What Does Work Look Like?

A PhD’s a weird thing. Well, a dissertation in any format is a weird thing, whether that’s your undergrad thesis or your MA dissertation. Or your PhD.

There’s the parts you know about: reading articles/books/reports, doing field work, analyzing data, meeting your supervisors, taking part in department events, going to conferences, writing your chapters, etc.

Then there’s the part no one seems to know about when they start.

You will spend an inordinate amount of time doing seemingly nothing.

Before you laugh at me, or hit your browser’s back button, give me a minute.

I said seemingly. You are, of course, doing something, it just doesn’t look like it to an outside observer. This is the hardest part of the PhD work. Because, at the end of an eight-hour day you have nothing to show for it. Nada. Niente. You have no words on your computer. You have no prettily highlighted articles. You have no data graphs.

Everything you have is in your head and you can’t for the life of you show that to anyone.

But that’s okay, because it’s in your head. Most of your PhD will be in your head. However you write, some of your thesis will exist in your head before you ever put it down on paper/computer. That’s normal. It does not mean you have done no work today. If all you did today was put 2 and 2 together and get 4, then congrats. You’ve had a good day; go out and celebrate (or stay in and celebrate).

I had days and days and days I had nothing to show for myself except things in my head. Some days, the only work I did was working an issue/question/data point out in my head. Or spending a week really pinning down exactly how I understand such and such a theory and how it relates to my PhD.

Reading is great. Do lots and lots of that. But what you read has to be good for something, and you can’t just read an article and go ‘done!’ and move on. You have to sit (or stand or lie) down and think about how that article relates to your research. How can you incorporate it into your topic? Where does it fit into your chapters? How does it impact your field work? Thinking has no obvious output, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

It makes it more valid. So go on, think away. It’s the only way your going to work everything out anyways. And if, by the end of the day, you don’t have a single thing to show for it, smile. You still had a good day’s work.

[If you are like me and you are a ‘plan ten time, do once’, then you probably wrote your entire thesis in your head before you got it onto paper. Which means, you spent A LOT of hours seemingly doing nothing. That’s okay. At the end of the day, you spent as much time working on your thesis as anyone else. It just means that, instead of rewriting your chapters 15 times, you probably only did it 2 or 3. But before that, you spent months thinking up the perfect phrasing for that paragraph in Chapter 4. Which is good, because you’re particularly proud of that phrasing.]

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