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The PhD is a strange thing

Quick question for you: Do you ever feel disoriented in your PhD? Or that niggling feeling that you’re always just slightly…. lost?

If so, rest easy in the knowledge that it’s definitely not just you.

I was interviewed by a researcher developer this week about the messy PhD (on the R,D and the In-betweens podcast – brilliant stuff, defo worth checking it out!)

and we ended up talking about just how strange the PhD ‘thing’ actually is.

Think about it:

It’s not quite a job, where you work on a set number of tasks or deliverables.

It’s not like any other educational programme you’ve done before, where you’re being taught.

You ‘report’ to someone who’s not really your boss.

You ‘submit’ work and consult someone who isn’t really your teacher.

Your hours aren’t defined or structured like they are in a job.

There are no clear working schedules.

You’re not quite a student, but you’re not quite staff.

Career progression is not clearly defined (What happens after 3 years? Who knows?)

Nobody else has ever done exactly the same thing as you.

You don’t work with your ‘colleagues’ like you would at a job.

You could be on the same project / researching the same thing as someone else in your department, but your everyday work life looks and is completely different.

The whole thing’s a bit weird isn’t it?

Then, on top of all that, you’re entering a hyper-competitive world, where everyone is highly educated, likely to be extremely intelligent and exceptionally capable.

There are very specific aspirations and ideals, that were set by everybody and nobody, but that somehow, you’re also supposed to internalise as your ultimate career goals and research aims.

I’ll say it again: the PhD is a bloody weird thing and there’s really nothing else quite like it.

It’s a formless, undefinable, unpredictable, ever-changing, multi-faceted thing that varies enormously between one person and the next.

And each of us are trying to make ourselves fit (into) this thing, to pin it down as a definite ‘One Thing’ that we can ‘get’ or accomplish.

That’s where it gets really messy – we don’t know where we begin and where the PhD ends, what expectations or boundaries are ours or not, what is or isn’t the PhD or our lives or neither, what we do or don’t need to take on.

It’s like trying to catch a cloud.

This is why it’s all the more important to get super, duper clear about:

YOUR intentions

YOUR goals

YOUR best work practices

YOUR definition of success and joy.

Aspiring to succeed in the PhD according to the PhD alone will never quite work because there simply aren’t any clear definitions or boundaries. As I’ve just outlined, it’s a formless, unpredictable, ever-shifting thing; the bar keeps moving and changing direction.

And most important, any/all of those standards may be at complete odds with your own.

So, YOU’VE got to set those definitions and boundaries for yourself, recognise that they are entirely worthy and acceptable in themselves, and hold them SACRED.

I promise that it gets easier once you do this. Being razor sharp about your boundaries, intentions, what you want to get out of this PhD and how you will do it will help you shed all the bullshit that you don’t need. (Bonus track: Here’s a thing I wrote about setting those expectations for myself).

And the things you do need and want to do? You’ll do ’em even better.

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