It was this blog’s 3rd birthday on Monday. I planned to put up this post then, but the day got away from me and then my son became ill and yesterday was a write-off. So, I am trying to get this out today. All this busy-ness and missing this milestone has had me thinking about why and when and how we should mark milestones during a PhD or similar process, and celebrate our achievements, both big and small.
There are a few particular milestones during a PhD (or MA) that should be celebrated. There is getting into the programme of your choice—big box tick there. There is having your proposal approved—definitely cause for champagne or a celebratory beverage of choice. Or cake :-). Then there is the über-milestone of handing in the first full draft and then the copy for examination and then the final meisterwerk to be lodged in the library ahead of graduation.
But there are also smaller milestones along the way that may not be celebrated or seen as cause for celebration in quite so obvious a way. Here, I am thinking of completing chapter drafts, even before your supervisor tells you this draft is finished for now and you can move on to the next step. I am thinking of writing 500 words in a week where you have a thousand other things to do and time is at a premium and your brain is tired. I am thinking of getting a lovely comment of praise on your writing from a supervisor or a critical friend. These are, I would argue, also milestones or significant steps forward in your research journey or process, and thus deserve a form of recognition and celebration as well.
Rewards (and punishment)
When you make time to recognise these steps forward, even if they seem small in comparison to big leaps like proposal approval and finishing a full draft or final thesis, you are saying that you have done something of value. You have written 500 words you are happy with or you have battled through a difficult patch of life and work and still created a draft of a chapter that you are proud of. Whether or not external recognition from supervisors is forthcoming, you need to be able to see, and reward, your progress.
I didn’t reward myself during my PhD as much as I think I could have, though. I think, far more, I berated myself for not making enough progress or for not writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 more words. Instead of consciously rewarding myself, I tended towards punishment. As in ‘you haven’t written enough this week, so no weekend for you!’ This was, as you might imagine, counter-productive, as the more I punished myself, the worse I felt about my PhD and the more I felt resentful of its intrusion into my down time. This led to paralysis and fear of the PhD and the writing and this just made me (and everyone around me) miserable.
Rewards can be big or small, but they need to be meaningful to you. They need to create the impetus for you to push forward to the next reward. When I did give myself a reward or praise, these were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, going out for a coffee and a slice of cake, or giving myself permission to binge on a favourite show for a weekend. These things were small, but they made me feel supported and encouraged. They were my way of saying ‘well done!’ to myself. I still use most or all of these rewards to motivate and cheer myself on.
So, to celebrate…
I thus want to argue, here, that you need to be celebrating yourself, your writing and your achievements, big and small, throughout your PhD. You need to be your own biggest cheerleader, recognising what to others may seem like a very little step—ONLY 500 words?—as a pretty big step in a slow week full of meetings and sick kids and school events and so on. You need to be celebrating these small but significant milestones (or yardstones if you prefer), rather than punishing yourself for not doing more. If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, the small steps are big and they keep you pressing on (as long as they are close enough together to create momentum and motivation).
I now reward myself regularly for what I regard as my writing achievements. But, I have to make the reward the same size as the achievement. If I have finished a paper and sent it to a journal, I can have several episodes of favourite show and cake. If I wrote the introduction of the paper, I can have an evening off and time with my novel or knitting. If I make the reward too big, especially if it includes time away from writing and reading, then I tend to struggle to get back into it and the reward works against me continuing on with the momentum. So, you need to be realistic, and measured and have your eye on your goals, your timeframes and your levels of energy and motivation as you plan your down time, your rewards and your celebrations. But, celebrate yourself you must! To steal a line from L’Oréal: ‘You’re worth it!’