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Lessons learnt after 5 years in a PhD

Ah, the smell of a new academic year! There seemed no better time to write my first blog post on this new website than in the first week of the new term and the new year.

I’ve just realised that this is the beginning of my sixth year in the PhD. I’m a little horrified, a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long, and mostly, just very, very bored and over it now. But it can’t have been 5 years of *just* writing a PhD, right? I got to thinking about what PhD life and research means to me now and what few things have kept me fuelled over the years.

Nobody’s asked for my advice (!) but for the sake of posterity, and in the event that it might help some of you who are just starting your PhD, here are a few things that have been key for getting me to the finish line.

Find your own work groove

You’re always going to find this one arsehole – let’s call him Simon – who clocks in to their PhD office every day at 9am, works 8 neat hours until 5pm, sneers at everyone else and questions the “effectiveness” of working from home.

First of all, don’t even bother explaining. Tell Simon to fuck right off, and walk away. Then find your own work groove – what will work for you. Sometimes that *might* look like a 9-5 day; sometimes it might look like 6 brilliantly focused hours in the early morning; or some dozy hours through the afternoon; or right through the night when the world’s gone to sleep. Nobody gives a shit when you work or how you do it, a’ight?

Forcing yourself to work like Simon when that’s not how you work will not produce more and better work; you’ll just end up with something mediocre or rubbish and have to rework it all over again.

The PhD isn’t like a job and it’s not like school – you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself (in most cases), so be your own boss. Find a work rhythm that works for you and chill there.

The thinking is happening even when you’re not working

Let it be known that I have gone through huge periods – 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 10 weeks – where I have done literally no PhD. Total work/writer’s block, illness, just sheer procrastination and distraction have meant that I spent entire months at a time prioritising Netflix and/or organising a load of other events/workshops/conferences and writing approximately zero PhD words.

This sounds completely counterintuitive, but I’d say that those big long breaks did more for my PhD than if I’d forced myself through those periods and blocks. Slowing down doesn’t always have to be a bad thing; and sometimes, the most productive thing you can do for your PhD is absolutely nothing at all.

I firmly believe that thinking is still happening in the background, even if you’re not 100% plugged into ‘doing’ and writing. Let the thoughts percolate and process; they’ll come alive when you’re ready to work again, and the work and words will flow a lot easier and quicker when you get back to it after some time away.

The worth of your PhD is NOT measured by how much you suffer

I also guarantee that you’re going to meet at least half a dozen Misery Marys along the way who will insist on dragging you into a competitive bragging wrestle to see who has suffered or struggled more.

Also tell Mary and her misery to fuck right off. Nobody needs that kind of lousy energy and I am here to tell you that the PhD does not have to be a miserable experience filled with suffering in order to be valid, valuable or good. The PhD can also be entirely and thoroughly pleasurable and joyful – as it was for me.

This is not to ignore the very real and practical challenges you’ll face along the way, but the two are not mutually exclusive – you can still deal with stresses and difficulties in your research without being reduced into a heap of suffering. But also remember that you’re here to do some amazing research that will likely make the world just that little bit better. Think of the work you’re doing as an honour, rather than a burden. This is absolutely the time that you have free rein to curious and creative, to explore. Your inner child is thrilled to have this chance to discover new things and create something that will be original and wholly your own.

Find your academic family and love the hell out of them

This point is related to the one above in a big way. I loved my PhD experience as much as I did because I was surrounded by an amazing support network of fellow PhD friends and colleagues. They’ll get the weird tics and stressors that your non-academic friends won’t; they’ll be excited to talk about methodology over Nandos in a way that nobody else will; they’ll discuss PhD stuff with you when you need to brainstorm, cheer you on, celebrate your wins, listen to your rants, but also talk about other crap when you need a distraction.

Don’t try to be a hero and do the PhD all alone. So much of it will be done alone anyway, and it can sometimes feel a bit lonely. Literally nobody else will be doing the same PhD that you’re doing (even if you’re on the same project team, your thesis will be different from someone else’s) so you’ll be figuring things out on your own a lot of the time. Surrounding yourself with friends and company for all the moments when you want to come up for a bit of air is going to do you a massive world of good.

Understandably, this can all feel a bit overwhelming in the beginning. If you’re as introverted as me, the idea of going to mixers and socials is horrifying, but I promise that you’ll only have to do this a little bit in the beginning. Once you find your pals, you’ll be in it together for the long-haul, through most of the rest of your PhD. I find networking things terrifying too, but going to things for newbies was better because I knew everyone else there was probably feeling awkward as hell too; and it’s nice meeting people who are starting out with you so you can move through the journey together.

Remember, remember, remember the value of your research

You’re going to get criticism along the way and it is going to burn like the worst kind of gastric. Some stories: I’m doing a PhD in Women’s Studies, which is entirely rooted in feminist thought/work and have had many, many idiots (all men) argue with me about why there’s no such thing as patriarchy or privilege, and no need for feminism, rendering my entire research null and void (thanks, guys!).

I went from receiving excellent feedback about my work throughout my PhD, and winning awards for speaking about my research, to being told in my viva that my thesis “has major deep flaws” and needed substantial rework.

So here’s the thing I learnt: 10 different people will have 10 different opinions about your work. From having sat on judging panels for Three Minute Thesis, I can assure you that even at that level, judges can find themselves literally at opposite ends of the spectrum over a single presentation – one person rating it the best presentation, and another saying it should be thrown out as the worst. Importantly, find that value for yourself.

This shit is hard to handle, especially when it feels like your life’s work – or at least one of the largest pieces of work you will have done so far.

But remember what I said about a PhD not being like school? You’re not really being ‘graded’ and ‘marked’ in the same way. This really is something you’re creating, whole and anew, and it’s so important to constantly remind yourself of why this work is important. Hold on to morsels of that confidence – no matter how scrappy it can feel sometimes – and keep on keeping on.

One of the best pieces of advice I received in my first year was that you can pretty much create and do your thesis however you want it to be so long as you can justify the decisions you make.

My viva didn’t go the way I had hoped; it fact it was pretty disastrous, and I’m having to almost entirely change the shape and direction of the thesis. BUT it’s also really forced me to remember what I’m doing this research in the first place, to remind myself of how and why it’s important, and to see the value in it anyway – even if the examiners don’t (I’m now trying to find other ways of bringing those elements of my research into the world in other ways – stay tuned…). (I’ll also write about my viva experience in a separate blog post – coming soon!).

Have fun!

Sounds like a daft bit of advice for a PhD, but really – find ways to have fun throughout your PhD. I promise that it’ll pay dividends for the thesis itself.

Obviously, fun can look very different for different people. I spent a lot of my time being involved in organising or participating in various things at my university. (Made some super, lifelong friends through this activity too which was great for my wellbeing, social life and mental health throughout the PhD – see point above!) I also did a lot of yoga and weight-lifting. Incidentally, these became a big part of my research too (I include autoethnographic elements) so I was literally doing the things I loved most ‘in the name of research’.

I also love public engagement/public speaking and spoke at loads of conferences. It was a physical distraction away from my thesis, but preparing and delivering papers got me thinking about my research in different ways, and getting to talk to people about my research helped me find new perspectives or sharpen my focus. So I was having fun doing all this, but it inevitably ended up helping me hone and develop the thesis itself too.

Also: I’ve logged thousands of hours on Netflix, knitted countless scarves, rediscovered a love for cooking and baking… I take my relaxation, rest and winding down time very seriously, and my thesis has been all the better for it – plus I’ve been able to keep things fun, and I can promise you that things have felt a lot less of a slog than it otherwise would have been.

Other things that some of my PhD friends do include hiking, roller derby, listening to music/podcasts/audio books, crafting, taking long naps… (Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your fun time should also be productive. You don’t have to learn a new language or perfect a new skill. Just have fun – don’t complicate it).

Remember what they say about all work and no play…. !

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