Is your PhD a love affair or a war story?

I think I can. I think I can. I know I can. ~ The Little Engine that Could

Are you in a PhD romance or a PhD battle?

Are you in a PhD romance or a PhD battle?

What do we tell ourselves about our lives, work and research? In particular what is the private self talk and dominant public discourse around doctoral study?

Helen Kara points out this week that, while there are some positive stories about the doctoral experience, much of what is ‘out there,’ especially in the blogosphere, has a negative bent. She notes that her own experience was positive, and cause for celebration.

A quick scan of research also shows the doctoral experience as fraught with issues of identity uncertainty, imposter syndrome, dissatisfaction, and a mismatch between understandings of students and the actual experience.

The Thesis Whisperer’s – Inger Mewburn’s – upcoming MOOC on surviving the PhD will explore the emotions of the PhD, including confidence, frustration, fear, confusion, curiosity, loneliness, boredom and love. Helen Kara suggests that it’s possible not just to survive a PhD but to enjoy or even love your PhD.

Certainly, that’s been my experience. I’d go as far as to say that my PhD is a love and a privilege. Last year I wrote a guest post for the PhD Talk blog about how passion and purpose drive my PhD. In it, I wrote that ‘I love my thesis’ and that at times I found it joyful. It felt like ‘me time’ in which I could luxuriate in my intellectual passions and development. It was personalised professional learning.

I’ve wondered, is it ok to share my good PhD experience? Does it upset those who have had a hard time or come up against extra obstacles in the PhDverse? Below, I reflect on why my experience has been a positive one, a love affair rather than a war story. It seems to have been partly due to choices I’ve made, and partly due to luck. For me, reading others’ narratives has helped demystify the PhD, so while mine is only one story, it may useful to others. I encourage those with PhD experiences, good and bad, to share their stories, too.

My supervisory relationships, seemingly the subject of much PhD-candidate teeth gnashing, have been positive and without drama. Before enrolling in my research degree I went ‘supervisor shopping’ via email and phone. When considering the responses of university professors, I avoided those professors who seemed interested in controlling my research or ideas, and those who, while willing to take me on, seemed ambivalent about what I was thinking about doing. I found one supervisor who showed generosity, genuine interest in me and my research idea, and seemed to think I was potentially capable of what the degree entailed. Winner! My primary supervisor then helped me to find a complementary secondary supervisor.

So, I did make clear choices in how I went about finding a supervisor, but I have also been lucky that my supervisors have been consistently and equally involved in my PhD work, that they both always come to meetings unless one is away, and that they have been supportive of my ideas, even when those ideas seem a bit on the side of academic crazy. Rather than telling me I can’t do something, they challenge me to provide a rationale or supporting theory. Rather than criticising my work, they push me into a space of nurtured discomfort in which I can struggle into growth. There’s nothing better than the feeling of a PhD break down which turns into a PhD break through!

Choosing a local university rather than one at long distance has turned out to be a good choice for me. I wasn’t sure when I started my degree if I really needed to be in the same city as my supervisors. In fact, at the beginning we used technology such as Skype to hold some meetings, as at times I struggled to get time out from my very small children to get to uni. I remember at least one supervisory meeting at the university during which I had my two kids in a pram. It has turned out to be in face to face meetings where I have made the most progress and gained the most understanding, so I’m glad I chose a local university.

I’ve also chosen to take responsibility for my study and actively manage my PhD. While my supervisors are there to guide me, I figured out pretty quickly that I was the one who needed to not only do the work, but also suggest or set the deadlines, milestones, meeting times, chase up paperwork, and ask clearly for what I needed.

The other choice I made which seems to have worked for me is the topic of my thesis. I chose something do-able and something about which I was passionate. My sometimes obsessive passion for my topic has meant that I am happy to be immersed in it. The do-ability of my project has meant that it’s been a realistic project within the PhD time frame. I didn’t try to wrestle with too much. I have found interesting tangents and managed to put them to one side. For the most part. I had a clear idea for my project going in, which meant I was able to present my research proposal within two months of enrolling. My progress since then has been pretty linear, although I have had some times of particular personal difficulty across my candidature, and peaks and troughs of productivity.

I agree with Helen Kara that self care is a vital part of the PhD. Sometimes you need to give yourself permission to take a break. Sometimes you need a writing retreat. Sometimes you need to say no to study and yes to you.

I have signed up for the Thesis Whisperer’s EdX MOOC, not because I feel I need it to complete my PhD journey, as I’m looking to submit in October, about three years since I began. Rather, it’s because I see that being part of a MOOC community around the PhD experience is, like engaging on Twitter and social media, an antidote to PhD isolation. (Isolation is certainly something I’ve experienced, as a student who is also working almost full time and parenting two young kids. I’m lucky if I have time to get a takeaway coffee when I duck into uni for a supervisory meeting or a quick trip to the library. I haven’t connected with a single other student at my university due to my work schedule.) I also wonder if I might be able to help others at an earlier stage in their PhD journey by being involved in the MOOC.

While I have found the PhD to be hard work, it has been deliciously, brain-bendingly so. I think it has to be if it is to be something which transforms us and the way we think, read and write. Of course, no PhD is without tough times, difficult problems to solve and moments of being overwhelmed. I have had my identity crises, but I have loved my PhD experience thus far, and now I can taste the end! (If you are at the beginning and want to see my thoughts on what to consider when starting your doctoral journey, they are here.)

I wonder if we can associate the following quote with PhD study as well as travel. For me, the PhD has allowed me to both lose and find myself, to reimagine and reinvigorate my learning, and to contribute to global academic conversations. Is your PhD a love affair or a war story?

We travel [research?], initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the world whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and be taken in, and fall in love once more. ~ Pico Iyer