I don’t remember the final months of my phd with a great deal of fondness. Stuck in my bedroom because my campus had closed down (ok, so it was unusual as circumstances go) I cranked-out around seven hours of writing and analysis per day on a seven day week that often also ran into the evenings. I still find it hard to work at home and much prefer the relative sociability of the office. Of course it shouldn’t and doesn’t need to be this way, there is no reason why doing a phd should be the hard task that it often feels like. Here I locate a number of anxieties and fundamentals about the phd process that reflect on my own experience and those I have supervised.
I remember picking up the book, How to Get A Phd, the message that still stays with me from that was the importance of recognising that isolation is a key feature of the doctoral student experience. People’s experience of this varies a great deal of course and much may depend on how well the student culture of your institution is managed, often it may come down to a key member of staff or a student with a penchant for organising festivities in breweries. Even better than this is to take charge of the social scene yourself, bearing in mind that contact with your peers is important for your own sanity and for checking and sharing your own learning. Don’t be fooled into thinking that someone specialising in housing finance can’t talk to a Bourdieusian expert on domesticity. We have plenty to learn from each other and cross-fertilisation is essential to the creative writing process, go and speak to the nerd down the corridor, you can bet that they think the same of you but they wont half appreciate a cup of tea and a chat to relieve their eye strain.
Other aspects of exchange and contact are open to Phd students, make sure that you take part in departmental and wider university seminar series (whether or not it is in ‘your’ area – if you don’t think you have anything to learn think again) and if the chance isn’t offered make a point of offering to present your results to these forums or strike up a group of students and present to each other. These skills are not only critical but these supportive environments, even if they don’t seem it, diminish nerves, boost confidence and make these encounters more predictable. Generating the skills of an ad-libbing confident presenter is one of the great transferable skills and getting stuck-in makes a massive difference – the more you do it the less your anxiety will be. Feel the fear and do it anyway, a warning though, it really is scary – but we often need that pit in the stomach to make sure we do a good job, breath it in and go for it.
I often see post-grads burning out as a result of plugging away, analysing data or writing for long periods of time without taking a break. Routines are the death of creativity and often knock longer-term confidence. It is important to see breaks as constructive ways of getting on track in the longer term BUT this most definitely doesn’t mean extended coffee breaks. Remember that the phd is a job, but outside of doing this as a 9 to 5 (always a good mindset to be in) you need to vary your daily patterns. A key reason for this is that research tells us that varying routines and taking breaks spurs the creative process, brains straining at the seems with new information and stressing over deadlines tend to close down. If you can recognise when you are beginning to struggle and have the confidence to shift into a different mindset (take a walk, have lunch out of the office for once) you will find yourself making connections and generating ideas much more quickly. Even varying your route to work and ensuring you talk to your peers are simple strategies to get out of ruts.
At the back of your mind it is important to remember why you are doing this and what it is that you are doing. This may sound too obvious but at times when it is all too much you are going to need to be clear about why you are slaving away while everyone else appears to be having all the fun. For me I was committed to what I felt was a concealed social problem, for others there will be other conundrums, the lifestyle itself and, most likely, the prospect of a job in a related field. For all this it is essential that enjoyment is the core of the experience, obvious but central to ensuring completion and a less stressful experience. Remember that doing a phd is supposed to be a training in research methodology and expertise but that your skills will be stronger if you are able to situate your research questions and approach in a broader universe of knowledge. I still cringe at the ten minute responses I gave to the casual conference dinner question, “so what is your phd on?” It is important to get distance to the extent that an academic, and any other, career will invariably involve a much greater emphasis on broad areas of knowledge and expertise. Remember that not everyone speaks Deleuze and that not everyone may care about the latest developments in statistical techniques.
I still value the days of doing my phd (despite their significant challenges, not least analysing longitudinal data on printed A4 sheets spread across an entire room) and what was initially an opportune choice has ended-up feeling like the revelation of a vocation. My English teacher would often say, we now have the luxury of a full hour to discuss literature, it is important to remember that we have the privilege of spending three (ok, sometimes four) years concerning ourselves with the all of the minutiae of a particular topic, its important not to waste that feeling and to ensure that you are in charge of a process which is still likely to remain a core part of your identity, either as an academic or in any other career.