This is the first in a series of blogs which will contain reflections on the process of doing my PhD . This first entry is the ‘hot take’, and a discussion of the physical and emotional toll to this point.
To be completely honest, I’m knackered.
The terrible cliché that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, is simply wrong. It’s not a marathon. If anything, it resembles something I read in a Frederick Forsythe novel about an SAS training exercise where they make you run a marathon, and then when your fingertips are a few centimetres away from the back of the truck that marks the finish, they drive away, and make you run another few miles.
For the most part, the exhaustion (especially the emotional exhaustion) comes right near the end. And it’s not really from the work. Although to be fair, late nights, all nighters, extended sessions of footnoting, referencing, double checking, typo-hunting and such are physically exhausting.
What I found to be most exhausting is the emotional rollercoaster that comes putting into a push to meet a deadline, and the troughs that follow the emotional and energetic peaks. Whether it’s the ‘artificial’ deadlines getting drafts and versions ready for people to read, or the very real deadline of submission, that adrenaline surge leading up to things is significant. And then you hand your work off, and you have to wait- days, weeks, or months- for feedback, for a verdict. And when you find out you need to do more work on it- that can be a real punch in the gut.
I am so incredibly lucky- I am privileged, and I know it. But I have also experienced my fair share of academic adversity. I failed out of undergrad after my first year, and then was allowed back in- then switched degree programs and completed my BA after five years. I managed to get into an MA program, and do fairly well. After two years of applying for Canadian PhD programs, I was accepted to Kings. I am so supremely lucky that I was able to have my family pay for my tuition. Being ‘self-funded’ has placed a great deal of pressure on me. Or rather, I placed a *lot* of pressure on myself.
That pressure- of having to show my family that the money they invested in me was worthwhile, has definitely made the emotional rollercoaster more intense than it could have been, then it should have been if I had handled things better.
My first year at KCL, tuition was £13,050. The second year it was £13,800. For third year, it was going to be £14,500. On top of this, while the exchange rate between the Canadian Dollar and the Pound was relatively decent in January 2012, by the time I left the UK in September 2014, the dollar had slipped quite a bit. Luckily, I was able to reduce some of the financial pressure. For PhD students, KCL has a mechanism where after two years, if your supervisor agrees, you can enter a ‘writing-up period’ of one year. This dropped my tuition to about £450, but also put a very firm timeline- I had to submit by January 20, 2015.
I’ve talked before about the version of the thesis that I submitted, and about my Viva. And I’ll write a blog about them later in this series. The salient point for this blog is that there was this rush of energy before the Viva. I was sure I’d get corrections, but I thought they’d be minor. I thought that I would be done within a few months. I was wrong. I was given major corrections- 18 months, and asked to resubmit. Although the Viva itself was great- the result was a crushing blow at the time. It was exhausting- and I slacked more than I should have. As a result, I took the full 18 months to resubmit, when I probably could have done it a month or two earlier.
The second time was like the first.. but different.I know now how naive I was the first time. I am now much more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my thesis. I think I have a much more realistic appreciation of the possible outcomes. But I’m exhausted. Three years, plus eighteen months. I’d be ecstatic with minor (three months) corrections. That’s the outcome I’m hoping for. Six months, okay, sure. Fine. To be quite honest, I’d be very tempted to just walk away if they wanted me to do another eighteen months. I know that at this point, a lot of people say to just tough it out, do what the examiners want, get the PhD, but it would be very tough. I am exhausted, and I want to move on. This time, I’m not going to take the break after submitting like I did last time. I have articles to write, I have jobs to apply for, and I have academic things that I want to do. I’m going to go ahead with those.
Finishing a PhD is about endurance. And I’ve learned- and had to relearn a lot of lessons around that.
First, you don’t have to work on your PhD 24/7. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Having hobbies, interests, a part-time or full time job is necessary to get your brain away from writing and editing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going on holiday for a week or two. I would also say, take topic-holidays. Write blogs and articles that are only tangentially related to your thesis. Read other things. Go to as many seminars/lectures as you can, especially if they aren’t directly related to your topic. The corollary to that is, when you actually do need to work 24/7 on your thesis, say when you’re on a research trip or in the days/weeks before deadlines, make sure you take the time you need, and have the space you need. Don’t let others criticize you for how much time you spend working, or that you have done ten drafts of a chapter.
Second, don’t compare yourself, your process, or your productivity to others in a way that considers them as the ideal to be mimicked. You do what you need to do to be productive. Sometimes you’ll find it easier, sometimes it’ll be a slog. And, especially, don’t worry about how much you can write in a day compared to somebody else. Make the time to write when you can, and write as long as you’re productive. This doesn’t just mean filling up empty pages, it means thinking about things, reconsidering, rearranging things. It will take a considerable amount of time to write your thesis, to rearrange it, do the next draft (and repeat). Sometimes it will be great, when you’re writing neat arguments and incorporating cool evidence, and getting to talk about it. Other times, it will be the most tedious. Savour the good times, and use whatever fuel you need to get through the tough bits. But you will get through it.
Third, that it’s really important to use your support network. Nobody wants you to fail- not your your supervisor, your examiners, your colleagues, friends, or even your rivals. We all go through the same process. We all have similar demands upon us. Most importantly, we all get exhausted at some point (even if many academics pretend that they don’t). When you’re feeling down, talk about it. When you need help, ask for it. Not only will your friends and colleagues often be willing to help whenever they can, but it’s also good to know that others have had, or are having the same experiences. It’s not just about spreading the load (which is helpful), but having others talk about how they got through it, or are getting through, or having them admit that they’re having trouble too can ease the burden. Doing a PhD can be extremely isolating, so making connections really does help because you feel less alone.
There is no way to avoid the reality that doing a PhD will exhaust you, and that you’ll need help to endure it. To get through, you need to be honest with yourself about your physical and emotional exhaustion and act to mitigate it. That exhaustion cannot be romanticized, and treated as if it’s the ideal. You can also be honest with others about being exhausted or worn out. While your PhD thesis will be externally validated, nobody gets to validate or judge your experience. Do what you need to do to get through.
In the next blog, I’ll be talking about some of the things I wish I had known when I started my PhD, specifically about research, writing and process.