This much I know : reflections on the PhD process thus far

Back when I started my PhD, I remember doing a lot of looking online for articles. My search terms were something along the line of “Good god, what have I got myself into” and “What exactly is a PhD anyway” ? It, as you may imagine, was a fairly fruitless search. I found articles written in some sort of foreign language talking about praxis and methodologies and vivas; and I didn’t, really, understand them. I understood bits; fragmentary, terrifying bits, but the whole escaped me.

And so, when I started the PhD, I felt a little like Lucy must have when she took those first few steps into Narnia. Scared. Nervous. Excited. Confused. (Wait – a lampost?) Also I had, and still sometimes have, a very British sort of ‘gosh, am I really good enough to take this one I’m not sure that I am maybe I should just tell them they made a mistake’ sort of feeling, which really needs one word to describe it. (Wait: Imposter Syndrome. That’s probably the best way to describe it).

So what I wanted to do with this post is to reflect upon the process and share with you some of my top tips. I’m conscious that a lot of people I’ve talked to both in person and online have experienced a similar journey. I’m conscious that there might be somebody out there like me who is desperate to dive into their subject but doesn’t really know where to begin. I’m conscious that I’ve met people who want to do a PhD but don’t really know what one is. This one is for all of you.

A PhD is a Privilege.

I think that’s the first thing to understand. You are working in an area of great interest (I hope) and you are getting the chance to jump into that each and every day. You are being allowed and enabled to go further and deeper into this subject than you’ve ever gone before. You can feel the shift. A sort of spine-tingling moment of walking into somewhere and knowing that you know how to navigate this world. Of reading something and seeing little spider webs of connections zoom out from each word. It’s a privilege to be able to do that. It’s a thrill, each and every day. And those moments when you suddenly see something connecting? They’re perfect.

A PhD is scary

It’s a privilege, yes, but it’s a scary one. Where do you begin with your research? Are you good enough to do it? That other first year you know on your course just accepted a Nobel prize whilst you’re still struggling to write a sentence. Should you read this book or that? What do you think of this theory? Is – was – should – might – there’s a thousand questions to answer every day on a PhD. And that is terrifying but here’s the thing – it’s something that you learn to handle. It’s something that your Supervisor will guide you through and help you decide upon. Don’t be afraid of listening to their advice. Don’t ever, ever, take it personally.

One thing I’ve learnt through working with my agent is the ability to let my writing be critiqued without taking it personally. She is amazing at helping me find the right space for my work and letting me know where it could be better. My supervisor is similarly excellent. The common factor here is that they are both committed to making my work as good as it could be. And that’s something that I’d tell anybody upon the PhD journey to remember. When you get bad feedback, it’s all about your work and your research. It’s not about you as a person (because, if it were, the likelihood is that you wouldn’t be on the course) Allow yourself the emotional moments of reaction. Have the chocolate bar. Time out. Build that break in.

And then come back to your work and make it better.

Because you can.

A PhD is intimidating

Having worked in library land and in the university environment before, I was and am aware of how both things work. Universities are strange and intimidating places. Libraries are intimidating (they shouldn’t be, but that’s a whole separate essay). It’s very easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond. And you quite probably are. There will be a lot of undergraduates, a lot of postgraduates and research students (that’s you) will probably be quite a small proportion of the university.

So. How to deal with that? Give yourself goals. Targets. Tell yourself to speak to one person a day that you’ve never spoken to before. Make yourself attend a lecture that’s not on your topic. Step outside of your comfort zone. Smile at people. You are not alone in this.

Give yourself a safe space. Find a desk in the library, a pile of books, a bench beside the lake and make it your own. Obviously, this will occasionally be occupied by other people and that’s one of the things you’re going to have to deal with. But when it’s not, when it’s just you and the trees or the books, make sure that you take a moment and breathe. Respect your needs and instincts. If you’re finding things hard, they quite probably are hard – but they won’t always be like that. Give yourself space. Respect yourself and your needs. Know your support structures (family, loved ones, that woman down the road in the cafe who always gives you extra cake). Know the support structures of the university. Don’t be afraid to use them.

And then come back to your work and make it better.

Because you can.

A PhD is unachievable

If you’ve got this far, if you’re attending interviews and having positive chats and maybe, just maybe, being accepted, then you’re doing great and I love you and good luck. If you’re still thinking “well, maybe, this is all great, but to be honest it still freaks me out and this is not helping” then this section is for you.

I attended a talk the other week about careers for research students and one comment made by a member of faculty stuck with me. She said, and I paraphrase slightly, “It’s not up to you to decide if you can or can’t do this. If we have offered you a PhD place then we think you are capable of achieving it.”  Yes. Exactly. Hold onto that thought when you think you can’t achieve this. Because you can.

Financially, it’s an immense commitment. I get that and I am incredibly lucky to be able to do this. I respect anybody who undertakes this commitment, especially mature students (yo) who may have left work in order to study. Don’t forget that there are a vast amount of people out there who want to and may be able to help you in financially supporting your studies: the university with bursaries and scholarships, professional bodies and other grant making trusts.

A PhD is achievable. I look back at the work I was doing a month ago, six months ago, and I can chart the progress of what I’m doing. I may still (I really do) have a lot of areas to work on but the progress, even to me, is remarkable. And I love it. I have my moments of hating it and of wondering what on earth am I meant to do now, but even above all of that, I love it. I love being able to study my passion. I love the fact that I’m scared and excited, all in the same breath. I love that there are moments when I think I’m going to be able to redefine children’s literature. I love that I can now navigate you across the UK with directions like “drive from Lyra’s bench in Oxford, through to the Abbey in the Whitby Witches and on the way we can stop at the toilet which features in Room 13£. I love that.

What else? Ah yes. Recognise your achievements. Recognise the fact that you went into the library, that you figured out how to top up your printing card, that you spoke to your supervisor and remembered every word, that you made legible notes in a class. Recognise how amazing and challenging this experience is and recognise how much of a privilege it is to be navigating these waters every day.

And then go back to your work and make it better.

Because you can.

Good luck.

3 thoughts on “This much I know : reflections on the PhD process thus far

  1. This is so lovely and encouraging! I am starting a PsyD in September, which is similar to a PhD, but I also do work placements and lectures/exams, so there’s a lot less time spent on research. I am currently freaking out (already) about the work placements, but I am going to try and bear in mind some of the things you have said here – especially the line about acceptance on the course = belief that you can complete it. Thanks!

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