Five Things I Wish I had Known Before Starting My PhD
Graduate Student Advice Month
Nobody really knows what is like to do a PhD until they do one. I am half way through mine and I still only half know what it is like to do one very specific PhD: my own. Everyone’s experience is unique to their own research topic, their own field site and their own personality, but many of the challenges, pressures and anxieties we encounter are more similar than we realise. We all seem to spend most of our time oscillating between contradictory emotions (hope and despair, enthusiasm and exhaustion, excitement and frustration), hoping that eventually all of this turmoil might (miraculously) become something worthy of calling a thesis.
I wouldn’t really call the following five things ‘advice’, and they are by no means a description of how I have been approaching my own research so far. At best, they are a few things that I now know I need to keep reminding myself of, and that other researchers might be able to identify with.
- You will be treated as an expert, whether you like it or not
I covered this in a previous post so I won’t dwell on it too much here, but I think it is worth reiterating. The moment people know you are doing a PhD, they will think you are smarter. Not necessarily smarter than anyone else, but smarter than they would have thought you were before. People start to treat you as an expert on anything that is vaguely related to the subject you are studying, even though you have only just started it. This can be a good thing at times because it helps you to gain access to places and spaces that might otherwise have been impossible, people take your opinions a bit more seriously, and you can use this newfound legitimacy to your advantage.
The problem, though, is that researchers seem to react to this in one of two ways; either they believe their own hype and become an overbearing, arrogant idiot who can’t even imagine a world in which they could be wrong, or they lose their confidence altogether, plummeting into the debilitating abyss of impostor syndrome.
I think the second of these is more common, and when people do project an overly confident demeanor it is often just an act (I personally reside in the world of the impostor but occasionally experience cringe-worthy moments in the realm of the arrogant idiot). The truth, though, is that we do (usually) know quite a lot about some things, and we shouldn’t shy away from that, but we should also remember that we are doing this because we want to understand something better, not because we already know all there is to know about it. We aren’t necessarily ‘experts’, but we do have some expertise. Though we may not have all the answers, sometimes we are asking better questions and are lucky enough to have the time to think about them in a little more detail than most people.
- Nobody will really understand what your research is about… including you
‘Cool! You are doing a PhD? What is about?’ At this point I either change the subject or answer in one of the following ways:
- “Anthropology… sort of”
- “I’m studying stuff to do with the environment”
- “I don’t really know… seriously, I am thinking about quitting. I don’t even know why I decided to do a PhD. I don’t want to talk about it…”
The reason I tend to answer like this is because I find it really, really difficult to explain what my research is about; partly because I am not entirely sure myself, and partly because I don’t know how to explain it in a way that the majority of people (most of whom don’t share my interests or experiences) will understand.
I know that when people ask this question, they are usually genuinely interested, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult. I want to explain it to people, but I never know where to start. Do people know what anthropology is (or do I, for that matter!)? Or where Ecuador is (the clue is in the name)? Am I going to have to get into a debate about climate change again? This last one doesn’t go down well in social situations, especially when everyone has had a few too many canelazos. Then sometimes you get someone who actually knows more about your thesis than you do, which makes you feel wholly inadequate. Or, worse still, someone who thinks they know more about it than you do and are going to make damn sure that they tell you exactly why you are wasting your time.
Someone suggested to me once that you should be able to define your research in one sentence. Obviously, a sentence can be long and convoluted, so maybe within the confines of a tweet might be better. My research in less than 140 characters might be described as – An anthropological study of how different people use power to gain control of forests and then use them to further their own political and economic agenda. I am not sure how useful this is, and I certainly wouldn’t actually use this sentence in real life, but it is a good starting point. After all, why spend years working on something that you can’t even talk about?
- Your research will not change the world
Well, it might change the world a little. It will change you (hopefully for the better). It will ‘contribute to knowledge’ (if it doesn’t, you won’t pass your PhD!). It might even have a direct and positive effect on the lives of some of the people you work with during your fieldwork, or it could even have an immediate influence on policy. What it won’t do, though, is make the world a very different place.
For me, this is frustrating, even though I knew it to be true long before I started my PhD. I had the same problem with my undergraduate and masters degrees; I wanted them to be profound and world changing, but of course, they never would be. The trouble is that most of us start researching the subjects we do because we see them as problematic. We are aware of injustice, and we want to do something about it. Sadly, it takes more than a few hundred pages of highly specific, academic babble to affect change on a global scale. If only it were that easy!
The truth is that many theses are never read by anyone other than the person who wrote them and those tasked with deciding whether they are good enough to be awarded a doctorate. If you do manage to publish, a handful of people with similar interests might read it, and undergrads will read the introduction and conclusion, then scan it for a pertinent (probably out of context) quote. But we aren’t writing bestsellers. I get more positive feedback from photos I put on Facebook than I have ever received for the work I have labored over for months or years at a time. If you need constant affirmation, you might find academia to be a thankless pursuit.
It is absolutely imperative that we as researchers acknowledge our limitations and accept them. This doesn’t devalue our work; it simply places it in its proper context. Each PhD thesis is a small part of an ever-expanding body of academic knowledge and, on a personal level, it is a step along our own paths toward understanding the world a little better.
- Time flies, even when you are not having fun
Three or four years seems like a long time, but it isn’t. Right now I am sat in the head office of the organization where I am conducting fieldwork. There is hardly anyone here, and those who are here are busy. I am using the down time to write this and do a few other bits and pieces that I have been putting off for a while. I am not really doing any ‘research’ today, and I didn’t do much yesterday either. It is far too tempting to let slow days like these turn into wasted weeks, and the time really does fly by. When things are going well, keeping momentum isn’t too difficult, and you can get a lot done in a relatively short time. But when things are hard, and without the ‘motivation’ of imminent deadlines (I have often wondered if the name derives from the feeling of impending doom that they elicit) it can be all too easy to avoid confronting your research challenges.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, UK PhDs tend to have strict time constraints. Gone are the days of anthropological studies that lasted decades, during which the researcher might disappear for months or years at a time, returning to their university to write up their thesis in a leisurely five years or so. Now we have three years, four if we are lucky, and it is daunting. I now have a little over a year and a half left and I am just beginning to feel like I am making some progress. If you are going to do a PhD, you had better hit the ground running because once the time and (possibly more importantly) the funding are gone there is no going back.
I am panicking just thinking about it!
- You are more than a thesis
We are researchers, but it isn’t all we are. Your thesis is not the only thing that matters, and you will probably produce better work if you are happier in other areas of your life. That said, I know a lot of people (myself included) have a tendency to lose sight of who they are and the things that matter to them while they are studying. Our minds become so occupied with this one thing that our health and wellbeing, our relationships, and our financial situations lose the constant battle for our time and energy. Sometimes it seems like these things don’t matter. We tell ourselves that we will just get through this and the other things will wait. But this is wrong for two reasons.
The first is that they won’t always wait. When you are away on fieldwork or locked away frantically trying to make sense of your research, if you don’t make the effort to contact your friends and family your relationships with them will suffer. People like to think that true friends will always be there, and that their families will understand, but it isn’t that easy. I severely underestimated how difficult spending almost six months away from my partner would be and how long it would take to get back to where we were before. Also, having let myself get into bad habits and not taking care of my physical health has been far more difficult to ameliorate than I had anticipated.
The second reason is that when these other things are going well, you will actually do better work. There are some people who seem willing to sacrifice everything for their research, and sometimes they do incredible work, but for me this is just not the way. If I feel healthy, if I eat well, sleep well, and get some exercise, I find it easier to focus on my work. If I speak to my friends and family regularly and take time off to do fun things the problems I have with my work seem easier to overcome. If I take time to pursue my hobbies that have nothing to do with my research, I find that I think more clearly and actually enjoy my work a lot more.
If I could go back a couple of years and give myself some advice it would be this:
Doing a PhD isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only thing that matters. The key to getting through it without quitting or going crazy is to not overstate its importance while also not underestimating how much of an impact it can have on your life. Take care of yourself and your relationships with other people and your work will not seem so overwhelming. Don’t be too critical of yourself; you must be ok at this stuff if you’ve got this far! But don’t let it go to your head either, there are far more things you don’t know than things you do know. No, your thesis won’t bring about a global revolution, but it can have a profound impact on you and maybe even on a few other people. If you continue into an academic career, your thesis won’t be the best work that you ever do, and when you look back on it (with any luck) you will see it as a process of personal development, in much the same way as you already view your undergraduate and masters degrees.
Of course, your experience won’t be the same as mine, but if I had thought more about these things before I started my PhD I might have avoided some of the anxieties and personal crises that accompany us on the journey to completing our doctoral research.