I follow ‘Shit Academics Say’ on Facebook, and the inspiration for this post comes from a post on their feed (similar to the image below).
PhD students have such a range of experiences of, and feelings about, doing their PhDs. A basic sense of human psychology tells us that repressing emotions and feelings, positive or negative, can lead to people feeling alone, odd, alienated, stuck, and depressed. As Meg Ryan said to Kevin Kline in ‘French Kiss’: ‘Express, not repress!’ So, these PhD experiences and emotions need to be expressed, preferably to those who will listen and be able to offer support, and even guidance or useful help. But, in giving voice to these feelings and experiences, it is worth thinking about what we do say to ourselves about our PhDs and how we represent them to ourselves and to others. If our words can speak things into being – feelings or experiences – then our words about our research can be powerful tools that either pull us down or lift us up.
A quick glance into the world of what people are telling Google Search about their PhDs yields this result:
Other than the rather fun suggestion about a PhD in dance, the three options Google chooses to autocomplete this sentence with are negative: ‘worthless’, ‘boring’, ‘killing me’. The options Google selected are based (if I understand how this works accurately) on how many times people have typed these words into Google to search for resources or help. Why are so many PhD experiences (if this snapshot is any kind of indication) so negative? Why is the PhD more often than not framed as a long, arduous, lonely trudge, as opposed to a challenging, stimulating and ultimately empowering thing? Why is there not, in the more popular discourses around PhD study, more of an emphasis on what the PhD offers a scholar; the ups rather than the downs? People have done research that answers some of these questions, and I’d like to use this post to offer some of my thoughts on why this might be.
I represented my own PhD in different ways at different points. Early on it was a millstone, a source of great anxiety and stress. Around the proposal stage I felt quite excited as my plans took shape and I could see what lay ahead, even though I was still anxious about whether I could actually do what I was proposing. Writing the theoryology was mostly tough, and I said lots of unrepeatable things about the theory, my PhD and academia in general. I was mostly anxious, with small bits of delight in writing a section that looked and sounded really ‘Dr-ish’. Generating data and transcribing it was mainly tedious, although the analysis and writing of the ‘findings’ chapters was actually enjoyable, because it brought all the theory to life. This is a small snapshot of my representation of my PhD. There was constant anxiety, really (I am an anxious person generally), but over and above this there was exhaustion, stress, uncertainty on the ‘minus’ side, and delight, enjoyment, learning and satisfaction on the ‘plus’ side.
A PhD can’t be all plus or all minus, I don’t think. It takes too long to just be one or the other. Although some of my colleagues have loved their PhDs overall, they experienced tough, lonely and frustrating patches. And those who have had a hard time overall have also had moments, even small, where they have felt enlightened, stimulated and elated, even (think of that call to say the proposal was accepted, or being told a chapter draft is done for now because it’s good enough and you can move on to the next one). But the minuses, and Inger Mewburn has made this point in her writing, are often easier to talk about with others than the plusses – perhaps because of the more general discourses around PhDs that highlight the struggles over the enjoyment.
In some ways, it felt to me at times that I needed to make my PhD more of an enemy than I generally felt it was in order to be ‘in’ with colleagues who were struggling. I did not feel I could sit with them and say, ‘Oh, I love my PhD. I am really enjoying it right now. The writing is going so well!’ when they were saying versions of ‘My supervisor is so distant. I have no support at work. I can’t do this anymore’. I could complain about being tired, frustrated, confused, and discouraged at various points, and I certainly did. But I felt hesitance at representing my PhD in more positive terms in front of certain audiences, especially other students who were having a tough time. I am sure I was not alone in feeling this hesitance and, at times, even talking my PhD down rather than up so as not to alienate myself.
We all represent, and misrepresent, our PhDs in different ways and for different reasons: to fit in, to gain a sense of solidarity, to find empathy and care, to work through what we are feeling and try to move past especially negative feelings and experiences. The issue for me is this: if you feel like you spend more of your time talking your PhD and by extension yourself down, you are almost certainly putting up obstacles to completing your research successfully, and you are probably increasing your anxiety and misery. I am not advocating that you start lying to yourself and others and saying your PhD is fabulous when it really is not. If you struggling, and you need help, care and support, you need to be able to ask for it. But, I think I am saying that (hopefully) it’s not all doom and gloom all the time. There are reasons you took this on, and motivations you have, and these could be framed more positively to focus you on your ‘ups’, for example the learning and intellectual growth you experience, the connections with communities of scholars, either face-to-face or virtually, and the personal sense of achievement in taking on and succeeding at such a challenging undertaking.
If you are battling to see the light, consider starting a research journal: write to yourself not just when you are down and your PhD is boring or killing you, but also when you are up: have had a good meeting with your supervisor, or a supportive coffee with fellow PhD students, or a productive writing day. Talking your PhD up more often, to yourself and others, may help to mitigate against the downs, and may contribute to you feeling less burdened by the PhD, and more engaged by, and in, it on the whole.