We Interrupt This Program

Owing to the fact that I’ve not been on holidays (at all – usually I work 6-7 days a week on various projects) I will be away this week on a technology-free vacation. Alas, my schedule did not allow time for me to draft a blog post for you and schedule it for posting ahead of time. These things happen, and as PhD students (or potential students, or former students) I’ve no doubt you understand.

Hopefully there will be a blog post for September 12th. I say hopefully, as I am not back until the 10th and have a near whole-day event the 11th. But one tries one’s best.

Feelings of Inadequacies

In the last couple of days, several people I know have brought up (separately) the fact that for kids these days there is very much a ‘everyone’s a winner’ culture. I never had that growing up. You won or you lost. You got first place or you got second or you were the runner up. Or you were everyone else that tried hard and didn’t get a ribbon. Or you were 10th in your class. There weren’t ‘participation’ awards. Showing up was not enough; you had to try your hardest. And even if you did, that was no guarantee of doing well. 

This culture of my childhood taught me that hard work was the only way to get ahead in life. Showing up to life was not going to make you successful. You had to work for it. And sometimes you were going to fail. And that’s good. Failure is how you learn. If you are told that no matter what you do is good and okay and you get a shinny ribbon for it, you are never going to want to try harder. You are never going to do better. You are never going to work.

I learned that if I didn’t work, I didn’t get ahead. That understanding carried me through four university degrees. I look at kids these days and I’m not sure if they have it in them to get through life. I’m not sure they have a working culture and a try harder culture built into them.

But I’m not a teacher. I’m not even a parent. And I’ve been told time and again that that means I don’t get to make comments about what’s good for children.

[We’re ignoring the fact I was a child once.]

But what I do know is that the reality of life is stark and brutal. It’s not all participation awards. It’s not all ‘show up and get a pat on the back’. There are times that no matter how hard you try in life it won’t be enough. You’ll fail the exam. You’ll miss the award. You will just not get the thing because there are 300 people trying for the thing and only one person is going to get it. And someone’s going to just flip a coin to figure that out. You can try your hardest; life can still be down to luck of the draw.

I’m not sure they teach that nowadays. But I’m grateful I learned it early on in life. I’m doubly grateful because I grew up with a lot of opportunities and a lot of chances, and a above average IQ. I grew up with good schools and good support systems. But that doesn’t automatically equate to ‘fantastic easy life’. Reality doesn’t work that way.

So I try my hardest in what I do. And I know that sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes it will never be enough. But I know that. And when I do ‘fail’ I’ve learned not to blame myself. If I did my best, then that’s all I can do. Sometimes failure happens anyways. Sometimes you lose anyways. Not everyone wins.

But there’s this one part of a PhD that didn’t mesh with that. That I struggled with all the way through. Because I knew some people were just not meant to do a PhD. Some people don’t have the opportunity and/or the work ethic to do it. Some people aren’t meant for university in general. That’s fine. I wish they told more kids that, because maybe fewer would get to university and flunk out, because they are told all along that you must go. But I digress.

The thing that never quite meshed with my understanding that people do ‘fail’ or leave their PhDs is that, even though I was trying my hardest, even though I knew I might not get my PhD, I felt failure. Constant failure. I felt that I was to blame. I felt that I wasn’t good enough. It was the first time I had tried my damnedest in life and still felt…not good enough. Still felt like I was losing. That I was failing. And I blamed myself.

This perpetual feeling of inadequacy hung over my head for four years. And I know it hangs over the heads of many other PhD students. It’s one of those things we don’t really talk about. The feeling that no matter how hard we try, we’re still not good enough to be here. To be doing this. To get our PhDs. In ours heads, we already feel a bit like we’ve failed, before we ever even get far enough in our PhDs to do any actual ‘failing’.

It’s hard to deal with that psychologically. It’s hard to live with that day in and day out. If you fail at something and you did your best, you can work through that. You will probably still be disappointed, but if you did your best, you did your best.

During a PhD, doing your best never feels good enough. You always feel like you should be working harder (even though you know you can’t). You feel like everyone else around you is better at this than you are. You constant feel like a failure.

People who have never been to university or never done a PhD seem to wonder why doing a PhD is so stressful. Why people have breakdowns or leave their PhDs half-finished. Or end up depressed.

I’ll tell you why. Because feeling like a failure every day is impossible to live with and not suffer consequences. Because no matter what you tell yourself in your head, that feeling doesn’t go away until you are holding your PhD degree in your hand. And by then, you’ve dealt with it for years. And the consequences of it.

This post is not meant to be overly optimistic. But what it is meant to do is to tell all of you people out there doing your PhDs, who feel like they aren’t good enough to do it, aren’t good enough to get it, aren’t good enough to be there, that you most definitely are. If you do your best, that’s what matters. And like everything else in life, doing your best does not automatically equate to success. But doing your best is all you can do, and you need to tell yourself that every day. It’s enough for you. It doesn’t matter what the result is. You deserve to be doing this. You deserve to be there. Whatever happens, work your very hardest every day and do your very best, and forgive yourself for what comes next. It’s not your fault. You are most certainly adequate.

 

Methodologies

This post will not be about all the types of methodologies you can use in your PhD work. That really is for you to research and uncover. It is a main part of the PhD work, particularly if you are in the sciences. Methodology is also very particular to a project, and no two PhD theses will have the same exact methodology, unless you are purposely trying to recreate a project previously done.

What this blog post will be about is how to talk about your chosen methodology(ies). It is often a separate chapter in the thesis (definitely if you are STEM). It is also, usually, the second easiest part of your PhD to write, next to the literature review. The Lit Review is about reviewing other people’s research. The Methodology chapter is about talking about what methods someone else has already created that you have chosen to use for your thesis. Once again, it’s mainly other people’s research and how it can work for you.

Some people start with the methods chapter. That’s fine. Really, whatever works best for you, as we’ve <a href=”https://phdingfordummies.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/the-order-of-the-thing/”>previously</a&gt; covered.

Having said that, perhaps where we really need to begin is with a definition or two.

Method: a form of procedure for accomplishing something.

Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular study.

In other words, you use a method in your work, and those methods make up your methodology.

Some people only use one method for their research study, which is fine. That still makes up your methodology.

Some people use several.

I used four. Never* ever do that.

*No, you can, just realise it’s going to be a headache and a half.

I had two methods for collecting data, one for analysing it, and a method I used to structure my thesis. But I’ve never chosen to do things easily.

I also did not have a methodology chapter. This is more common in the humanities. I had a chapter where I talked about method, but as it was a method taken from a theory, the chapter was more about the theory and why I was using it, and what the method was. More Lit Review than Method in the end.

My Methodology therefore formed a part of my Intro chapter (nearly half of it, in fact). That’s okay too. Whatever works for your thesis is what you should do. Always discuss things with your advisor/supervisor, who can give you direction as to weighting and wordage.

Methodology in the thesis itself is all about what methods you employed for your work, why you chose those methods, and how those methods lead you to your conclusions/results. It’s pretty straight forward, and writing the chapter in that order is best. Usually, the last part of that chapter ‘how those methods lead to results’ is what leads you into the rest of your thesis where you talk about the data you collected and the results of that data. Think of the methodology chapter here as sort of a ‘this is what’s coming’. Your thesis is not about dramatic reveals. You give away your results in your introduction. Usually within the first couple of pages, but at least by the end of the chapter. By the time your reader gets to your methods chapter (generally, but not always, after your Lit Review), they already know what your thesis is about and what your conclusion is. At least, they have if you wrote it correctly!

Don’t stress about this chapter. It should not take that much time. In STEM, methodology is more important and will be a big focus for your examiners, because method is so particular to research. In Humanities, it’s going to be less important than your results are. So focus on your analysis and results chapters (and your intro and conclusion chapters, because those are often what get read first). That’s not to say you shouldn’t spend time on the methodology chapter, but don’t let it run away with you. It should not be overtly long (again, unless you are STEM and even then, most of your thesis will be graphs, charts and other results/findings) or overly complicated.

Straightforwardly tell the reader why you picked these methods and why they worked for your research. Use theory, talk about how other researchers have used these methods, etc., but don’t go off topic into your results or your analysis. That’s what later chapters are for.

 

Post-Viva Feelings

Following up on the previous posts (here and here) about preparing for your viva, and the day of the viva, here comes the ‘what happens after your viva ends?’

You will probably be conflicted, unless you managed to breeze through with no amendments. Then you will just be smiling so hard you’ll worry your face will hurt tomorrow. That’s good. Keep doing that. Who cares if it hurts tomorrow? It’s worth it.

If you aren’t one of the lucky ones (i.e., you’re most people), then the moment your viva is over is going to bring all sorts of feelings you can’t really classify. You don’t have to classify them. You don’t even have to understand them. Every single thing you feel after the viva is valid. There’s no ‘right way’ to feel afterwards. Some people, even with many amendments, might be absolutely thrilled. Some with only a few amendments might feel awful that they didn’t do better. A lot of that is going to be something you know going in. If you’re one of those people that wants to knock yourself over the head for getting one question on an exam wrong, you should probably prepare yourself for what you’ll experience if you get a list of amendments a page or more long.

Alternatively, if you are the type of person that’s just glad you passed, no matter how well you did, then you’ll probably be happy no matter how many amendments you got.

Also, if you spent the last six months of your Phd trying to figure out how you could justifiably quit, getting lots of amendments may feel like the worse thing ever, because it means you have to do MORE of your PhD, when you were so glad to be done with it at submission.

Whatever type of person you are, you should prepare yourself for what comes after. The viva is scary and stressful and wonderful, all at the same time, and how you react to it is important to understand going in, because it will make you more confident dealing with whatever happens in that room.

But equally, considering how you will feel if you pass magna cum laude, or if you end up with 12 months of amendments and a complete rethink of your thesis, will at least prepare you for the initial ten million thoughts that go through your head the moment your viva ends. And if you can understand how you will react to whatever the situation is, you’ll be more prepared for it.

I tried to be. I knew I was going to feel bad unless I walked out with no amendments, and since the chances of that happening were in the realm of winning the lotto (I assume), I knew I was going to be very conflicted when my viva ended. I didn’t really understand how conflicted I would be. The truth of the matter is that I had dozens of people congratulating me and the only thing I could think about was ‘I have to do another 6 months of this? Why didn’t I quit last year when I had the chance?’

I sipped champagne, went out for drinks, and spent three hours on a train staring into space, and by the time I went to bed that night all I wanted to do was cry. Cry because I’d just done the hardest thing I’d ever done in life…and it wasn’t over yet.

It’s a severe reaction. Most people are just happy to be done the really hard part of it. But, for me, doing amendments to my own work that were someone else’s idea of ‘correct’, was a lesson in sheer bloody determination. And the thought of graduating was the only thing that sustained me for the next 6 months. No, the amendments weren’t awful (most were really easy, and a few were really…well, anyways), but they were still things that had to be done, and they affected the whole thesis, so wording had to be changed, etc. That’s just as much work as editing your draft before submission is (maybe even more, depending on how good your draft was). I felt justified in my reaction, but I also felt horribly disappointed in myself that I wasn’t happier. That I couldn’t seem to get it through my head that I had a PhD. Because as far as I was concerned…I didn’t have a PhD. Not yet. And if I didn’t do the amendments in a much better way than I had – apparently – written my thesis, I would never have a PhD and 3.5 years would have been nothing but a waste of time.

So understand how you’ll react. Try to plan for it. For every eventuality. If you know you’ll react badly to amendments, decide how you’d rather spend your evening. If you know you’ll want to celebrate no matter the outcome, then plan a party. Have something that evening after the viva that you will enjoy, however the viva itself goes. And don’t feel you have to celebrate. If you don’t think you want to celebrate not-quite-but-almost-getting your PhD, then don’t. Even if others want you to.

It’s your day. You do whatever you need to to get through it. And survive tomorrow. Whether tomorrow is ‘I have a PHDdddddddd’ or ‘oh god, this list of amendments if four pages long’.

Mondays

It’s Monday, and I owe you a blog post.

Alas, it has been a rollercoaster for the last ten days and my emotions are simmering at interesting levels (either boil or off). It makes concentration rather difficult. In an effort to take some time, I ran off to a campground for a couple of days and managed to exhaust myself so much I’m still barely able to stay awake and I’ve been back for 24 hours (and slept for 9). Sometimes ‘getting away’ doesn’t always have the affect you hoped.

But I need to write something, and what better to write about (instead of the post on methodologies) than what to do when Real Life interferes with your PhD.

First, it’s okay to stop. Stop whatever you are doing and access the situation. Is the interruption something that will be a few days long? Or is it something that might seriously undermine the next year or more of your PhD? (Sick parent, pregnancy, severe illness, etc). How long the interruption will be has a big effect on how you should deal with that interruption.

I know people who seem – for some reason beyond comprehension – to believe that if they do not work every single weekday of their PhD life they are doing it wrong. I think we’ve had a lengthy conversation about work schedules already (see here and here), so please believe me when I say that if Real Life interferes for a week or two, just let it. Go deal with your RL issue and then get back to your PhD when you’re in the right frame of mind. A couple of weeks are not going to break you (or your thesis). And if it happens right before a deadline, immediately have a conversation with the people who set the deadline about changing it/moving it. Everyone in academia understands that there can be things that will interrupt research, but unless you are open about it, people are going to assume everything is fine.

If the break needs to be longer (for instance, if you were diagnosed with an illness that needed treatment or surgery), then be very upfront about this with your advisors. Talk to people. Tell them what is happening, what the expected outcome is, how long it might last. It is probably best to take either sick leave (if that’s an option for you) or a sabbatical (which will be an option if you’ve never taken one before). If you are a foreign student in a country, then you need to think about visa issues. Likely, you’ll have to return home because many countries don’t want you to stay if you aren’t a full-time current student, and sabbaticals mean you aren’t technically a student – but taking a break from being a student. Keep this in mind, but if this is the only reason you can’t take a sabbatical, you probably need to access how much time you are going to be away from your PhD. A couple of weeks is fine, a couple of months is going to be problematic. But don’t let that stop you taking the time. For whatever reason you need it.

I know people who have had to take time away, and they worry about ‘getting back to it’. If you are passionate enough to want to do a PhD, you’ll find that passion again, even after a time away. And, in fact, time away may actually help. As I’ve said, I took a short sabbatical from my own work, and it’s the only reason I was able to come back and finish the thesis. I needed that break for mental health reasons.

But whatever part of RL that interferes with your PhD, it’s all right. It happens. You aren’t a failure. You aren’t bad at this. You aren’t a sorry excuse for a PhD student. RL happens. We like to think it doesn’t, because we like to think that academia is RL for us, but being a student puts you slightly outside of the norm, and things do interfere with being a student in a different way than they would if – for instance – you were full-time employed as a professor. Then you can take grievance absences, sick days, sabbaticals, and it’s sanctioned. As PhDs, you fall somewhere outside this spectrum, and you have to realise that although that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to the same sort of thing, you might have to come about it in a different way (take a break from your PhD, instead of a sabbatical, for example).

But a sick mother, or an illness of your own, or the death of a loved one back home are the most important thing. The PhD should come second when these things happen. Just like work would come second.

I am reminding myself of this because I have done absolutely no work in the last 10 days. And that’s okay. I feel guilty because it’s a default reaction, not because I actually should feel bad. I shouldn’t. I’m taking the time I need to and I’ll get back to work as soon as possible.

Literature Review

I started, a while ago now, going through the chapters of the thesis. This is the first post in that series, all about how to structure the thesis and what chapters to include. This post, here, is the next step.

If you’ve done what everyone recommends, you have a word processor document open on your computer that says ‘Chapter 1: Introduction’ and nothing else. That’s great. Now tab down to a new page and type ‘Chapter 2: Literature Review’, because this is where you should actually start.

We’ve had the conversation already (again, a while ago) that the introduction should always be written last. The introduction is an intro to your entire thesis, and until you know what the thesis is, you can’t write an intro to it. But that’s all right, because the literature review is actually the easiest chapter to write, and therefore a good place to start.

You can start your literature review chapter(s) whenever you’d like. Some people write them as they go, others write them as they are writing up their theses. Otherwise write smaller versions to start and then combine/expand to create a full chapter.

Your Lit Review should not be your longest chapter, but it might end up being that way. About 10-15% of your thesis is a good game plan, unless you’re in the hard sciences, and then it may very well be less. Your advisor can give you a good idea of what an acceptable length in your department/field is.

There’s a lot to get into a Lit Review. You spent three years (or more) of researching, and you want to try to get all of it into one (or two) chapters.

You can’t. God, you can’t, so don’t try.

A Lit Review is an overview of the research in the field in which you are doing your study. It’s supposed to be general, without being too general (you’re not out to review the entire field of geography, for example, but to review the recent research into volcanology that is relevant to your study*).

You want the Lit Review to demonstrate to your examiners that you have read your way through and around the field, but since at least one of your examiners will likely be in your field, they also don’t want to read an 8000 word rehash of something they have researched themselves. Probably in more depth than you have.

It’s a fine line. Figure out what research is more useful for your study and put that in the Review chapter. The Lit Review is about you showing the recent research, critiquing it, and explaining why that research is important and/or has informed the research you are doing. Either you are building upon what others have done, or you are correcting what another has done, or someone’s work has inspired you to take an entirely new direction that no one else has ever thought of. Whatever it is, your work sits within a larger field, and this is what the Lit Review demonstrates.

Be clear. Don’t waffle. You don’t have the words to waffle. A few paragraphs about each publication/author/research study is enough. It can be good to start slightly wider in the research and then bring the chapter to a more specific focus, finally ending it on why this is all important to what you are doing.

Prove that the research is useful/important/interesting to what you are doing, or don’t bother putting it into the chapter. Your advisor/editor/examiner will just ask you to cut it out. It needs to help you make the case for why your research is important/innovative/unique, otherwise it doesn’t need to be there.

The Lit Review can be a pain to write. But it can also be that easy chapter that gets you started. Because it should not take you a long time. It should not fill your days and nights for months on end. This is a chapter you should really be able to write in a couple of weeks. And then move on. It’s important to your thesis, but it is not your most important chapter. Write it, put it aside, move on. You can come back to it in a few months and add to it (latest research!) or delete words if you find it’s too long.

Don’t stress about this chapter. It’s not the one that examiners are going to call you out on (well, probably not), and it’s not the central focus. Your Lit Review is other people’s work, and you are only putting it in there to show where your work sits within and next to theirs. To prove that your work works within your field.

*This was not my best example ever.

 

PhD Comics

Have you discovered PhD Comics yet? No? Good heavens, what have you been doing with all your time?

[If the answer is working, I don’t want to hear about it. Procrastination is a tried and tested method of surviving the PhD.]

PhD Comics ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ is about life in academia. It was created by Jorge Cham who has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. The comics show up nearly everywhere, from the academic journal Nature to the NY Times. Some of the comics have even been made into books. In 2014, the site was getting a million visitors a month.

PhD Comics is mainly directed at the sciences, but (and this is coming from a humanities PhD) they’re just as funny no matter what field you’re in. In fact, if you are humanities, they might make you feel a bit better about your life. Science is hard, man.

Reading these comics every week was part of my sanity-saving arsenal of techniques. It reminded me that a) I was not alone, b) there was something to laugh about, and c) it could always be worse.

If you haven’t checked the site out, or haven’t been on it in a while, please consider this post as doctor’s orders to do so immediately.

You can start at the very beginning in 1997 here. Or fast-forward to my favourite of all time here.

The Morning Of (the Viva)

The Viva is such a big part of the PhD process. If you are in the States, or in Europe and elsewhere, it may be different than the typical UK viva and I can therefore only speak to my own experiences. But having talked to PhDs from other countries, there are similarities in how your prepare and how you deal with the nerves.

If you missed the last post about preparing for the viva, see here.

I will do another post about the actual viva experience and, at a later date, about what happens after the viva (UK based), so stay tuned for those!

As I said, previously, I was very jet lagged when it came time for my viva. I hadn’t slept well in days and was still recovering from a trans-atlantic flight. If you can avoid that, best to do so (either avoid the need for a flight – i.e. already be in the country where your viva will be held, or come over extra early).

I woke up very early the day of my viva (a Friday). I already knew (again, don’t do this!) that as soon as my viva was over I had time for a quick (hopefully celebratory) drink and then an early train all the way back to the airport (3 hours). And then an early flight the next morning to get back to Toronto in time to attend my friend’s super important launch celebration. The kind of thing you don’t miss, if you are a best friend. It was just unfortunate timing, but I decided that as important as my viva was, my friend was just as important and missing her big event would be understandable bad.

So I got up that morning knowing I had a jam-packed 24 hours ahead of me, and the viva would only be part of that!

I had brought two outfits with me, because after much thought and contemplation, I couldn’t decide between the two of them. I still couldn’t decide that morning, but finally the fact that it was February and cold won out and I put on the pant suit. I thought it would make me more confident in a room full of men. Hard to say if that actually worked or not, but I hate wearing form-fitting dresses amongst men who I want to respect me for my intelligence. I figured a pant-suit would fit in better.

You can wear whatever you want, but be comfortable. You don’t want to have to worry if a part of your body you would rather not is showing or showing too much. You don’t want to be tugging at a skirt or constantly worried about sweat stains on a dress shirt (men, take note). If these are problems you have, dress with care, but keep it professional. You are there for your mind, not your appearance, but that doesn’t mean sweatsuits are acceptable. Dress as you would for a conference presentation.

I tried to eat breakfast – failed – and just moved on to redoing my hair umpteen times until I finally decided to just put it into a bun. I imagine men also have this problem, but it’s probably more about how spiky they should go with their fringe. Either way, if this passes the time and helps you cope, go for it.

My viva was at 2pm. That’s a long time to wait for something that terrifies you. And I knew I needed to eat something before then.

Right before lunch I headed to my department (where my viva was being held) and sequestered myself in my supervisor’s office, where he got me lunch, calmly talked to me about how bad the weather was, and tried to stop me from having a panic attack. None of it really worked, but bless him for trying. I would have been even more of a wreck left to my own devices.

Just before two, I was called into the viva.

Now, my department was pretty informal, so all vivas were held in the office of the internal examiner. And the examiner came to get you and took you to their office. Other schools have specific places on campus they do all vivas, and some you will not even have an internal from your own department. Make sure you understand ahead of time how the day will be run, where you should be (when you should be there), and what the general schedule will be (arrival time, viva time, viva length, waiting time for results). You don’t really want to be surprised about any of this.

That just leaves…the viva! Stay tuned.


After rather a lot of thought, I have decided to simplify things by posting new entries every Monday. At least until I run out of things to talk about.

If you are thinking of doing a PhD, or are currently doing one and you have a burning question you don’t think I’ve covered (or not in enough detail), please ask. Depending on what it is, I might not have an answer, but then again, I might!

The Start of Something

Something happened to me at the end of April. I went for an interview where I figured I had a 50/50 chance of getting the job. That is really the best chance I feel I’ve ever had at a job. I didn’t get the job. It was the perfect job.

The next day I woke up and decided to reevaluate my life. Since 2008 I’ve been on the same path: education in museum studies, work experience in museum studies = job in museum studies. I knew it was time to make a decision. Continue along that same path, or try a new one. I don’t want a career change. I don’t want to leave museums. This is my passion and my life and I’m not ready to give that up. But it seemed clear to me that morning that something had to change.

And the only thing I could think to change was the jobs I was applying for. And since I had been applying for all jobs I had any sort of experience for, clearly that meant the next step was not applying for jobs. So I stopped. I haven’t applied for a job since the end of April and that was quite a while ago.

Instead, I decided to take May and reevaluate everything. What I wanted out of life, where I saw myself in ten years, how important (or not) money was, where I could live, how many hours of the day I was willing to work, whether I was willing to give up things (after already giving up a lot).

And, last month, I came to the conclusion that I want a lot. I don’t think I deserve a lot. I don’t think it’s my right to have a lot. But I want a lot. I’ve travelled the world, completed four university degrees, made friends across countries, studied languages, and seen some of the most beautiful places. And I want that to be my future too (with fewer university degrees). So how to get it?

In the UK, museum freelancing is common. Very common. A lot of people I know do it and did it before their PhDs. It’s how the industry has developed. And I figure, why not here? There are fewer and fewer jobs in this country, and more and more museum graduates. Something has to change. And I feel this is that change. This is where we need to go, if we’re going to keep closing museums, understaffing and underfunding them. This is the only place it can go.

So I am embarking on an adventure. Much like my PhD, I am unsure and terrified, but excited. It will take time. It will take work. But this is the right choice for me. This is the direction I realise I have always been working towards, without realising it. The pieces are all in place, now I just have to put the puzzle together. And I feel able to do that.

So as of June 1st, I am a freelancer and consultant for the museum industry.

Over the coming months, I have a website to create, a blog to set up, and a business plan to write. I am already making contacts and networking with potential clients. I feel good about this. It’s direction. It’s ’employment’. And it feels good.

Now, when people ask me ‘what are you up to? Have you found a job?’ I have an answer. It’s shocking how good that feels.

Work Experience

Okay, this is mostly pessimistic and horribly realistic, but I am not going to apologize. It’s the way the economy, society, and the humanities are now, and acknowledging that and preparing for it are the best ways to get on with your career.

I’m in the humanities. Which means it’s really hard to talk from the point of view of STEM subjects. They are vastly different in how they are set up, and how work is oriented, and how jobs are acquired. If you are doing a STEM PhD (or MA, or work in STEM) you’re going to be much more familiar with how things work than I am. Take all of this with a grain of salt and use your own knowledge and colleagues.

Everyone touts work experience nowadays. You hear it literally everywhere. In universities, in colleges, in high school, in business, in news articles. Kids are bombarded with ‘get work experience!’ slogans. It will run through your life until you are high enough in the working world that are either permanently employed, or so experienced you don’t think in terms of ‘gaining’ it, but of already having it.

But what is it? No, seriously, what is it? Because it’s not just one thing. It’s not just a single definition and, check, I’ve got it! Because that would be easy.

Work experience means ALMOST ALWAYS paid work. There are a few times this is not true, and volunteering or unpaid internships will count, but basically, they mean experience you have acquired by being paid for work.

Getting paid work experience without having work experience is one of those brilliant chicken and egg scenarios that destroys people’s psyches and is so disheartening that people give up careers.

You must have work experience to apply for this job. [That experience must be paid.] This is common in almost all job advertisements in the humanities. No one wants to hire someone without work experience, because it’s too much trouble to train someone. We’ll leave aside that almost every job will require training anyways, but companies think it’s easier to train someone who’s worked in the field before than someone who hasn’t (I argue how true this is, but it doesn’t matter what I think; I don’t hire people).

So how do you GET the paid work experience?

I wish I could tell you. I wish there was a brilliant work around to this problem, like a hack, and ‘poof!’ you will get your paid work experience. But it doesn’t work like that. If it did, a lot fewer twenty and thirty somethings would be suffering from intense stress and feelings of failure.

You gain work experience over time. This is true. You gain it over multiple jobs. This is mostly true (if it’s a great job, you can gain a lot of experience in one place). You don’t gain work experience in a month. Job applications want 2-3 years experience in most cases. If you are applying for an entry level position, it might be 12 months experience. But it’s entry level. It’s your first paid job in the field, right? Wrong. You are expected to have already worked, in an internship or placement or job shadow already.

I have volunteered for 2.5 years. Free. Weekly. In some cases, I was volunteered 15 hours a week. I usually also work a job that makes money so I can afford to live, but that job is never in my field and therefore does not count as work experience. Volunteering used to. It doesn’t seem to anymore. It’s a start, yes, but what companies really want is that illusive internship for you to have on your CV. Of course, many fields don’t have internships.

You are expected to have work experience without ever having worked. It’s ludicrous, of course, but most things in life are. Most things don’t make sense, and this is one of them.

What can you do?

You can volunteer. In your field. As soon as possible. Preferably in high school. Don’t wait until you finish undergrad to figure out what you want to do with your life. Volunteer as much as you can around jobs that pay you actual money. Try to get a paid job that has skills involved in it that will be of use to your field. So if your field requires customer service, get a customer service role, like retail, and work that for AT LEAST a few years. A few months of a job is not the sort of work experience employers look for.

Try to find an internship. If internships exist in your field, apply for them all, even if they are not paid. Keep applying until you get one. Apply early and often.

If you are in university, see what work experience your university can provide. Can you mark essays? Teach intro classes? Run tutorials? Do marketing for your department? Be a school ambassador? Universities offer a wealth of options, but you have to go looking for them; no one will tell you what they are or what use they are. Ask questions, ask people, keep your ears open, and then go after those opportunities. It’s no use saying ‘but school takes up all my time!’ No one cares about this issue anymore. You are expected to do everything in university, even if that involves 30 hour days.

[I always had projects/work I was doing while doing a full-time PhD. It sucked. It sucked a lot. There were many days I didn’t get through my to do list because there weren’t enough hours in the day, and you have to sleep eventually. But I managed to get all of it done, somehow, sometime. And I have a host of things on my CV besides ‘PhD’, many of which are now coming in very handy for freelancing.]

Balancing work-life-sanity is hard. It gets harder the further into university you go. It’s why mental health is such an issue in universities and amongst early career professionals. When you do a PhD, balancing your life is almost impossible. And if you have a life, if you have a partner and kids and a full-time job, all I can say is I am raising a glass in your honour. You people amaze me, inspire me, impress me, and put my piddling efforts to shame. Keep going, I’m here cheering you on.

If you don’t have these things to worry about, things are that little tiny bit easier, but not easy. Social engagements will still be cancelled. You will still work 24 hour days. You will go weeks without seeing or talking to friends. The PhD, and the work, come first. Everything else is a distance second. You chose to do this. But I understand. I understand exactly how hard it is to do, literally, everything. And be expected to.

But for every year that passes, people expect more of university students. Employers expect more of applicants. Business demands experience and skills that you can’t get at university. It’s why high school students are now being told to think carefully about what they want to do in their life, and whether university is the right call. I wish someone had taken more time to tell me all this 15 years ago. I might have made a different decision*.

Anyone want to share their work experiences with readers? What you’ve learned; what you wish you’d done; what worked for you? Any little secrets out there to be had…?

*In all honesty, probably not, I was too obsessed with classical history.