Curse-Laden PhD Advice That Doesn’t Use The Word ‘Journey’

Or, This Is Probably Why I’ll Never Be Invited To Speak To Prospective PhD Candidates.

(Obviously, all of the below is entirely predicated on my own experiences as a twenty-something, full-time, final year, scholarship-funded Modern History PhD candidate. I’m also notoriously cynical, endlessly grumpy, and have a predilection for swearing that continually disappoints my mother. You have been warned.)

For advice that is less curse-laden and probably more helpful, I’d recommend starting with The Thesis Whisperer and The Guardian’s Higher Education Network series.

Intelligence Counts For Nothing
Congratulations, clever clogs – you worked your way through undergrad and Honours/Masters, got excellent marks, wrote some undoubtedly brilliant essays, and they let you into a PhD program. What a bright little bunny you are!

Unfortunately, that now counts for absolute shit.

Every other person doing a PhD is just as smart as you – in most cases, they’re actually smarter. Your brains got you in the door. That’s it. You are no longer the smartest person in the room. Deal with it.

In fact, learn to embrace it.

It’s All About Hard Work
“Work smarter, not harder” is an adage that you need to KILL WITH FIRE, quickly and thoroughly. The PhD is a goddamn slog. Most of what you read, write, think, and research will not make it within the same postcode of your final thesis. You will not, unless you are a particularly blessed individual, be able to get this shit done on time if you stick to the suggested forty hours of work per week. You can try to take shortcuts (and lord knows I have), but these will be torn to shreds faster than you can say ‘First Page of Google Scholar Results.’

Work hard. Work harder.

You’ve Got To Have A Solid Fucking Reason Not To Quit
Confession time, kiddos: sitting in my desk drawer at work is a printed and filled-out copy of my university’s equivalent of the ‘Withdrawal from PhD Program’ form. All that’s needed is the signatures of my supervisor and head of department, and the date. That form has been there since midway through my second year of candidature – on particularly bad days, it accompanies me to thesis meetings, just in case. So why haven’t I quit yet?

Pure, antagonistic, rage-filled stubbornness.

Obviously, lovely supervisors, good support systems, genuine passion, and breakthroughs in my work have all contributed to me staying in the program. But most days, the thing that keeps me going is one sentence: “Fuck everyone, fuck everything, I’m gonna finish this fucking thing if it fucking kills me.”

(I did warn you about the swearing).

Find your reason. Find a few more reasons. Stick them on post-it notes. Tattoo them onto your forehead. Because most days, quitting the PhD and doing literally anything else with your time will seem like the better option.

Find Your PhD People
Hopefully, by the time you embark on a PhD, you’ve already got a fairly solid support system of lovely non-PhD people – friends, families, partners, housemates, pets, friendly baristas, etc. But no matter how excellent those people are, they will have ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING IDEA what this PhD process entails. They may be sympathetic, but they won’t understand.

What you’re really going to need is hardcore, ‘Oh-God-I-Had-That-Exact-Existential-Crisis-Last-Week-I-Feel-You-Bro’ empathy – so find your PhD People. Make friends with people in your cohort. Join writing groups. Go to department / conference / academic events and network the fuck out of the postgrad attendees (they’ll be the ones trying to make a full meal out of the complimentary canapés). These people will save your arse countless times, and they get it.

(And make sure you’re that person for them, too. Be supportive. Be kind. Don’t be a dick.)

And On That Note – Supervisors
For those of you hoping that your thesis supervisors will understand all of the above – nope. Sure, they’ve done PhDs, and they’ll have an insight into this process that few other people in your life will have. But supervisors are, by their very nature, practicing academics (like “practicing witches,” but with fewer toadstools). This means that they’ll naturally have a slightly rosy-eyed view of the PhD process – after all, it worked for them in the way it’s designed to work.

Even the best supervisors – and I’m privileged enough to have two extraordinarily excellent exemplars of such – won’t quite get it. That’s ok. Get their feedback on your work, cop the (inevitable) criticism, and then go whinge to your aforementioned PhD People.

Don’t Make Your Thesis Your Whole Life
The moment you start to neglect your social life, hobbies, interests, and loved ones for your PhD is the exact moment when your thesis becomes the sole dictator of your mood. Occasional sacrifices are necessary – missing a social event in order to meet a deadline, or cutting down on time spent on non-PhD interests is expected. But the key word there, my loves, is occasional.

Look, if you make your thesis your whole life you will (probably) complete in time, with glowing examiners reports and an imminent glittering academic career.

You will also be an anxious, isolated, mean, confused, boring, lonely, emotionally unstable wreck.

Choice is yours, babes.

As a final note: Do not underestimate the impact of PhD on your health. Be prepared for a delightful and ever-changing array of symptoms, maladies, anxieties, and generally weird body stuff. All universities (should) have access (direct or referral) to GPs, counselling, and support services for students. These are free, confidential, and run by people who have seen it all before (and worse). Make use of these, early and often. A completed PhD thesis isn’t worth a full-blown mental and physical breakdown.

Good luck, my darlings.


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