I did mention that I would write a little about the realities of being a PhD student and as I am just over a year into my PhD this seems a suitable time to reflect on my experience. Thus I am tentatively going to give some advice to anyone thinking about a PhD or embarking upon one. (I am sure all those who are two or three years into their PhD will laugh raucously at the naivety of my suggestions. Your relationship with your PhD is ever evolving so what I say now I may not agree with in six months time). Also, do be aware that this advice mainly applies to humanities students.
I will start with my two cardinal rules and then move onto more practical advice. Despite my best efforts I am sure my language will descend into mixed metaphors. Bear with me: somewhere in here they are gems of wisdom and insight.
The Cardinal Rules
“Nothing can be achieved without passion”: This is a quotation from a poster that I picked up at Fresher’s Fair during my second year. The poster featured a close-up of a red rose bejewelled with dew and I stuck it to my wall with blue-tack thereby contravening my tenancy agreement and losing some of my deposit. But it was all worth it because that cheesy, bland, clichéd saying has been my motto throughout my studies.
PhDs have a very high drop out rate – somewhere around 40% to 50%. This means you’re as likely to finish as not. If you are not passionate about what you are doing you are significantly more likely to become bored, disillusioned, and decide to quit. Do not undertake a PhD in a subject unless you are passionate about it – regardless of if a ‘safer’ subject will get you more funding.
I am incredibly cautious but I still a) decided to do a PhD, and b) decided to study werewolves in literature. Why did I do it? Well, firstly, I knew that the risks of not following my passion would haunt me and I was in a pretty good position personally and professionally to start a PhD (see, caution and common-sense). Secondly, I wanted to study something I cared about, a subject which consumed me, essentially I wanted to study like I had fallen in love again.
When you are lonely and stressed and tired and depressed (academics suffer from depression more than the general populace), your PhD should be a help and not a hindrance. Passion will fuel you.
“Know thyself”: So it turns out that the Delphic Oracle knew her shizzle. Sadly, passion is not enough. It can burn out.
How do you prevent this? Well, you need to know yourself. Are you faddy and constantly having new whims? A three-year course driven by self-motivation might not be for you. Are you pretty unself-motivated? Ditto. Do you believe that creativity can only come from inspiration when the muse strikes? Talk to a professional writer and then don’t do a PhD. Did you hate your undergraduate degree or your MA/ MSc? Seriously, don’t do it to yourself.
If you reckon you’ve got what it takes to do a PhD and you get accepted then there’s more soul searching, I’m afraid. You will need to know how your mind works. This can mean working out whether you’re a morning or evening person and considering whether you prefer planning in minute detail before you write or re-drafting like a demon. Thus though I hate early mornings, it’s when I work best and I have to allow a few weeks for re-drafting as I think whilst I write.
You also have to recognise your breaking point. This is harder to do. It’s the difference between knowing when your inability to work can be cured with self-discipline and when you need to stop or you’ll have a meltdown. It’s better to stop a meltdown in its tracks rather than let it happen and try to recover. Giving yourself a day off is a skill that only comes with practice – disengaging your mind is hard. I call these days my ‘sanity’ days and I make sure I allow for them when approaching deadlines.
Plan your time: My PhD is meant to be 80,000 words and I have to write it in three years. If I actually think about this for an extended period of time, I end up grabbing a brown paper bag and breathing heavily into it. So I don’t.
I break down each year into manageable chunks and the whole word count into sections. Sounds obvious? It is. If you set regular deadlines, you’ll feel like you’ve achieved something which should silence the self-doubt monsters for a while.
Gives yourself proper holidays: At the beginning of my PhD, I decided to allot myself holiday time. I also came to the conclusion that I should work Monday-Friday and have weekends off (though smash that in case of emergencies). I did this because I wanted to create a structure for myself. And, because I know myself (see above), and I know that I can’t work flat-out every day for weeks. Most of my friends work Monday-Friday so if I want to socialise, I need to make sure that my weekends are free.
The way I see it my brain is a massive muscle that I am currently training for a marathon (well, actually, an Iron WoMan). When I go for a run, I warm down before I stop. This doesn’t take long: you stop running and your legs almost immediately start to relax. Not so much for brains. If I go to bed straight after working on my PhD, I’ll then lie in bed reciting everything I have read or written that day. Brains don’t turn off so easily. I recommend using mind-numbing television – thank-you Say Yes to the Dress – and comfort-lit – mainly the Harry Potter series – as a warm down. But this also means you need complete rest days where you do nothing PhD related.
Nothing. Nooooothing. No thing.
I cannot stress this enough.
Communicate with your Supervisor: PhDs are funny things. They are undertaken by fully grown adults who often act like children. Therefore, your supervisor is caught between seeing you as an equal and seeing you as a student.
How can you manage this situation. Easy. Just tell your supervisor what you need. (Provided, you know what you need – see above). Do you want structure and formal feedback? Do you work best alone? Do you need a free rein? Well then explain that to them. Use your words.
If they ask you to do something and you don’t agree, let them know. Be professional. If there is a personal matter that means you won’t be easily available or might affect your work, again, drop them an email.
You will be working with your supervisor for three years so it’s best to establish ground rules as soon as possible so that you don’t end up misreading each other later. (For me, this was explaining that I am needy and require regular compliments to keep me from descending into a pit of self-doubt). And like all relationships, communication is the key.
Your PhD is a means to an end, it is not your Magnum Opus: This advice is from my supervisor, Sam George. And it’s excellent. A PhD is a qualification which basically means it’s just a few steps on from GCSEs. Approach it as such.
Whilst it might feel like your baby (my friends who are parents are getting very annoyed with me using this metaphor!), it isn’t. Don’t be precious. Don’t expect it to be perfect. And, no, you can’t cover everything. In order to get the depth, you will have to forgo some of the breadth. That’s what footnotes and appendices are for. (Mine aren’t included in my final word count. The fools! The beautiful, mad fools who approved this).
Write as you research: Another tidbit from someone who knows. This time my secondary supervisor. Do not leave all your writing to the final year. Just don’t. By that point you will be tired, you will be approaching the finish line, and you will be eyebrow-deep in notes. Not even the most organised person can pluck footnotes from endless piles of notes.
Research a section and then write it up. Research and then write. You can always go back and amend it in light of new work.
Get a job: Yeah, you lazy student bum. No, I am not going all Daily-Maily here, I am trying to help. Maybe instead of a job, you can make sure you have a hobby that is not PhD related and gets you outside. (Seriously, PhD students get unhealthy).
Basically do something that means that you meet people who are not academics. It’ll help keep things in perspective. It’ll also give you structure. A wise man (my old headmaster, Mr Peacock) once said that the busiest people get the most done. Why? Because if a task needs to take 30 minutes, they’ll make it take 30 minutes. People tend to work to fill the time available. Be efficient. Be, be efficient.
Sleep: No seriously. Just sleep. (Apologies to any insomniacs, apologies, and commiseration – insomnia is cruel).
Despite the many claims to the contrary, study after study, after study says you need six-eight hours sleep in order to stay sane and functional. I have recently discovered that part of being an adult is informing everyone how little sleep you get/ need. Students are no different. I accidentally got caught in a ‘Who’s Had Less Sleep’ competition with a bunch of PhD-ers. If this happens to you, look them in the eye and say: ‘Oh, I always get my eight hours. I guess I am just very good at getting my work done’. Awwwww, snap!
Stay focused: When it comes to PhDs focus is the name of the game. I can play the Kevin Bacon game with my PhD subject like you would not believe. Everything is related to wolves and the Gothic as far as I am concerned but in order to finish I need to remain clear-eyed (open-hearted, and I can’t lose – thank-you Friday Night Lights).
So I make a note of something that has interested me and then return to it at a later date. Sometimes it looks like the ramblings of an insane women, sometimes it is clearly a moment of genius. A bit of space helps me decide which is the case.
Make conferences/ papers work for you: Back to the old efficiency malarkey. You see a great conference, the CFP looks right up your street, you’ll just write a quick 300 words and the sometime in the nebulous future you’ll write another 3000 words and create a PowerPoint or a hand-out and get it published. No. Stop. Back away.
Papers always take longer than you think. Always. So try to make sure that you only apply for conferences and papers that directly link to your work. (Bear in mind the risks of self-plagiarizing, which though it sounds like something only a contortionist could achieve, is all too possible).
It’s tempting to try to fill your academic CV with as many papers/ chapters/ conferences/ talks as possible but take a deep breath, pause, and remember you have the rest of your professional life to work on this. (Obviously, if you gotta write the paper, you gotta write the paper. Just don’t be seduced by every werewolf/ vampire conference).
Well, I hope this has been slightly helpful for anyone thinking about undertaking or beginning their PhD. It’s a learning process (obv) so just take a deep breath and dive in.