To quit or not to quit your PhD…

I have been thinking recently about my PhD journey because I am trying to write a paper about the challenges of writing a PhD thesis. I’ve been re-reading my research journal and old emails between my supervisor and myself in a effort to piece the journey together more clearly. It’s easier when you are finished with your PhD to look back and see things as not having been as difficult as they were. It may seem to readers of this blog that my own journey was a bright and shiny thing, especially given the ‘I am finished!’ posts I have been able to write in recent months. This is not completely so, and in writing this post I hope I can perhaps help those of you who are in a tough spot now and asking yourself ‘Do I really want/need a PhD? Wouldn’t my life be easier if I just quit and tried again later when my life is less busy?’ – or some version of that.

This is what I asked myself at the end of 2010. I had a tough year in 2010, workwise and personally. I was in a new job that required a lot of my time, effort and headspace. My kids were very young, 3 and 7, and needed a lot of me. I started my PhD in February of that year and had no idea what I was doing, and all the months I spent reading and thinking drained rather than energised me. I ended 2010 feeling less clever than I had ever felt, and more tired than I remembered feeling before. I had no clear direction for my PhD, I had not done enough to write anything coherent or sustained, and I felt lost and wrung out. I just didn’t want to do it. I resented the push from my university to get a PhD – the strong sense I had that I would not be taken seriously if I did not do so. I felt guilty taking family time to work on my PhD, and I resented missing out on trips to the beach or the park because I needed to be chained to my desk, reading and writing for a PhD I increasingly did not want to be doing. I was pretty miserable and I blamed the PhD. It was not a productive or happy place  in which to be.

I started 2011 feeling quite desperate. I knew I could not go through another year like 2010, and I knew that in order to get my sanity and balance back something had to give. The logical thing to exclude from my life was the PhD. I wanted to deregister, and perhaps try again when my kids were older, or when I could find a research question I really wanted to answer, or when I knew what I was doing. My supervisor urged me not to take such a drastic step (and I am really glad I listened to her now); she advised me rather to suspend my registration for a year and see how I felt after having had a break, both physically and mentally. So I did that. Suspending my registration produced mixed feelings, though. There was immense relief – like a huge pent-up breath being exhaled in a whoosh; but there was also self-doubt and self-criticism for quitting and for not staying the course. I felt like I had failed, and I don’t like to fail.

But suddenly I had all these hours in my week, and my diary and head were less full. I could think again, and go to the beach and the park and not feel guilty for not working on my PhD. I felt free, and that was a really lovely feeling after 2010’s struggles. This feeling lasted about 4 months. Then, around May, the PhD started to niggle me. I started to remember, with the distance I had been able to attain from it, why it was that I registered in the first place. It was not just to satisfy a demand from my profession to get the right qualification; it was not just for that external recognition. I did have questions I really wanted answers to. I wanted an academic career, and I wanted to learn how to do research well; I wanted to push myself intellectually and personally. I wanted the process, as well as the letters in front of my name. I wanted to see myself differently just as much as I wanted that recognition from others. Once I started remembering that I had my own intrinsic motivations for taking this on, the desire to start reading and thinking and writing began to grow again.

I found a new question, I started reading, and made contact with my supervisor again. I had a new attitude towards the PhD itself. I was less resentful of all the time it took up, and tried rather to focus on what the process was offering me rather than what it was taking away or asking me to give up (I still got grumpy about missing out on the beach and the park, though). I think the shift for me was that I chose to go back to it, and I chose to take it all on again. I know, rationally, that I chose it the first time too, but I did so perhaps more for other people’s reasons  than for my own. Realising that I could walk away and be fine was important, because ironically that is what made it possible for me to go back.

You could walk away, and you could be fine. You could quit now and try again later. There is no shame in realising that something – anything – you have taken on is too much or coming at the wrong time and needs to be let go of. But, if you are quitting because it all feels like too much and you cannot work out if it’s the PhD, life or something else, don’t quit yet. Step back, try and take a hiatus for a period of time, and then re-examine your reasons for doing your doctorate in the first place. Try to see if you can find again those intrinsic, self-ish reasons for choosing to do this to yourself and your family/friends/people. See if you can rediscover that spark of curiosity. If you can, then take the leap. You won’t be sorry. You won’t necessarily have a bright and shiny journey – it is still a PhD after all – but you will have a better chance of getting to the end of this journey in one piece and on to what awaits you thereafter.


Deciphering your supervisor’s feedback

This is supposed to be a somewhat lighthearted post, rather than a serious exposition on feedback.

I was chatting to some friends and fellow PhD travellers recently about how we make sense of our supervisors’ feedback – what we read into some of the ways in which they phrase comments and questions that give us clues on how to respond in the most appropriate ways. It was a funny conversation, and we all ended up laughing quite a lot at our own accounts of how we do this. But it did get me thinking about how we – how students – respond to feedback that we are given on our writing, not just emotionally but also in terms of how we read from the feedback a set of guidelines for our revisions, or read into the feedback the tone of our supervisor’s (or examiner’s/reviewer’s) responses to our writing.

My supervisor – and I both liked and disliked this at various points and for a range of reasons – never told me what to write or think. She prompted, questioned, suggested, challenged – but she never instructed. There are times when you just want to be told what to write so that you know you are writing the right things (although there really is a lot of subjective judgement about what is ‘right’ and that should not necessarily be for someone other than you to ultimately decide). But most of the time you really do want to be guided with your writing and thinking rather than instructed. You want the work to be your own, and even though it’s bloody hard work most of the time, you really want to do the thinking work that comes with the writing and revising and rewriting.

But in order to do the most productive kinds of writing and thinking that will indeed take you on a journey of intellectual and personal growth and learning (and help you produce a PhD dissertation), you need not only to have that guidance that creates space for you to think, write, revise and grow, you need also to know what to do with that guidance, much of which comes in the form of feedback whether written or verbal. I worked out, over time, a way of making sense of what my supervisor was suggesting or prompting me to think about and do – and figuring out what my own response should be. I think that this working out will be different for each student, of course, but this is an important thing to spend some time thinking about, as part of the process of becoming a more conscious writer.

For instance, I worked out that when she started a comment with ‘I wonder if…’ this meant that I could think about it myself, and arrive at my own conclusion about whether or not to include what followed in my chapter. If she said ‘This is my own personal preference…’ I didn’t really have to think too hard and could probably note her comment and move on if it didn’t match my personal preferences. If she said ‘You may want to…’ then I probably did want to (and actually should) do what she suggested. She also gave other more directive kinds of comments like ‘Include a few references here’ and ‘Check for consistency with this’ and I duly did so. Working out this ‘code’ was helpful for me in terms of reading into the feedback her responses to my writing and whether she felt I was going well or not, and also reading from her feedback some clear guidelines and pointers for my own revisions.

What is your supervisor’s code and how does working it out help you to work on your writing and revisions?


PhD guilt and shame

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about making time to write. This week I had a conversation with a friend and fellow PhD traveler that inspired me to write a follow-on post about what to do when you feel you can’t make time to write. What do you do when you have neither physical hours or headspace enough to read, think and write? How do you deal with the almost inevitable feelings of shame, guilt and panic that threaten to derail you?

My fellow PhD travelers are part-time students with full-time lives. Many have children and partners, all have jobs that demand a lot of their headspace and time. The field I am in, higher education studies, sees many PhD students coming into their studies part-time while working full-time as lecturers or managers. If you are lecturing, you are teaching, marking scripts, attending meetings, supervising students, planning curricula, evaluating your courses, plodding away at endless admin related to all of this, and you’re probably doing other bits and pieces that are part and parcel of university life. If you’re in management I would imagine that there are many meetings, many policies and documents to engage with and read and discuss, and probably also people to manage and more endless, plodding admin work. So, chances are, if you are this kind of PhD student – the kind with a pretty busy job and life outside of work, that PhD time is already limited, and feelings of panic, despair, guilt and shame are probably just below the surface most of the time. This was certainly true for me.

These feelings, while they may well be a very real part of many PhD students’ journey, are dangerous though, because getting swallowed by them can really paralyse you and your progress towards your completed thesis. But how to avoid these feelings? I’m not sure you can. If your PhD is not the only thing you have on your plate (and whose reality is this, really?), chances you you will feel one or more of these feelings at one or more points during your PhD. So, perhaps the question is how to manage these feelings so that you don’t become paralysed and derailed.

Putting in place and drawing on your support systems is an obvious answer, I think. For some this may be a doctoral writing group with people in your university, or in your department. These kinds of groups can offer a space for support, and also for feelings of struggle, shame and paralysis to be shared and not swept under the proverbial rug. Sharing these feelings with colleagues who may be going through something similar often helps. At the very least, you are assured that it is not just you; at the most they may have helpful advice for you. If you have a supportive supervisor, as I was fortunate enough to have, sharing some of your present struggle with them may help too. Even if your supervisor is not as supportive as your peers and colleagues are, letting them know what’s going on with you in a way that makes you feel less exposed and more likely to get support (and you will have to work this way out for yourself) is a good idea. Keeping the person (or people) tasked with guiding you through your PhD in the dark is probably not a great strategy, and their requests for progress reports and writing in the absence of understanding that you’re in a difficult place can make you feel more guilty and desperate.

Another strategy I tried when I just could not make or find time for my PhD, which was sometimes for a few weeks at a time, was to keep scribbling in my personal research journal, even if it was just to take 5 minutes to write ‘awful week – hectic at work, so many deadlines. Just not getting anything done. Feel desperate’. Acknowledging my feelings and struggles, even to myself, made them less overwhelming somehow. It wasn’t all just in my head – by writing it down I could just accept that this was my reality at that time, and put my head down and try to get the other hectic things done so I could try and make time to work on my PhD. I think there is a lot to be said for verbalising (even in writing) a feeling or issue, and getting it out of your head, even to yourself. Journalling can be a very helpful tool during your PhD.

I think my last piece of advice to my struggling friend and to all PhD students in this place right now is to stop saying mean things to yourself about how little progress you are making and how unlikely it is that you will finish on time and how terrible a PhD student you are being right now. This will only feed those negative emotions and will probably also make you feel resentful of your PhD and the demands it will make on your time until it is finished. If you resent it, you are then less likely to want to go back and immerse yourself in it. So, STOP. Get a piece of paper or your own research journal and a pen out. Write: ‘Dear (your name), I know you are having a rough time right now, and time for writing is scarce. I know your head is full of other things. BUT, you can do this. You are a productive person. You work hard. You will finish me. Just take a deep breath, put your head down and get these other things done, and then make that time to get back to me again. All will be well. Love, your PhD’. Write something kind and encouraging. Then make a realistic list of the other things you have to do. With a red pen, list the things that are urgent, like exams that have to be marked or a report that must be in on a certain date. With a green pen, list the things that could be delegated (yes, delegated) or could wait until later on. Then, make that time for your PhD. It is there, although it seems buried deep beneath these other demands. Perhaps part of letting go of guilt and shame is also just letting go of having to be the one who does it all, and embracing being the one who can and does say no to things that can be done later or by someone else.

The challenges of writing papers out of your PhD

You have finished your thesis, handed it in, been examined and passed – well done! You are now a Dr. You can take a deep breath and relax now after all these years of hard work, right? Wrong. Quite wrong it seems. Now the work really starts – the work of Building Your Career. You have the magic pass that has swiped you into the hallowed inner circles of the academy, but resting on your laurels won’t keep you there or earn you the respect of your peers in the long term. You have to publish. You have to tell people, in very formal, recognisable ways, about your work and why it is noteworthy and important. You have to conference and write and network and write and have papers accepted by good journals and write some more. It’s all a bit exhausting to be honest, and right now I’m just thinking about it all rather than doing it all just yet!

I put in an abstract for a higher education conference earlier in the year and it was accepted. The full paper, in pretty good draft form, is due at the end of the month and the conference is a few weeks after that. I am paralysed. I cannot write this thing. So, instead, I am planning another paper about the challenge of writing a thesis. I have no data for this paper, no framework, just some brilliant and witty subheadings I dreamed up while writing my thesis and a few readings and notes under my belt. I have a LOT of work to do to get that paper written. By contrast, the paper I have to write for the conference has a full checklist because it’s a paper that is coming straight out of my thesis. Theory (check), methodology (check), data gathered, organised and analysed (check check check) – it’s all there and all I really have to do is select the relevant pieces of the chapter and hone them into a paper than makes one argument clearly and coherently. But, as mentioned, I am paralysed.

Why? This should not be so hard. Everything I need, I have. Even time. I have pretty much cleared my desk to give myself both headspace and physical hours in which to write and think about this paper. So why I am so stuck, so unable to get going on even a draft? Pat Thomson, who has been such a big source of help for me through her own writing, wrote a post on her blog, Patter, a while back about the challenges of getting out of the ‘big book thesis’ and into papers that are much smaller and more discrete things. A paper can only make one small argument – most journals will only give you 6,000 words in which to say what you have to say. So you have to be really focused. A big book thesis by contrast gives you between 80,000 and 100,000 words to make your argument – you can bring in a lot of explanation, discussion, data etc. You don’t have to be that brief. You can be a bit verbose and be forgiven for that. So there’s that – having to be that brief and focused just seems really difficult and too much hard work right now. You may say that I am not quite ready to do the hard work of selecting and whittling and murdering ‘my darlings’*.

This is connected to another potential stumbling block Pat mentions in getting out of the big book and into papers – choosing your focus and leaving out all the extra detail. She says, and this really makes sense to me at the moment, that during and right after your PhD you are all about the big book (if this is the kind of thesis you are writing), with the emphasis on ‘big’ – lots of space to show your readers this, and also this and also these other things so that they can really appreciate the length and breadth and depth of the work you have done. So in planning this paper (and possible others), I find myself struggling to select only a few parts of the theory, because don’t I also need to explain  why I chose this theory and not another, and where it comes from and why it’s so useful and also my own background for doing this research, and, and, and…? All of this is so necessary, so vital. If I leave these pieces out you may not think I have done enough work – you may not believe my claims.

I think coming out of a PhD thesis, where you have been tying so many strands together for such a long period of time, this is a common issue. What to leave out and what to include in a paper that is less than half the length of one chapter is a tricky thing to work out. Slicing your big argument up into smaller arguments you can make is not easy. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. I think it does take time to get enough distance from your PhD to start to see the different smaller arguments you could make, and also how to carve up and rework parts of your big book to make these smaller papers clear and coherent. Is 6 months enough time? It feels like it should be. I think my work is important and I do want people in my field to read about it and challenge me and agree with and, dare I hope for it, cite me. So, I’d better get over my paralysis and start writing. But for today, maybe just this blogpost; tomorrow I’ll start the paper.

*With thanks to Stephen King for this phrase.