Doing a PhD: six things I have learned

Happy 2015, one and all! It’s my first day back working after spending 17 days not working on my thesis, and I’m not sure when I last took a break that long. My working year hasn’t got off to the most auspicious of starts, courtesy of a particularly bad bout of insomnia last night, which left me miserable and fretful, not to mention tired. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from the process of doing a PhD, and last night made me reflect on this all the more.

I am a little hesitant to share this post; it is very personal, and maybe it is not very wise, professionally speaking, to write about times when I have struggled with my work. I don’t feel especially qualified to give any advice about anything, and am aware that my reflections aren’t applicable to everybody. They’re just my honest thoughts, based on my experiences—good and bad. I am two-and-a-half years into my PhD, and I certainly haven’t had a horrible time. I haven’t had a brilliant time either. I’ve just muddled along as best I can.

So what have I learned from all this?

1. Doing a PhD is hard.

I didn’t go into my PhD thinking it would be easy, but I also didn’t realize the ways in which it would be hard. I expected the intellectual side of it to be difficult—the writing and researching and thinking—but not the endurance side (for want of a better term). When you begin a PhD, you are committing to spend several years with a project. It is your constant companion, always lurking in the back of your mind, even when you’re trying to binge-watch The Good Wife or do the grocery shopping. That is not easy to deal with. It’s strange to have a project that you can’t properly put away at the end of a day.

What makes this even harder, sometimes, is the current state of academia, where there is so much pressure to do everything. As well as working on your thesis, you feel the need to give conference papers, seek publication, work on your professional development, blog, organize conferences… For me, not only is my PhD always present, but so too is my mental list of all the other things that I really should be doing. Sometimes it feels as though there is a fluffy little cloud over my head, labeled ‘pressure’, that follows me around everywhere. Slowly I’ve been learning how to deal with that little cloud.

2. Doing a PhD is also exciting and rewarding

It can be easy to overlook the many positives about working towards a PhD, and I am especially guilty of this. The thing that really led me to my thesis was, simply, an interest in my topic. I had found something I wanted to learn more about, and doing a PhD allows me to do that every day. That’s pretty good. I get to spend my time reading things that I find fascinating (and, occasionally, less fascinating, if I’m honest). I get to research and learn new things, and think about subjects that interest me. More than this, I get to develop opinions and write about them. A couple of months ago I sat down to draft a chapter, and was both excited and scared by the blank page sat in front of me. I have the opportunity to create a thesis which will be mine. In many ways, that is a privilege.

More than this, I get to largely work to my own schedule. Unlike my fiancé, who works full-time, I don’t have to get up at 6am and commute to work. If I want to, much of the time I can work from home. That may not be the way a PhD is for everybody; in that regard I am lucky. In even getting to do a PhD, in the current climate, I am lucky. I’m getting better at remembering that.

3. Looking after yourself is important.

No, really, it is. Only now, over two years in, am I learning not to let my PhD prevent me from doing the things that I enjoy. Over the time I’ve taken off for Christmas, I’ve caught up on TV and books that I’ve missed, slept, gone for walks, and sat around a bit. It’s been refreshing and made me feel more positive. In short, the break has been good. Academia can sometimes make it seem as though it’s wrong to take time off; that you should be working as much as possible. I’m learning that it can be helpful to try and resist that pressure.

Take weekends off. Try to take some evenings off. Think about what you enjoy doing, what relaxes you, and make some time for it. I’m learning that I work better when I get a decent amount of sleep, have some time to exercise, get to see friends, read a book, or watch The Good Wife (seriously, watch it). And all of this is, in some ways, a positive: doing a PhD has taught me, albeit slowly, to try and look after myself and work a bit more healthily.

4. Sometimes you need to take some pressure off yourself. That’s fine.

Given the sense that you need to do All The Things that contemporary academia inculcates, sometimes you end up with too many tasks on your to-do list and very few days in which to complete them all, or to complete them as well as you would like to. At this point, it’s fine to try and relieve some of the pressure. Prioritise work and see, for example, if a deadline can be moved. The first few deadlines I had, I realized that I was going to struggle to get things done in time, but was hesitant to ask for an extension, because I thought I’d look bad. I struggled on, feeling a bit miserable, only to need to ask for a little more time anyway. I’ve learned to be honest with myself about whether I’ve taken on a bit too much, and to sort it out as soon as possible, even if its just through a quick email to a supervisor to ask for an extra day. Generally, people are more understanding about this than you think they will be. They’ve quite probably been in a similar situation at some point!

5. There are ups and downs.

There are some days where I’m excited about my thesis, enjoy working on it, and feel like it’s all coming together. There are other days where I feel that I have very little idea what I’m doing. On the less-good days, it’s helpful to talk to somebody, be it for reassurance, advice, or simply a sympathetic ear. There have been times where I have cried in front of other people and gone for a walk around campus and talked about that bit that I just can’t seem to get right. There have been times when I have struggled and people have sent me messages with kind thoughts, offers of feedback on my work, or cat pictures. At these times, I’ve learned to remember that there have been and will be other days which are more productive, and that plenty of people have similarly difficult days where things just don’t work. I’ve learned that people can be very, very kind. An unproductive afternoon and an idea that remains contradictory no matter how hard I try and unravel it doesn’t mean that I can’t do my PhD. It possibly does mean I need to take a break.

6. It’s okay not to be perfect.

Ah, perfectionism, how many hours and tears and words you have cost me over the past two years. So many times, I have started writing something, felt that it wasn’t good enough, deleted it, and started again. It’s not conducive to building self-confidence, and it isn’t very time efficient. I’m slowly learning that it’s not necessary, either. The first, second, or even third something that you write will likely contain bits that don’t quite work. (Or, they may actually be perfect, in which case I salute you.) But it’s alright if there are some awkward sentences and paragraphs that go off at tangents. It’s a draft. When you sit down to write something, I am trying to remember to tell myself, it isn’t going to somehow go into the thesis straight away, never to be altered again. You can come back to drafts, several times. I’m learning to try and keep going, to accept that my work isn’t perfect and that I can improve it at a later date. I got most of the way through a chapter, recently, before starting to re-write it. Progress!


The point of working on a PhD, I suppose, is to learn, and I have, and continue to do so. It’s just that some of that learning isn’t about my actual research: it’s about the process of it. I’m hesitant to post this because it feels a lot like navel-gazing on my part; because I’m not sure if it’s useful. But here’s to a productive, and pleasant, 2015 for us all.


One thought on “Doing a PhD: six things I have learned

  1. Pingback: Doing a PhD: six things I have learned | NobodyIsMe

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