Friday, 29 March 2013

If at first you don't succeed?

This is going to be a bit of a departure from the usual toothy shenanigans I tend to bring to this blog. Instead I am going to write a little bit about my PhD, inspired by a recent post by the charming but palaeontology crazed Jon Tennant over at Green Tea & Velociraptors. I have to say, his thoughts on the subject are a bit more positive than mine are going to be...

I am in the fourth year of my doctoral studies. It's euphemistically called your 'writing-up' year. Of course, in my discipline you're expected to finish completely within three years - consequently, the fourth year is unfunded and mostly unsupported by your institution. Although a lot of people stray over their three year allowance, it's seen as a bit of an academic faux pas. It gets worse if you take longer than that of course. If you take more than four years you become spoken of in hushed tones in darkened corridors as a warning to others.

I like to think of it not so much as a writing-up year, but a period of existing on very little income, caught between needing a job before you run out of rent money and finishing a thesis you despise. And yes, I do despise it. I love my subject, and I love the gubbins that a PhD entails - the teaching, the outreach, the learning and the kind of day-to-day intellectual interaction you get exposed to... but the PhD itself? I'm not so keen on that and I don't think I have been for a long, long time.

It's safe to say that my experience of undertaking a PhD has not been ideal. Just before my it kicked off, the long term relationship I was in failed epically and miserably, I quickly moved into a horrible shared house and soon after I became ill. It was a like building a castle upon a bowl of jelly - so think of this as full disclosure - it was probably never destined to work out well for me.

My initial supervisor was an eminent professor and a genuinely lovely person, but unfortunately, not the kind of supervisor I needed at the time. Turns out that 'hands-off' is not the mode of supervision someone like me needed - but I wasn't really in a state to let anyone know that. So, I wandered aimlessly for a long time in the vast fields of academia, producing work of variable quality, hoping it would eventually click and I would manage to produce something of consequence.

The saddest thing is that no-one noticed. I accidentally bluffed my way through every upgrade, every progress report and presentation I had to give. I have no idea how, but not a single person for two years noticed. I take full responsibility for that of course. If you don't throw your hands up whilst you drown, it's not always possible for passers-by to see you as you slip 'neath the waves.

In the last year, things started to change. I have a different supervisor, a better home life and my progress over the past year has been phenomenal compared to my first two - but I'm still running just to keep up. It's not fulfilling and it does not make me happy. Every word I write still feels like a struggle (ironically, it's a bit like pulling teeth), but since I am two chapters away from being able to hand in, I've decided to keep on at it. At least until summer. It's a precarious decision, but I've always been a 'regret something you did, rather than something you didn't do' kind of girl, so here goes. I have a few more months to get it together and hand the bloody thing in. Wish me luck!

In an attempt to do something other than whine on the internet though, I thought I might present a few words of advice for people undertaking a PhD, just in case anything I have learnt might help. So, here goes:
  • Money. If you want to do a PhD, please, please, make sure you have enough funding or other income to allow you to do it without worrying about rent and bills and how to afford shoes. I had very minimal scholarship funding, which I was very grateful for - but I thought it would get me through if I was careful with it. It didn't.
  • Support. You might be a devil-may-care rogue of a person, a lone wolf who only needs themselves - but if, like me, you are not, I suggest not doing a PhD without a good support network of family, friends and colleagues around you. Lonely nights and a lack of human conversation do not a happy worker make.
  • Seeking help. If you find yourself struggling, talk to someone, anyone in your department. I wanted to hide my situation in case they got rid of me, but it did me no favours in the end. No-one actually expects you to be infallible.
  • Be brave. If you do not have a supervisor that suits your working style or your nature (for want of a better word) and you feel like someone else might be better, change. I was told it was ' too political' to do such a thing - but fuck it. Change and find the support system you need. It's your PhD, not the PhD of some coffee room know-it-all.
  • Failure. I wish I had recognised a long time ago that failure has a lot of different meanings. I realise now 'dropping out', what I saw as my ultimate failure, wouldn't have been so bad to do in the first couple of years. It's actually only a failure if you make it into one. Lots of people do just fine without a doctorate :)
So, there you go. That's my doctoral experience. Lots of people have fantastic, wonderful experiences, but it's worth noting that it's not a given. If you find this because you are struggling with your studies, that's okay. You can do it! By the same measure, if you really don't want to do it any more, that's fine too.

Do what makes you the most happy.



  1. So pleased to see you write this. Contrary to what you say at the start, I do think this is quite a positive post.


    1. I suppose it's not wholly negative... :) but I haven't had a good run at it. I wish I had.

      Still, onwards and upwards, right?

  2. A sad thing about people suffering during their PhD is that they somehow think they're alone- there is no one else who understands or appreciates what they're going through. This is often accompanied by envious glances at "lucky" peers who seem to be sailing through their studies. The truth is most PhDs are characterised by dark periods and times of struggle and, even though I found my PhD to be a mostly positive process, I can still relate to some of the things you write about. As you say, its important to seek help if you are getting into trouble and don't fall into the trap of brushing off enquiries from your supervisor about the current progress of your project (or your own current state).

    1. Yes, absolutely. I really did think that by making things sound better than they were to anyone who asked I was doing the right thing, what a competent PhD candidate should be dong. I freely admit I was totally wrong!
      I really wish I knew then what I know now. It would have saved a lot of envious glances, let me tell you! :D

  3. Great blog post. I am 2 and a half years into my PhD and feel very much as you do, if not worse. The experience has been awful at every turn, horrendous 'supervision' and complete lack of interest from my home institution - I'm based elsewhere, out of sight out of mind, but I appreciate that everyone has a very different experience.

    I think most people would freely admit they struggle at some point during their PhD, my strongest advice would be to speak up. Ask, enquire, lean on your peers or any one who can give advice or help. It is the one thing I miss about being in a place where I'm the only PhD, a very isolating experience made all the more isolating. Poor supervision is one of the most difficult things to deal with, it's playing a political game where it is difficult to win. I unfortunately didn't kick up enough of a fuss early enough to help me, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    I hope you get your thesis written up soon, I'm sure you will. I begin that fight in October, but the thought of being out of this vicious cycle is enough to push me to complete my thesis. I'm determined to get something out of this and move on.

    1. Thank you :)
      I think you're spot on about it being a hard to win political game. I know people who manage it with ease, but once the momentum is lost it's hard to keep a PhD going at the speed and trajectory it needs to get it done on time. I also agree that suitable supervision is absolutely essential, it's so difficult to go in the right direction without some degree of higher level input (again, in my experience).

      Good luck with writing yours up and I hope it means you get to move on to happier things sooner rather than later!

  4. As a working part timer in my 6th year ! I can relate to alot of the issues you raise on the psychological nd motivation sides. I sometimes describe it as an allergic reaction ! While the destination does ultimately count for some in finishing the thesis, the journey is equally important if you see the PhD as an apprenticeship . Small steps and a good life balance is a healthy way forward. Best of luck

  5. A great post and certainly one people should read when considering taking on a PhD, and thank you for your honesty. Hope the work is going well!

  6. Always nice to hear of someone sharing the same problems.

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