I started my PhD in June 2011, went nominal in June 2014, submitted in November 2014, passed my viva in January 2015 and had my corrections approved in June 2015. There are many end points when you’re working on a PhD, but I think I can truly now say I’ve ‘finished’. Last month my Facebook was filled with pictures of friends graduating, some started before me, some after. And next year I will go through the ceremony with other peers who made it to ‘finish’.
In all honesty, it does feel like a massive accomplishment. At the moment I feel like if I do nothing much more with my life, I’ll be content to have got my PhD. Of course, for a career in academia a PhD is just the start, but right now, I’m happy to cruise for a bit. Because it was hard. And in some ways it’s only now looking back that I can see how hard it was, because at the time I was grateful to be doing something I thought worthwhile, to be learning (and getting paid for it), and to manage my own time and schedule. Now I’m relatively ‘free’ and can see friends going through the angst of writing up I can see how all-encompassing the process is and how, at times, it made me a little bit crazy. My thesis was the centre of my universe, and now I’ve set it free I’m able to think about other areas of my life.
That said, I wouldn’t change anything about my PhD experience and I certainly don’t regret doing it. I think others often saw me as hardworking, in control and not easily flustered. A lecturer once asked me to cover a lecture for him because he knew I’d ‘stay calm’. That’s all very nice but I had the same insecurities as everyone else. Should I be working this weekend? Why haven’t I heard of that theorist? Is that even a WORD?
I think there are two key traits that have got me through my entire education though and they are a consistent work ethic and organisation skills (note not immense intelligence!). Before I share some of my tips however, I think it’s essential to highlight the importance of a positive attitude and general wellbeing. I learnt to accept when to cut my losses and call it a day. On those days it is more productive in the long run to leave your desk and go to bed, or go read outside. Oh and do yoga and/or exercise – you DO have the time.
Consistent work ethic
As soon as I moved back to my University town three months in, I was in the office five days a week working. Some people can only work under pressure. They cruise along for a few weeks not doing much and then stay up three days straight to meet a deadline. Not me, not if I can help it.
• Do take holidays, but not for too long. Even when I went on holiday I usually took a bit of reading to do. I know some people who took weeks off over the summer which might be ok but do that every year and you’re unlikely to finish in three. Holidays or some kind of break are really important though, and much more productive than not taking one (says she who panics about taking more than a week off work).
• Stick to deadlines. Again, deadlines seem to mean absolute zilch to some people. The world can’t function like that and nor should you, for one thing it’s disrespectful to your supervisors or whomever you owe work to. It’s likely they’ve blocked out time to read your work and handing it over late means they won’t give it the attention they would have done. This links to the next point.
• Ask if you need help. This is so important and there are so many places to get information: your peers, supervisors, library staff and the wider community (Twitter for instance is great for reading recommendations or to join weekly chat groups like PhDchat). Don’t be the annoying person in the office who has to ask someone else how to use the copier every time you need it, but do ask for help about the big things. I asked to join undergrad lectures in my first year because I’d moved to a different subject area and felt I lacked some of the basics. I asked the library staff when I wanted access to a particular report and they directed me to a better one. You can also learn a huge amount from your peers.
• Make Uni your second home (but do go home!)*. It’s clear to me that PhDers working remotely miss out. Because they aren’t there for the informal chats, the impromptu staff tutorials over coffee and the post-viva celebrations of others they miss out on key information, like what actually happens in a viva. Again, because I was working in a subject area different to my previous degrees this probably benefited me most because I needed to soak up the discipline – the terminology, the big names. Yes there are distractions in the office, but I genuinely think my thesis and overall experience is better because I was there participating and listening. Also, even in academia, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ holds some weight. Honing social networks can lead to opportunities for teaching and part-time work, and people are more likely to help you out when you need it. This is how I justified my coffee break chats, but you don’t need to be a social scientist to know it’s true!
Organisation: It’s obvious, but organisation is essential to completing a PhD.
• Make productive lists. I love lists. I have annual lists (a timetable really, or work plan), monthly lists, weekly lists and daily lists. Even out here in China away from the pressures of a regular workday I have a list (write blog – tick). A PhD friend once said to me that when he wakes up in the morning he doesn’t know what he’s going to do that day. I find that astonishing. My problem is over-ambition. I write long lists and can’t do everything, which then makes me feel bad. So I make a real effort to focus on the positives; at the end of the day I run through what I have achieved rather than what I haven’t. You will never reach the end of your to-do list; just accept it and keep ploughing on.
• Keep your files organised. Save file names with the date and back them up. Organise your folders. Keep track of all bibliographical references! I wasn’t great at this, but it really saves time in the long run. Use software to keep track of your references. I had a love-hate relationship with Endnote (it froze my PC just before I was about to print and submit) but I’d still recommend it.
• Don’t put things off. It’s easy to say don’t procrastinate but we all do it. However, I do feel like I’ve had a break through of late. Every time I feel a twinge about not wanting to do something, I do it. Before I have a chance to think about it, before it becomes a big deal. This works for the small stuff, like when you’re anxious about making a phone call. For the big things, break them down into manageable sections and treat each section like the small stuff. To borrow from a well-known sports brand; just do it.
So consistency, organisation and attitude are vital. You don’t need to work 24/7 to get your PhD, in fact that’s counterproductive. In my first year particularly I was often in the office at weekends but I wasn’t working on my thesis, I was blogging. To earn extra cash I was writing about boot and bodices rather than Bourdieu. I spent a lot of time working on stuff that wasn’t my thesis, so I’m sure I could have finished quicker had I wanted to but that’s another nice thing about doing a PhD, you do have relative time and freedom. These other interests provided balance, variety and stopped me feeling suffocated by the PhD, because sometimes distance can do wonders.
I know this all sounds very virtuous but good habits can save so much pain in the long run. Don’t compare yourself to others. Every PhD project is different and every person is different. Life doesn’t stop because you’re studying either; both happy things and tragic things will justly cause you to take time out at some point. That’s ok. You will still make it to finish; if you want to.
* I understand this isn’t possible for all. For a start some Uni’s don’t give doctoral students their own office space. For others family commitments mean they can’t move close to uni but that doesn’t stop you making the most of it when you do go in. You have to go to supervision meetings right? I’d also really recommend the supportive and abundant academic community Twitter (try #PhdChat).
10 steps to PhD failure (Article)
The Thesis Whisperer (Website/blog)
How to get a PhD (Book)
Guardian PhD network (Online)
Planning your PhD (Book)