Challenging PhD Challenges

We talked about how challenging and stressful PhD experience can be, lets now talk about it making it more enjoyable less and detrimental to our wellbeing…

When I first read Salma’s post on PhD challenges, I was nodding and mm-hmming at the screen with a crooked smile on face. Like all of us in the PhD boat, I have quickly become very familiar with these challenges. The fixer (and chatterbox) got the instant urge to reflect (i.e. write). This is by no means an attempt to diminish the severity of mental health conditions many people in academia suffer from, but to consider possible ways of mitigating the negative effects of PhD on our wellbeing in general.

 So here are my cents (or another currencies’ equivalents, as long as they jingle…).

1) A PhD is a lonely experience. It is, but many things in life are. Yes, you will be the one who will have type up that thesis and sit in front of your examiners, no arguing about that. You alone will do your analysis, run your experiments. Nonetheless, there are people, from your supervisor, family and friends to random Twitter eggs, who can make the experience much less daunting and turn around your day, just when you need it the most. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

2) You will probably be lost for a good while, with no idea where you are heading. True, and as terrible as it might feel sometimes, this is necessary for your project to develop. Like brewing tea, if you wish, your needs to sit in your metaphorical cup for a while. After all, if we were to start our PhD knowing everything, well, what would be the point in doing it?

3) You will end up doing work and writing pages that will not contribute to your PhD. They won’t contribute in terms of word count, but surely, writing is a skill developed through practice and drafts are arenas of ideas, only the fittest ones will survive. Remember, “crap” is not waste.

4) You will not know for certain how well or not you are doing until you either publish or more likely when your PhD viva takes places, three or four years from when you start your PhD. It is so hard to know if you’re making (enough) progress, as this is very project- and person- specific, but sometimes, even crossing things off the list, or removing post-its from the board can help you feel like you’re going somewhere. Not exactly the fast lane, but moving, nonetheless.

5) Your supervisors are just there to steer you. True, after so many years of following, it is hard to lead. No worries, there is still plenty of structure when it comes to how you will do your project, and once you overcome the initial confusion, you will likely find the lack of micro-managing to be a good thing. At the end of the day, this is your project. Battered and shaken, perhaps, but yours.

Image credits: EsraLiekeb / CC BY-ND 2.0

6) Your work will be criticised and it’ll be difficult not to take it personally. This is a tricky one if you’re inherently insecure and impressionable, and I’m not sure if receiving feedback will ever be a walk in the park for me. However, in my first year, I’ve printed a highly personalised reference letter my supervisor wrote to support my never-ending funding quest. I often skim over it when dealing with negative comments. That is me, and this, this is just a paragraph I wrote in hurry.

7) The supervisory experience and relationship can be challenging for some. I might struggle in some other matters (cue funding lamentations), but I’ve hit the jackpot with this one. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have to adapt to make the most out of my supervision. I strongly believe in changing things which can be better, especially when it comes to PhD. Do explore the support mechanisms at department and graduate school.

8 & 9) Some things will be out of your control and they’ll be little you can do about it. The PhD plan continuously evolves; you have to be flexible and open to the idea of change. Very much like on a 12-step programme, we need to find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. (And the strength to write it all up.)

10) And finally, a PhD is a test of perseverance. It sure is, but there is no reward at the end (unless you were aiming for a ‘Dr’ on your utility bills), only new challenges, in academia or elsewhere. Perhaps it would make more sense to regard it as a journey then; yes, there are difficult moments, packing is stressful, trains are late, you might get a food poisoning or break your camera. Still, you will see and learn so many new things, spend happy moments with some new people and, unquestionably, be richer for an invaluable experience.

Towards the end of the post, Salma gave a brilliant piece of advice, one I believe should be printed in every PhD student’s handbook, at every university in the world:

Don’t take your PhD too seriously.

At the end of the day, it is just a degree, and there’s a whole wide world outside of it, so don’t let your PhD define you, no matter how (un)successful you feel it is or has been.

And how do you challenge the PhD challenges? Let us know in the comments. 🙂

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

7 thoughts on “Challenging PhD Challenges

  1. In regards to the first comment about the solitary nature of doctoral work, one challenge that doctoral departments should consider piloting is the collaborative thesis. In a collaborative thesis, several early career researchers work together under one supervisor to produce a thesis. They assist each other with the writing, emotional support and research. How is it that the PhD student works alone, when the vast majority of articles and books in academia are written in partnerships with other academics?

    I would like a companion piece to this written from the perspective of the supervisor of department head. What are the challenges of producing a bona fide PhD candidate?

    1. Hi SheriO,

      Thanks for your comment. Collaborative thesis sounds like an interesting idea, I can see many benefits, which you have outlined too, but I am wondering about mechanisms of balancing the workload in an efficient and just way, as well as the matters of ownership of the research… In any case, food for thought. 🙂

      Regarding your second point, I absolutely agree; we have been working on contributions ‘from the other side’, and this is one the topics we’ll certainly address. 🙂

      Ana, PhD Life

      1. Hi Ana
        Rice University tried out a collaborative thesis. Each student wrote their own thesis I believe, on a different aspect of a shared problem, but they helped out each other with the literature review, methodology study and the writing process. Academics share credit all the time so mechanisms are in place for doing so.
        In addition, new formats for thesis writing are being accepted as credit toward a doctorate, like submitting a thesis as a graphic novel, film project, multi-media event or allowing for a thesis with three separate, disconnnected questions…and sections, A committee meets to examine the candidate and a doctorate is awarded. The assessment criteria would differ from the candidate with the standard thesis and so we get into a ‘foreign’ country that breaks the individual work only barrier.

  2. Thanks for info on Rice University case, I’ll do some more research. It would be really interesting to find out more about the experience of students who have completed their thesis in collaborative format, how did their choose their collaborators and topics, what was the supervision like, etc.
    And, vice versa, what is it like for supervisors and examiners to be involved in such process…

    1. Hi Sofia! Thanks for your comment and for reblogging us! We completely agree with you, taking breaks and disconnecting from your thesis is absolutely important. A PhD is akin to a job and, as such, we all need to make use of those days on leave to recharge – Sofia (Blog Editor at PhD Life)

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