods, read some more, write, and re-write under close supervision will seem like an unreal paradise. The thrill of finding your independence, charting your path, going where your passions take you can rarely be unleashed in quite the same way. Whether you have a scholarship or are self-funding, circumstances have contrived to put you in a position of immense privilege. If you can’t match this privilege with your enthusiasm, passion, willingness to take on challenges, put in the hours, and do things outside your comfort zone, consider stepping aside and allow people who deserve the privilege to take your place. Seriously. It’s too precious to be wasted on half-hearted going through the motions (but please note the caveat relating to point 8: we can not always be fantastically motivated and energetic all the time).

3.     You’re in an astonishing position of privilege: don’t fail us

Your position of privilege should not be abused. Society invests in doctoral research (and even if you’re paying your own fees, you’re not footing the entire bill). You’ve got to deliver. The future of humanity and the biosphere depend on it (see above). There are lots of ways to squander your privilege, or make people question whether it was worth extending it to you in the first place. Constant moaning about how hard it is doesn’t help (get a grip. It’s a doctorate. Of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be such a high degree would it?! And it’s not like everyone else’s life is easy anyway). From an outsider’s point of view, it’s a pretty raw deal if your hard work ends up gathering dust in a library shelf and isn’t made public and accessible somehow (not having time is no excuse). Dragging your thesis way out beyond reasonable timeframes places great strain on your institution, sometimes even negative penalties. Many students also have obligations to families and people in their care. They can only accommodate your hiding away in your office at nights and weekends for so long. Don’t plan a Nobel Prize, and if you feel the timeline slipping away, seek help, discuss with your supervisor how to change gears, send yourself on writing bootcamp, whatever it takes to get it done. Remember most theses are abandoned rather than perfected.

4.     No-one really gets what you’re doing or cares as much as you do

No, I am not contradicting myself (see point 1). Your PhD is more important to you than to anyone else in the world (don’t assume people see doctorates in the terms of point 1). Yes your supervisor(s) and institution care, but to a large degree because they want you to finish. Kind of the opposite of the golden handshake: “Hi, welcome to the PhD program. Now when do you think you’ll be leaving us?”. If you’re lucky and your supervisors won’t move, retire or die while you’re working on it. Even so their investment in your work is not the same as yours. Your husband / wife / partner / children / friends might care about you as a person, and for your wellbeing. They might even do the polite thing and occasionally ask how it’s all going, or even what it’s actually about. Truth is the answer they want is “Fine thanks. It’s about [topic in 5]”.

A friend of mine, when asked what he was doing for his doctorate would say ‘I’m working on a cure for cancer’. This response had many great qualities: brevity, clarity, and a pointing to something unquestionably worthwhile. In actual fact he spent his days doing what struck me as mind-numbingly dull experiments on cows’ feet. I digress but my point is, getting people to care is rarely a question of lengthy, detailed explanations of how you’re using critical theory, or doing advanced computer modelling of metal fatigue. You’re putting an end to racism! Stopping tall buildings from falling down!

To many people your PhD and the idea of a PhD will remain an enigma. They think you should get a proper job. They wonder what you do all day, and seeing your incessant facebook updates etc, come to the conclusion that you generally have a lie in, surf the net, drink coffee, come home before the traffic gets bad, and still don’t bother to do the laundry or washing up.

Two responses here: (1) acknowledging that many people in your life simply don’t and won’t get it: what you’re doing, why, how it’s hard, how come there’s next to nothing to show for it until right and the end, and even then it’s a huge anti-climax and you’ve lost your hair or gone grey in the process. (2) doing some targeted relational work, perhaps with the people closest to you, helping them understand that you’re not a state-funded dosser and that while you’d love to the washing up all day, sometimes Foucault (or the lab, archives, whatever) just can’t wait, and that writing 80,000 words isn’t as simple as writing 80,000 words. Figuring out your equivalent of ‘I’m working on a cure for cancer’ will help.

The third response is where even the most innocent “how’s it going?” question, or even no question at all, is interpreted by you as an invitation to moan about your supervisor, give a 2-hour lecture on postmodernism, or criticise the university bureaucracy. Look, mate, I’m simply not that interested, and can only keep up the pretence so far.

4b. Even the people who you think should really care, don’t automatically do so

Examiners, editors, reviewers, funding assessors, conference audiences. They’ve all done a PhD themselves, they chose academic work, damn it, they even chose my field! Surely they’d all love to hear me talk about my work for the next 3 hours. ‘Fraid not. You’ve got to make them interested, make them care. But in a bit more of a sophisticated way that ‘I’m finding a cure for cancer!’.

In my experience PhD-student presentations and publications tend to go one of two ways. The first is intolerable indulgence that rarely gets beyond ‘I find this really interesting and look at all this stuff I’ve read!’. The second says ‘Hey, I’ve got a really fresh idea and in a really short time I’m going to convince you that a new way of thinking is not only possible, but really worthwhile’. Which are you going to give? As an academic I depend on PhD scholarship to push the boundaries of knowledge, do some of the most diligent lit reviewing, and chart new territory. I’m potentially your most sympathetic and invested ear. Don’t blow it by assuming I care.

5.     Yes it is hard

You don’t have to look far in the internet or into research about doctoral education to read of struggle. The readings are hard. The theory is complex. I don’t understand the stats. My analysis is driving me crazy! Transcription is soooo tedious. Yes. It will be hard. It’s designed to be hard. It has to be hard. Not so hard you can’t see a way through. Not so that you’re left alone, unaided to figure out humanity’s next great cognitive or cultural leap forward. I’ve no problem with students recounting stories of struggle, isolation, writing block etc. They’re actually very useful for normalising precisely my point: everyone finds it hard. If you don’t, you’re probably not doing it right. My problem is when this becomes: oh, woe is me that I find everything so hard, that my readings are so impenetrable, that my stats are so complicated. Or, when the slightest sign of challenge leads to defeatism or default reliance on supervisors (less from personal experience and more from research, this one). It’s like when people at work come and ask me how to fix their computer, and when I ask have they put a description of the problem in google and seen what comes up, they say no. Be ready for hard stuff. And be ready to be resourceful, resilient, creative and independent in dealing with hardship. Don’t be scared to seek support, but do so in a considered and necessary way, and without the whingeing please. But, don’t let things get out of hand: preserving your physical and mental health tops the priority list (see point 8).

6.     You will continue to feel like a fraud

Maybe this underlies some of the ‘oooh it’s so hard’ victimisation that can be so unhelpful. You somehow fluked all the exams you’ve ever sat. Your doctoral proposal was secretly a sham and you were admitted by mistake. You passed your comps or doctoral assessment / upgrade / transfer out of sheer luck. Someone, someday, will find you out. Such feelings don’t make you special or different. They make you utterly like everyone else. So stop moping and don’t let it get in your way. Insecurity is understandable and natural, but truly unhelpful (as is its counterpart in intellectual arrogance; see below). Acknowledge what is scary, where you feel on more shaky ground, discuss it with peers and supervisors (don’t be ashamed: we all feel like that, and I for one have more respect for people who can be honest about this kind of stuff than those who maintain a façade).

7.     You’re not all that

Sorry, it’s just a PhD. While you’re in a position of privilege that is saving humanity from impending doom etc etc, at the end of a day you’re trying to justify being awarded an academic degree. Simples. You may wish to refer to my blog post ‘Say goodbye to your Nobel Prize and get a doctorate instead’. Yes, you are becoming a world authority on your particular topic. But you’ve still got lots to learn. So do the Emeritus Professors, by the way. What probably got them there was an openness to new ideas. Particularly early on I would advise being a little tentative in your assertions about things like good and bad research, valid methods, good theories etc. Chances are your eyes may be opened over the next few years and you may well be reconsidering some of your inherited and entrenched views. Arrogance in newbies is never attractive.

8.     Permanent head damage

I’m not associating PhD with Permanent Head Damage to make light of mental health. Many societies are fraught with ignorance and unacceptance regarding mental illness, and incidence of severe anxiety and depression are not unknown among doctoral student populations. But actually, there’s the point: forewarned is to an extent forearmed.  Be alert to signs of mental stress, be ready to talk to others and seek help. Any supervisor worth her or his salt with think no less of you if you ask for referral to a counselling service, or share with her/him that you are experiencing problems. My flippancy as regards ‘oh it’s so hard moping’ assumes that you, the readers of this blog, are smart enough to know where the limits to such provocations lie. A doctorate is a significant and challenging thing that is hard (see point 5) and undertaken by people who often feel vulnerable (see point 6) and who by definition lack certain forms of research experience (see point 7). We cannot expect to go through life free of all stress, pressure, anxiety, and emotional wobbles. Doctorates are no different. Be prepared, think about the protective factors that help keep everyday stressors from combining into complex, chronic and/or acute conditions (things like time off, time with family and friends, sleep, proper diet, contact with nature, saying no to things, exercise…). And don’t hesitate to seek help (the IT-google point doesn’t apply in this context). A doctorate can be a fabulous experience and the degree a valuable reward but it is not worth sacrificing your bodily and mental health.

9.     The rewards are always over the horizons, and academics are generally quite poor at celebrating success

One of the hardest things about doctoral research (indeed all research that I’ve been involved in), is the feeling that you never quite get there. You want to get admitted into the program. Great, but now you’ve got to work on your full proposal. Pass that – awesome! But now the dreaded ethics committee… and so it goes on. The day you finally press print on your thesis isn’t the wondrous moment you thought it would be – you’ve still got to get it bound and submitted, and to wait for the examination reports or your viva. If you’re lucky enough to have a viva, you might get a brief moment of celebration, but there’s probably at least a few typos to correct. By the time you graduate, you’ve moved on and the whole thing seems so far away you’ve forgotten what it was like. It pays to note this, and also to note that many academic workplaces struggle (I’m not sure why) to really mark and celebrate success. Don’t expect lots of warm hugs, pats on backs, champagne corks popping etc (either physically or metaphorically). Be ready to jump the hurdles, land, and keep going. Better still, get involved in peer communities and make it a point to celebrate successes together.

10.  The academic job that involves teaching and researching on your PhD topic doesn’t exist, and if it does, someone else will get it anyway.

A PhD is an incredible opportunity to follow or create a path of your own choosing, and should be valued and preserved as such. If you’re thinking of academic work, bear in mind the paths are pretty much chosen for you by things like job descriptions. And you’ve a better chance of winning the lottery without buying a ticket than you have of a head of department somewhere dreaming up a position description that has you written all over it. The good news is, that doesn’t matter too much if you’re willing to be flexible. By flexible I mean: teach horrible first year / 101 courses in an area you don’t know much about; join a research project based more on your skills than your substantive expertise; relocate geographically etc. Often one form of flexibility is enough to open up opportunities – if you can’t move physically, then be flexible in other ways.

If by some remarkable twist of fate a job does come up that seems to be written just for you, slap yourself in the face (metaphorically, perhaps): chances are, they had someone else in mind actually. This situation is likely a symptom of you being in a trendy area where there’s lots of buzz, hence the job being described that way in the first place. Also alas, hoards of other Nobel Prize-winning scholars with stellar track records and global networks that make the UN look like a no-mates loner. So when you don’t get THAT job, don’t dismay. Join the rest of us who have to be flexible.

13 thoughts on “Look before you leap (part 1): 10 things you should know about a PhD but may not have been told

  1. Eugene Fernandez

    Thank you Nick.
    Your posts on the Journey of the Doctoral Student really hit the mark.
    Timely, poignant, witty and um mm so real :-))

  2. Silent Partner

    Be nice to people who support you through your research years. While you are buried in your data and thesis, take note of the partner who cooks for you, the friends who make sure you still get social invites despite your ignoring them, the people who secretly fund your social life to make sure you stay one of the crowd while you are a skint academic. When you take that post-doc position overseas don’t just wave goodbye and then go mute. (Spoken by someone who was ditched after supporting a PhD for over 10 years)

    1. Keep Going Through Hell

      Excellent advice! It’s important to remember what you are working so hard for anyway. For me, it is my family as much as making an impact.

  3. sush

    Reblogged this on reflections on the everyday and commented:
    I was talking to a friend recently about the Ph.D. as a program, as an intellectual endeavour. This post by Nick Hopwood lists things that I really do wish someone had told me before I started. Its not that I would have rethought going ahead but it would have definitely help manage expectations!!!
    It took me a while to figure out that this was not how it was going to be for the next 2, 4 , 6 months but for the rest of life! This is it…. this is life now. Would I want it another way? probably not but I would have liked a warning!!

  4. Pingback: The ability to draw connections | Mobile Malaysians

  5. The voice of reason

    11. identify and address problems in a timely manner – its not always plain sailing and problems can and often do arise along the way. some problems (eg, supervision problems) probably wont go away on their own. If you have a problem that affects your progress, do something about it
    12. Don’t pursue the PhD at any cost – the PhD is not for everyone. There are a variety of reasons for this, including personal, financial, health and academic. However, if you find that the PhD makes you desperately unhappy or depressed (ie, more than just the usual PhD jitters), maybe you should consider whether the PhD is really for you. your health is far more important than a PhD

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      “Your health is far more important than a PhD” – true that! Mental health, physical health – overall wellbeing, relationships, being the person you like to be and people around you like to be.

  6. Pingback: Rationally Speaking | Gerogia

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