10 (20) truths about doing a PhD

Here are some things I know to be true about doing a PhD:

This is true: The PhD is hard work

This is also true: You’ll get to do some of the most in-depth, fulfilling, exciting research and study in your educational journal so far; it’ll be stimulating and challenging and help you to grow, stretch, expand and evolve your skills and learning in so many unexpected new ways.

Also, also true: You can work hard and also find the work joyful, pleasurable, stimulating and profoundly rewarding.

This is true: Some academics are hella racist and sexist, and won’t do anything to hide their prejudices

This is also true: There are academics out there who are hella supportive and caring, who will support you for you, for your talents, capabitlities and potential; who will want to hear what you have to say; and who will root for and genuinely celebrate your success and growth

This is true: There are a lot of problems with the academic systems and structures; academia is a toxic, oppressive and exploitative place to work

This is also true: There are departments, academics and student communities out there that genuinely want to make a difference with their work/study, who care about the educational space, and believe strongly in supporting the learning, development and success of students at all levels.

This is true: The PhD is very demanding and sucks up a lot of your time and energy

This is also true: You are – and should be – allowed to set boundaries around your work day and routine; to aim for a healthful work-life balance; to make space and time for yourself, family, social and personal life

This is true: You’re never going to be ‘enough’ for your PhD; there’s always going to be a million and one other avenues you could have explored; theories you could have used; questions you could have investigated.

This is also true: You (“only”) need to do what is enough for the scope and purposes of this PhD project. You’re not expected to cover every eventuality; nor solve the entire field’s problems. What you have now is more than enough for you to take that very next step that you need to move your PhD forward.

This is true: Things might not go to plan in your research (they probably won’t, actually)

This is also true: Things going wrong in your research can also be a good thing and offer surprising new insights. These moments can provide really good opportunities to put your research skills into action and demonstrate your what you’ve learnt, your experience and knowledge, breadth of reading, versatility, creativity and original thought.

This is true: Academia is becoming increasingly competitive and there are fewer and fewer jobs in academia for PhD graduates

This is also true: Just because a space is competitive doesn’t necessarily mean that it is completely closed to you. Not getting one job doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for any jobs in academia. There will be other opportunities with other institutions / departments / employers / roles that will be exactly the right fit for you

Also, also true: With your PhD/research experience and qualifications, you are going to be so well positioned to work in any number of sectors, fulfilling many different kinds of varied roles that may actually align so much better with your personal life goals, values and aspirations.

This is true: A PhD can be a lonely journey

This is also true: A PhD can offer opportunities to develop the most dynamic, nourishing, supportive and loving relationships and friendships with people who will understand this journey and its many unique highs and lows like no one else will.

This is true: There are so many competing demands within PhD life – research, teaching, conferencing, public engagement, publishing…

This is also true: You can enjoy academic success without needing to do everything at the same time. You are allowed to check in deeply with your core personal and professional core goals, needs and values, and then purposefully curate your PhD life to decide which elements you wish to pursue, try out or completely ignore.

This is true: Some parts of academia are outdated, old-fashioned, rigid and unwilling to hear or accept new voices, approaches or perspectives

This is also true: Some parts of academia and academics are so ready and welcoming of new voices, perspectives, ideas knowledge and ways of doing research (we just need to spend a little time to find them).

Also also true: There are many other sectors beyond academia that are taking more open, innovative approaches to research, where your unique voice and contribution would be more than embraced, supported and furthered.

There is always going to be some form of negativity, sticking point or difficulty across your academic life.

But there are also always multiple ways to respond to these challenges.

And these usually comes down to two main types of responses:

  • Stay stuck in the negativity, complaining to any and everyone about how unfair / difficult / oppressive everything is and always feeling hard-done-by
  • Acknowledge the negativity that’s happening (and initiate / lobby for change where you can) but also find other ways to move around it so you can still feel good in your PhD life and make progress

You can choose to focus your entire energy, time and resources on noticing, responding to and fighting everything that isn’t working, that’s against you, that feels terrible.

Or you can choose to focus that same energy, time and resources on the parts of your PhD life that are working, that do feel good and supported, that do foster your academic development and honours your wellbeing.

You might call me idealistic, naive, a dreamer. You might also pull out some Foucault to try to remind me that ‘everything is determined by structures of power’ and that we ‘never really have a choice’. (These debates informed my entire PhD, so I am ready for anyone who wants to come at me!)

We can talk theory forever but all I can say is that sure, the systems and oppressions and overarching fuckery are all there. But those same systems are not going to be overthrown overnight. And in the meantime, we still need to get shit done, and move through our days with some degree of peace.

That can start by making that micro decision in each moment, as to which truth we choose to lean towards more over another.

That will mean that while things outwardly remain more or less the same, your experience and relationship with it completely changes – usually for the better.

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