Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)

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If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.

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If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.

 

Can you quit your PhD?

I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine a few weeks ago about her PhD, which is floundering a little at the moment and is a source of great stress and anxiety right now. Rather than something she looks forward to working on, her PhD is a millstone around her neck, and she is seriously wondering if she can or should carry on with it in its present form. Earlier this week I logged in to Facebook to hear that another friend has deregistered from her PhD studies for the time being, taking a break of indefinite length. So, I have been wondering: can you quit your PhD, and if you do, how do you make that decision okay for yourself?

I wrote last year about my own struggles early on in my PhD with finding a balance between it and my life and work, and how I suspended my studies before eventually coming back to them. I think that, as a PhD student who has already invested your self, time, money and also often your family’s/friend’s time (and either their or a funder’s money) in your studies, the decision to stop and walk away is never one you can make impulsively or lightly. There are several things you may have to consider, over and above your own feelings, desires and struggles. This post is a tough one to write, because I would never want to discourage a PhD scholar who is already feeling discouraged. But I think that we don’t really talk about this issue very much; rather the dominant discourses focus on saying some version of ‘Just get it done, it’s just a PhD. Just finish it, and everything will be fine. Hang in there, come on, you can do this!’ It’s great to give and get this kind of encouragement, but sometimes, it’s not helpful when a PhD student can’t ‘just do it’ and really needs to at least consider, for a range of reasons, deregistering and moving on to other things.

So what do you do if you, or a friend/colleague/PhD supervisee, is sitting on this fence, and wondering: ‘Can I quit my PhD? Should I quit? Will I be okay if I do?’ Perhaps a useful place to start is with all of the things you/your person needs to consider. For example, are you paying for your PhD yourself, or do you have funding? If you have funding, are there stipulations in the fine print about reimbursing the funder if you do not complete your PhD? These are big considerations if you are paying a lot of money for your PhD, and if you have funding that comes with expectations of completion in a certain period of time. If you or a family member are paying for your studies, this is perhaps an easier call because the financial obligations can be more flexible. However, if you do need to take time off, or even walk away from your PhD completely, consider approaching your funder and negotiating as far as possible with them. Perhaps there is a plan to be made.

Another big consideration (one that really troubled me when I considered quitting my PhD) was the investment I had already made in the PhD – my identity, my self, my time. But I had not done this alone. I had asked my husband, children and family to invest with me: in encouraging me, supporting me, making compromises and sacrifices on my behalf to enable me to have time to work on my PhD. They believed in me. How could I walk away and let them all down? How could I let myself down? My feelings of shame and failure were also compounded by my own perfectionism, and the sometimes stupidly high standards to which I hold myself. I needed, in making my decision to suspend and walk away temporarily, to separate my own needs and investments from theirs, and tell myself that, while they were undoubtedly in this with me, they were not actually doing the PhD. That was all on me, so I needed to make this decision for me, and not for them. I reasoned that if I was okay with my decision, they would eventually be okay too. If I was miserable, they would certainly have suffered with me.

A third consideration is the reasons for which you are doing the PhD. Is it for primarily professional reasons: you need a PhD in order to be recognised formally, awarded research funding, promotions and status? Is for primarily personal reasons: having one or not will not make an enormous difference in your working life, but you are personally driven by a desire to complete a PhD, and gain from the experience in terms of your own development as a scholar and a thinker? In my experience thus far, working with colleagues who are doing PhDs as well as with postgraduate student-writers, it’s always a bit of both, although one set of reasons is usually a bit more prominent than the other. I do think, as someone who did the PhD to get ahead professionally, but also because I really wanted to do it for myself, that focusing on my personal, intrinsic motivations and reasons helped me to find my way back to my PhD, and helped me to sustain my motivation to complete it through the ups and downs that followed my re-registration. Focusing on the extrinsic pressures made me feel resentful, pressured and sulky. I felt I was being forced into something that did not completely fit into my life as a working mother. I felt cross that I should even need a PhD to be taken seriously, when I had other valuable experience and input to offer. I am not sure I would have had the PhD journey I did if the external reasons for the PhD were my sole focus. I think coming back would have been harder, and I would have taken longer to complete my thesis.

The point of this post is not to tell any students that they should, or should not, quit their PhD. A PhD is a big, all-consuming, intense thing to take on, and the amount of yourself that a thoroughly researched and well-written PhD demands is huge. But, if you are on this fence, feeling stuck and wondering if quitting will free you or make things harder in the long run, perhaps working through these considerations will be a helpful starting place in making your own decision about how to carry on from here. I would like to say, though, that if you do quit your PhD, you will be okay. A PhD is, in the end, a qualification (as someone on Twitter said recently); it’s not an identity itself, it’s not you, and it’s not what makes you worthy of recognition.