Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a PhD Student

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The process of completing a PhD is quite unlike any other experience. It’s a huge commitment that undoubtedly requires some sacrifice on both a personal and perhaps a financial level as well. With most doctoral theses ranging between 80 000- 100 000 words, it is an understatement to say that the process demands a high degree of self-discipline. For many students, it can feel like an exceptionally long and treacherous road, with ups and downs as well as twists and turns, and even some roadblocks along the journey.

These features of PhD life are of course balanced out by the many benefits of completing a doctorate. Apart from the potential to set you off on a different career path and open up new doors, having a doctorate in hand can also feel deeply satisfying. Whether it’s the start of a larger body of research or an end in itself, the doctorate represents your own unique contribution to a particular field. Within the world of academia, there are few things that feel as rewarding as completing a PhD.

When I look back at my own experience as a PhD student I certainly have no regrets. There are, however, a few things I wish I knew while I was in the middle of it and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. The PhD is what you do, not who you are

Something I observed while I was completing my PhD was the way in which many of my classmates (myself included) started to over identify with our work. We would often refer to our PhD projects as though they were an extension of ourselves. Given how many years it takes to complete a PhD and the fact that it is an incredibly personal piece of work, it’s only natural to see it become a part of our lives. However, when we start to see it as a reflection of our self-worth, the stakes suddenly become much higher. By over identifying with the work we produce, we tie our fortunes to it and allow ourselves to be stifled when we have off days, and may even take criticism of the project personally. It’s important to stay grounded and remember that the PhD is something you do and not who you are.

  1. Nobody writes 100 000 words

When I used to think about completing my PhD, the task seemed incredibly daunting. I kept thinking to myself ‘how am I going to write 100 000 words?’ But the fact is that nobody has ever done this – it would be impossible! What people do is write small, manageable chunks over a longer period of time. This feels much less daunting to think about. So stop thinking of your PhD as 100 000 words and think of it for what it is and how it will be completed– one chapter at a time – one section at a time. Espousing this subtle shift in perception can make a world of difference.

  1. Take a break (and don’t bring your work with you!)

Like so many of my colleagues, I found it difficult to take long breaks away from my work. Whenever holidays came around, I would do a balance sheet of how much I had accomplished and how much time I could take off as a result. Needless to say, the vacation time that I allotted to myself was negotiable and always dependent on my progress. Given the perpetual feeling that I was always behind, the time I allowed myself to take off, if any, was short. I would always sneak a book or two into my suitcase when I was going on holiday. I can now see how unhealthy my approach to vacations were. And not being gentle with myself actually made me less productive, and generally less happy. Even if you think you can’t afford to take a break from work, the truth is that you can’t afford not to!

  1. Even when you feel like you aren’t making progress, you actually are

One of the most frustrating aspects of completing a PhD relates to the feeling that we aren’t making any progress. I found this to be particularly the case after spending endless amounts of time sifting through journal articles and books in order to determine which ones were relevant for my research. During these periods, I often felt like I had nothing to show for days and even weeks of work. The lesson I learned from all of this was the importance of viewing the PhD as a process, rather than an outcome. It was primarily because of my emphasis on the outcome that I wasn’t able to appreciate or adequately assess my progress at certain points throughout. For further advice on how I overcame this, see my post on process versus outcome where I discuss some strategies for taking a process-oriented approach to thesis writing.

  1. Stop thinking about it when you’re not doing it

I often found that no matter what I was doing, I was always thinking about my PhD. Typically, it wasn’t in an exciting, light bulb moment way where creative ideas would come to me, it was mostly worry. Worry that I wouldn’t get it done on time, that it wouldn’t be good enough and that I hadn’t done enough. During my PhD years, I didn’t know how important it was to be in the present moment and to properly switch off. If you find yourself constantly thinking about your PhD even when you aren’t working on it, it’s an indication that you need to get away from it for a while. Immerse yourself in something different – if not to give your mind a break, then for the sake of your sanity. The last thing you want is to be that person who can only think and talk about their research. See a film, do volunteer work, or go to the gym, anything to create some healthy distance and disengagement from your work.

  1. Life doesn’t automatically become less stressful when you finish

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the stress you experience while completing a PhD will not automatically come to an end on the day that you submit. When I was in the middle of writing up, I recall how much I looked ahead to my submission date as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, I soon found a host of other stresses that took the place of my PhD. Things like applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, publishing my thesis, writing conference papers and research grant applications, to name just a few. In my own experience, some of these pressures actually felt worse than the PhD – perhaps because of my anticipation that life would automatically be less stressful after submitting. So rather than holding your breath and waiting until you’re done, I would recommend making your happiness and wellbeing a priority now. That means finding healthy ways to manage your stress levels and not simply waiting for your submission date.

For further information please visit my coaching page or get in touch with me at info@academease.org

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