I was surprised, and pleased, by the positive reaction to last week’s post. One commenter said, ‘I like how you have started a conversation about the good things in academic life, not just the bad.’
Last week I was co-opted into a Twitter chat between Katy Vigurs (@drkatyvigurs) and the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Forum (@BSAPGForum). Katy tweeted that she had signed up for the new MOOC being run by the Thesis Whisperer called ‘Survive your PhD’. BSAPGF responded asking, ‘Do we always ‘survive’ our PhDs? Is it possible to enjoy them without the narratives of desperation?’ Short story shorter, I agreed to write a blog post about the positive side of the PhD experience.
Please note: this is not intended in any way as criticism of the MOOC or the Thesis Whisperer – the MOOC looks great and, if you’re a PhD student and you haven’t yet signed up, I’d recommend checking it out. But I think BSAPGF has a point: negative discourses about academia seem to outweigh the positive right now, and it would be good to redress the balance.
One of last week’s commenters on this blog described her PhD experience as ‘resoundingly positive’, and another said she had had only ‘encouraging and nurturing experiences’. This chimes with my own experience. In the three years of my doctoral study I had very few negative or difficult experiences. A couple of bereavements close together led to a taxing few months, and later one of my supervisors lost a parent which, quite understandably, meant she was not at her best for a while. My supervisors and I didn’t always agree about the best way forward, but we worked through and mostly learned from our disagreements. It was a real intellectual stretch, and I remember whingeing to my partner about how hard it was – not that I got much sympathy; he usually replied, ‘It’s supposed to be hard, it’s a PhD!’.
But generally my PhD was a very positive and enjoyable experience. I loved having the opportunity to do my own research for once, rather than dancing to a commissioner’s tune. I adored spending whole days reading, writing, and thinking. My supervisors were supportive and helpful. And I had such a good time at my viva: full details in a podcast here.
I’ve been pondering why my PhD experience was so good. I think some of this was circumstance and luck. As a doctoral student I had two big advantages: I was already a researcher, and I was already a writer. This meant I was well acquainted with the inverted curve of the research project:
And I had already co-written a book, so the amount of writing required for a PhD thesis didn’t feel daunting. Also, I was used to working alone a lot of the time. Plus I had support from several friends who were already doing PhDs when I started. And I was self-employed, with no dependents, which meant I could find time to work on my PhD more easily than some people.
I think that even if you’re in a very different position, there are things you can do to maximise the chances of loving your PhD. Here are my top five:
1. Choose a research area you’re passionate about
2. Be relentlessly organised: with planning, time, record-keeping – in fact everything
3. Build and maintain a good relationship with your supervisor
4. Write early and often and throughout the process
5. Practise self-care: exercise, eat well, reward yourself for achievement, take breaks
Some people, for all sorts of reasons, have a terrible time while doing, or trying to do, a PhD. Too many who register fail to complete – something the MOOC is aiming to address. But a lot of people have a fine time: not without hurdles to overcome (no project spanning years is ever likely to be completely free of difficulty) but, overall, a positive and enjoyable experience. And I think we forget how very privileged we are as doctoral students, to be able to work towards the highest academic qualification in existence. Surely this is not an opportunity to take for granted, but one to celebrate and relish.