Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

Photo by Abel Tan Jun Yang from Pexels

Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.

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)

stefan-on-paper-road-bumps

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.

mother-nature-network-heart-book

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.

 

On celebrating achievements and marking milestones

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.

happy-birthday-blogMilestones 

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 uber-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 even 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. 

greatjobRewards 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. My rewards were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, or 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 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 writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 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.

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. minions-celebrating

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. 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’Oreal: ‘You’re worth it!’ 

Seeing feedback and peer review as a gift rather than a curse

I have been in the fortunate position of sending off five papers recently that I have been working on for the last several months – a mix of single and co-authored work. The upside is that I have lots to report to my postdoc funders and I have learned even more about writing for publication; the downside is that I am going to be receiving a flurry of feedback on these papers within quite a short space of time, and will have to ingest, consider and respond to this feedback like a grown-up. This part I am feeling apprehensive about.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback, as many of us know, is not easy to receive and hear, even when it is positive. Feedback means more thinking, more reading, more writing; in short, feedback almost always points to more work. Most of the time, when you are finished with a paper or a chapter and you send it off you just would like to be done with it. You have other writing to be getting on with and other things to be doing. Yet, the paper or chapter will come back, with comments, suggestions, criticism and critique (although hopefully more of the latter). You, as the writer (on your own or with co-authors), will need to read all the comments and suggestions, probably a few times, note your responses, and then go back into that paper or chapter you would like to be done with and make changes, revise parts of it, do a little more reading, perhaps revisit data analysis, edit long sentences (if you’re me!). It can feel overwhelming, even when the overall thrust of the feedback is positive and the journal wants to publish your work, or your supervisor thinks you are almost there.

Cally Guerin has written about learning to see feedback on your writing as a ‘gift’ – as something that can enrich your thinking and writing, rather than take away from it. I like this idea – about giving and receiving feedback. I try, whenever I see the email in my inbox indicating that an editor has reached a decision on a manuscript I have submitted, or a critical friend has read and commented on my work, to remember this: that they are trying to give me a gift. They are offering me another opportunity to think about and revise my work to make it stronger, clearer and more persuasive and convincing to readers.  Even if the decision is to reject this version of my paper, the peer reviewers are not trying to break me down and make me feel terrible about my writing. Rather, they are offering me their insight as readers who would be interested in reading my paper, and perhaps using it in their own research. They are offering me a way of seeing my own work through their eyes, and comments and suggestions that can help me to clarify vagaries, shorten long sentences, bring out my contribution more firmly and so on.

I know that not all supervisors or peer reviewers use their powers for good: there is much feedback students and writers receive that is criticism, and is hurtful, unkind and unhelpful. But, as a journal editor of a few years’ standing, and a writer who is becoming braver at sending my work out to journals that is now receiving feedback, I can say that most peer reviewers really do want to help you develop your ideas and make your paper even better. Most peer reviewers do see their role as giving writers feedback that is a gift, rather than a curse. I spoke to a colleague recently, for example, who has reviewed many articles and supervised many students, and always asks himself: ‘Is the writing ready to publish/move on from? If yes, is there anything that can be improved further, and if no, why not and how could this writer get there?’ If supervisors and peer reviewers worked with a version of these questions, and I believe many do, they would certainly be offering writers new ways to re-read and revise their own work.

www.crossfitlondon.ca The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

http://www.crossfitlondon.ca
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

For me, the challenge is always confronting myself, my own fears, insecurities and beliefs about myself as a researcher and writer. Even when reviewers are positive, I hone in on the negative. I read reviews with fear and trepidation, always prepared for them to say the worst about my writing. I am invariably surprised – even papers that have been rejected have garnered some positive praise, and following the reviewers’ advice tends to build my research up, makes my papers better, and makes me prouder of them and myself. So, I am learning to believe that I have something to say that is of value; that I can make a contribution to my field that people will want to read. It is an ongoing battle, but what I have learned is this: the more you ask for feedback, from the right kinds of people – people who are your readers and would be interested in your work – and the more you work with that feedback to see the strengths and flaws in your writing and develop it further, the easier it gets. Like the Little Engine that could, the more you think you can and try on that basis, the more you can actually accomplish. The writing gets a little less difficult and onerous the more you write, and the feedback gets a little less scary the more you read it, engage with it, and accept it as a gift that will ultimately make you a better writer.

On being down (and not quite being ready to get back up)

There are different ways to be down during a PhD, Masters, or postdoctoral fellowship. You can be down in terms of writing time, just struggling to get words onto a page; you can be down in terms of your mood, feeling low and tired and unable to carry on. You can also be down on your luck, if data gets lost, supervisors change institutions, or funding applications fall through.

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

I am currently down. I have two blog posts half-written that I cannot seem to finish. I have two papers that have come back from reviewers with mainly positive comments, and suggestions for fairly minor and quite manageable revisions. I have odds and ends that need doing. But even though all of this is actually quite manageable in size and scope, I just cannot seem to do anything. All I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Bones’, and maybe check my email from time to time and send a response or two.

I am worried about this down-turn in my desire to be productive and energetic about my research. Because, while I have all these little manageable things to do, there are much bigger things waiting: a book that needs to now be written, an edited to book to finish putting together and finalising, a mountain (no I exaggerate not) of raw data that needs to be catalogued, organised, coded and fed back to research participants before year-end. I am worried that if I keep lying on the couch, I will not only lose the will to do the small things, but the bigger things will stall as well.

I remember feeling like this during my PhD, especially towards the end of each of the three years, as I took time off over Christmas and then struggled to get going again in the new year. I am trying, now, to remember how I got myself up then, because I am battling with feeling unable to really get up now, and also wondering if I want to get up. The work waiting is SO much. I am not finding it easy to take my own advice, and just get up and going again.

What do you do when you have lost your work mojo? I tell myself: just do it. Just sit down and do the revisions. Just sit down and finish the blog posts. Just sit down and work. But then I open my email, and fritter away my mornings sans children with silly things that are not getting my work done. Interestingly, I don’t feel as ashamed of this down-turn and what can only be described as laziness as I have in the past. Perhaps I am finally getting better at being kind to myself? Maybe. Perhaps I really am just tired, and my body and brain are recognising that I do need a rest, and they’re taking it. Either way, the mojo is on hold, and while I am not terribly shamed by my non-productivity of late, I am still worried that if I don’t un-funk myself soon, I will get stuck for longer than I can afford to get stuck.

I am sure I will now, as I have in the past, get up. Downs are certainly part of the journey – any journey – as we seldom travel along flat and easy paths only. A PhD, a paper, a book – these are definitely full of highs and lows and everything in-between. I don’t have any good advice for myself today. I just have kindness, a mental hug, and a commitment to at least open one of the the papers that has to be revised, and make a list of things I have to do to finish it. And hope, hope, hope that the mojo will kick in on Monday.