How to Survive a PhD

I hate the word ‘listicle’, I hate the idea of ‘listicles’, but a ‘listicle’ is, I admit, a convenient and effective way of conveying information. Listicles are, however, rarely used to convey useful information; they seem to inhabit a region of overly positive and superficially thoughtful word-vomit. But here I hope to offer some advice on how to undertake a PhD, and presenting it as a list seems the most effective manner. There is no hierarchy to this list; if anything, no.5 is the most important thing to remember at all times, but it wouldn’t make chronological sense to put it at no.1. My experiences are based in undertaking a PhD in History, and so the advice here may not be immediately applicable to the Sciences, but I feel the general principles apply to all.

1. Choose your supervisor carefully

This person will be the most important individual in your life for the next few years, so choose wisely. It’s all well and good to want to work with the best person, but it is more important to work with the best person for you. I know many a PhD student who struggled with their PhD because of conflicts with their supervisor. It is a very important working relationship, and every one is unique. I, for example, had a very critical and thorough supervisor who challenged my ideas, which I enjoyed because that’s just the way I work, while I know of other students whom the very same supervisor made cry because of ‘harsh criticism’ (I found the criticism constructive, not harsh). I know of another supervisor who has a very hands-off approach, and so some students happily work away while others feel adrift and unguided. It is critical that you speak to your (potential) supervisor about how you work and what you need, because it is all about you and your work.

2. Find a work habit that works for you

Tied to no.1 is work habits. Some lists will tell you ‘treat it like a job, work 9-5’. This did not work for me. I tried, but just didn’t. This might be more viable for the Sciences, but in the Humanities, it seems unreasonable. I worked fairly random hours. I would go in to the office for 9am and stay for as long as possible, but I wasn’t always working on my PhD. I might have read adjacent material, caught up on teaching related work, worked on translations, read comics, watched YouTube, chatted with people, stepped out for an unreasonable amount of coffee… I might not have arrived home until 10 at night, and I might not have worked on my PhD, but I was still productive. I might not have worked on my PhD for a week, but when I got back to it, I was fresh and, more importantly, interested. I needed to do other things almost to remind myself of how fun and interesting my topic was. This is how I worked; it seemed to verge on madness to some. I know people who schedule every minute of every hour of the day, but I see this as incredibly inflexible – what if inspiration strikes at 11 at night? Or at 3am? What if you just can’t think between 11am and 3pm? Find what works for you, and just work. I wrote from Day 1, some don’t write until the final year. You will see listicles saying ‘nothing you write from the first year will make it to the final cut’; I did have work that survived unscathed from Year 1 in the final text. Everyone is different, find the best way to work for you.

3. Admin, get used to it

One thing they never tell you is how much admin is involved in the PhD. It feels like bullshit, but it actually isn’t. You may think that all admin is down to a pencil-pusher, somewhere in the recesses of University Administration, who needs a box ticked and a file filled, and they will put your academic life on hold until certain requirements are fulfilled. But this isn’t really the case; I mean, I think there is too much admin, but some of it does serve a reasonable purpose. Admin is basically a way for everyone to cover their arse: here is on paper something you agreed is factually accurate, so if anything happens, we all know where we stand. Now, I am of the opinion that one should never give Admin more than they need: a student came to me once confessing a health issue which impeded their work so I had to fill out a form for an extension. I simply said that the student needed an extension. Admin happily filed it away. I later learned that another lecturer had included the reasons why the student needed an extension in great detail. I felt this was a bit weird: Admin, unless they specifically ask, does not need to know anything, especially about students. This is a specific scenario as it is within my remit as lecturer to grant extensions, I was simply informing them of the situation. It is somewhat different when you are a PhD student, but don’t feel like you have to be defensive. Just tell them, “this is the situation, this is the consequence”; never apologise (unless you actually have something to apologise for!) and cut to the chase. Do the paperwork in a timely fashion because it will take Admin longer than you think to process your paperwork. And you might have to remind them from time to time.

4. Teach

If you don’t understand something you can’t teach it. And, if your students don’t understand, it’s not them, it’s you. You are, for all intents and purposes, the expert in the room, so if someone doesn’t understand, it’s probably your fault. Teaching helped me to understand how to explain things better in my thesis, how to engage with my audience and keep them on-board for 120,000+ words. After all, what is the point of all that research if people don’t understand it? Teaching may be a pain, it may not be your thing, it may seem like a waste of valuable time, but you can learn from it. Teaching is a two-way street: you can learn from your students, you can see how people interpret things, or how you might refine your method to deliver information more effectively. Plus, for me, it was a nice distraction from the thesis!

5. You are not alone

You are not alone; you are never alone. You may feel alone, but you are not. A PhD can be an isolated and isolating experience, but know that everyone feels the same way. We all work away in our own quiet little corner of research, which might make you feel like you are working alone, but this isn’t really the case. You are working in a community of people who are working on unique projects; you are not, strictly speaking, alone. You may think to yourself, “oh that person really has it together, why don’t I?”, but believe me, they don’t. I found out after I had submitted that some people saw me as the has-it-together type, but I really wasn’t – I just seemed like it. Depression is rife among postgrads. We have a terrible habit of not talking to one another about this, but self-medication is a serious problem. And by ‘self-medication’ I mean alcohol. Postgrads drink a lot, and it seems to me to be a result of the stresses they endure. Not that anyone ever really admits this. Depression, anxiety, and stress seem woven into the PhD process. It’s like an open secret that nobody talks about, and worse, nobody warns you about. Universities seem to celebrate how well they treat their undergrads and offer counselling services, but hardly anything is said of the postgrad experience – I can’t help but wonder if it is because they are afraid that potential applicants will discover how difficult it can be and how many fail to reach the end. I often felt isolated during my PhD, but I slowly learned to deal with it through societies and friends and teaching, and I found others often felt the same way I did. You are not alone, you are never alone. Reach out and talk to someone, they are probably feeling as alone as you are, and you might be able to help each other through.

I have many friends who have been embittered by the PhD process and have fled academia; I know people who stopped because it all became too much. I don’t mean to dissuade you from considering undertaking a PhD – I really enjoyed mine, all things considered – but you have to go in with your eyes open. The University wants your money, professors are under pressure to sign students up; the system is tinged with a capitalist deceit, but go in with your eyes open and you can achieve your goals. In spite of all of the negatives, I really do feel like I have contributed to my field, I have aided in the better understanding of our history. I found the work fulfilling, and I don’t know what else I really could have done.

The listicle has its limitations, but I hope that this one is, in some small way, useful. But, the most important thing to remember is:

You are not alone, you are never alone; talk to someone.


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