Let me tell you a PhD secret


U. Ejiro O. Onomake is a third-year DPhil student based at the University of Sussex’s anthropology department. Her research explores social relationships between Chinese and Nigerians. Outside of academia Ejiro spends time volunteering, traveling, tweeking recipes and has recently become an ambassador for SexyShred- a health and lifestyle challenge.

Let Me Tell You a Secret

When people hear that I am in a doctoral program they often express some interest in my work or  they say something that infers Let me tell you a secretI have a great deal of intelligence. How does one respond to such a thing? In the beginning of my program I would laugh it off and say that was not true but as I’ve progressed into my program I have gone one step further, I’ve started to tell people the little known secret: Successfully entering and completing a PhD program does not hinge on intelligence. Yes a certain level of intelligence is required but what is even more important are the following: tenacity and groundedness. The initial entry into a doctoral program is akin to boot camp where you learn the basic skills required for researching and socializing in academia. During this stage your head is full of the research and theories of others. In my case my head was full of Bourdieu, Fanon, Marcus and many others. But as time passes and this phase of doctoral life ends you start to not only form your own research questions but to also conduct research in order to answer these questions. During and after my fieldwork I began to examine data and situate my research in relation to those luminaries whose ideas permeated my thoughts. In the midst of the writing up phase it is clear to me how I will complete my dissertation, through tenacity and groundedness.


Tenacity is crucial because some days you find your research to be mundane. After the excitement of returning from fieldwork wore off and I was entrenched deeply with my work, it felt stale. So I put one piece of work to the side and started working on another area. When I revisited the first piece of work it felt fresh and interesting. But that doesn’t always happen and sometimes you just have to stick with writing less interesting work and savor the parts you enjoy. There will be some periods where you feel like you’re muddling through and making little progress. This happens to many of us, and each of us finds a way to persevere and stay motivated. I keep my reasons for embarking on this PhD journey at the forefront of my mind and it encourages me during difficult times. What also keeps me focused is staying grounded.


Groundedness is one of those all-encompassing titles under which a myriad of points can be stored including ‘there is a world outside of your PhD’ and ‘do it your way’. These are all things that I hold onto and use as mantras. As doctoral students, while the PhD and everything related to it is a major focus of our lives, and rightfully so, it is not center of the universe. Most likely you have commitments and other roles outside of the PhD, which come in the form of family, friends, community and self. Realizing that the PhD is important but there are other things of equal and even more importance, helps to put things in perspective. Thinking of other things outside of your research also helps to maintain interest when returning to work. As for approaching your research your own way this is primarily about bringing your own creativity to your work. Coming into academia can sometimes make you forget all of your previous experiences-as if you joined the Borg and erased your previous life and experiences. Your previous experiences-both professionally and personal contribute to who you are and how you approach your research. And who you are a researcher clearly impacts and influences your research. This is an asset to be used regularly. For me previous work experiences in business and government provide a different insight into the lives of my research participants and my overall research. Also my ethos on living and our interconnectedness as human beings makes me view my research participants and the whole process of the PhD in a unique way. Draw on whatever makes you unique and let it become a part of your work.

So have faith in your intelligence and work on the other ignored points. Be tenacious and grounded in society at large.

This post was originally published in 2013.

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