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.



I’ve spent a lot of the last week on a boat, and it occurred to me, somewhere in the sun, surf and suffering heat, that the analogy that love/life is like a ship does have something to be said for it. But more specifically I think the PhD journey is like a journey by ship: often stormy, often scary, sometimes calm, and always adventurous and exciting (in good and bad ways).

I have been on little tiny boats ten feet long all the way up to thousand foot long cruise ships, and all methods of transport via water have been part of my life since I was born. I grew up on a lake, learned to swim at age 2, learned to sail at age 5, learned to drive a motor boat at age 7. I started cruising when I was 11. By 21, I was out on dive boats regularly, on lakes and rivers and open ocean. The lull of the seas has always attracted me.

So yes, a PhD is much like a journey by boat. A long journey by boat, where you are fairly certain of the destination, but you don’t actually know if you will reach it. Maybe you’ll end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. Maybe you will jump ship at a port along the way and decide to stay there. And maybe you’ll turn back in the first weeks because it just is not for you.

Journeys by sea rarely turn out quite as expected. I’ve run into storms and hurricanes, mechanical failures, intense temperatures and sudden weather changes. The PhD is the same way. You never quite know what will come, and there is always going to be the unexpected. Some days will be wonderfully clear sailing, others will be seas so high you are sure you will flounder.

But as with a boat, the only thing you can do is ride it out. You can choose to get off. You can at times be thrown off, but in the end if you want your PhD, you’ll ride it out no matter how stormy it gets. And you’ll know fear, but don’t ever let that stop you. Don’t ever let fear be the reason you get off the boat. We all fear during our PhDs. Some of us were down right terrified! But don’t let that fear stop you from going on. Let other things stop you. Let life decisions, family, lovers, careers, realisations stop you. But never ever fear. Every sailor knows fear, but if they let it stop them, they’d never get on a ship again. There are a lot of reasons to fear during a PhD. To be scared. But keep going anyways, because that ship will one day reach its destination, and you would much rather be on it then lost along the way.

*Warning: not my best analogy, but the boat has been rocking for three days since I got off it and sailing is on the mind.

Marriages of Equality – Your Relationship with Your Supervisor

Your relationship with your supervisor can make or break your PhD. You will hear countless stories of people who quit their studies because their supervisors were awful, or useless, or just plain never around. You will also hear stories of people who ended up having their work stolen by their supervisor who then published it under their own name (okay, I’ve only heard of this happening once, but once is one time too many).

There are any number of reasons you won’t form a good relationship with your supervisor. Most of those reasons are not your fault; unfortunately, as it often means you can’t do anything to change the situation.

I recently did an online MOOC about surviving your PhD (after I’d finished my PhD), and one of the main ideas they raised was that your relationship with your supervisor is like a marriage.

That’s a loaded term, obviously, and perhaps not the most useful, considering there is a variety of definitions of marriage in the world. So let me clarify by saying that it should be something like a marriage…

…of equality. If it is anything else, the relationship will cause your thesis to suffer.

What do I mean by this?

A marriage of equality is exactly what it sounds like. A coming together of two people, with a shared interest/passion, who support and compliment each other equally. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they can play these off each other and, in the end, form a relationship that is very much a whole.

So few people ever have this time of supervision relationship, alas. I wish it wasn’t so. Everyone deserves to know what this feels like; what good supervision is, what good support is, and what wonderful things a student can bring to a supervisor’s views on the field. But it is not the way academia usually works.

Most supervisors will be decent. Some will be completely MIA, others will only be around when it suits them. Others can be completely controlling and demanding. None of those are okay, but if you get a decent supervisor, appreciate them, because it means they probably have a chance to become a great supervisor one day, if they have the determination to.

But sometimes you get a wonderful one. Sometimes you get a marriage of equality. And they can make your PhD experience an astounding journey. They can make your PhD better than it would ever have been. And they can also benefit from your views, and develop their own work in conjunction with yours. You can inspire them to new ideas, as they can inspire you to great theories.

If you get one of these supervisors, don’t brag, but do appreciate that you got very lucky, and enjoy the journey as it unfolds.

If you didn’t get one of these supervisors, don’t despair. Plenty of people finish their PhDs without very good supervision. A lot of that depends on what sort of person you are and how you adapt to the situation.

Don’t get mad. Don’t be annoyed you didn’t get a brilliant one. Do something about it, even if what you do might not change the situation, at least you will have tried.

Talk to your department. Can you switch supervisors? Yes? No? Can you talk with other staff in the department – even if only informally – to ask advice on your research, etc.? Can you talk to others at your university who may be much better supervisors, who might not know your subject, but can still advise you on how to do a PhD?

What can you realistically do yourself for which you don’t need a supervisor’s help? Can you find information online about aspects of the PhD you’re unsure of? Can you talk to other PhD students?

A PhD is an independent research project. It’s on your own head. But that does not mean your university shouldn’t support you. If they have not given you a good supervisor, find other ways to get the support you need, but you have to be willing to go out and find them. And you have to be willing to step up to the plate yourself and fill the gap.

But if you get a decent supervisor, one who is around, who has office hours, who looks over your work, who actually has conversations with you, then great. You can teach them to be better at their job. Identify what you need most and tell them. What kind of supervision do you want? Tell them. Do you need a specific type of support? Tell them. What are your expectations for your PhD and your journey? Tell them. Ask them, challenge them, question them. Don’t sit meekly by and wait to be told what to do. You are there to learn, but so is your supervisor.

One thing I found very useful (and I have a great supervisor) was to ask for contacts to people he knew who were in the same field, or similar fields, who might have a different view or a different idea about a certain theory. A second opinion, as it were. You get to network with other academics this way, while also talking about your topic with someone in the know, but who is not your supervisor. This can create whole new ideas and directions (it did for me). My supervisor had no issue giving me such contacts, and introducing me to people he thought could be of help. He was willing to acknowledge where his expertise ended, and point me in the direction of others who could fill that void. That is the mark of a great supervisor.

Whatever you do, you don’t have to suffer. If you are truly unable to have a useful relationship with your supervisor, you need to consider carefully whether to continue your PhD. I know several people who started at one department, were given an awful supervisor, and switched to another university several months in. Then ended up with great supervisors because of it.

If, in the end, you have to endure your PhD journey without good advise, then don’t despair. I do know many Doctors who managed it and have lived to tell the tale. And, strangely enough, it’s made them very good supervisors themselves.

What people think you do vs What you actually do

Today was interesting for several reasons. For one, I realized rather abruptly at 9:05am what job I don’t want to do for the rest of my life.

For another, I have a life coach now, which is a Thing these days, I know, but also an incredibly useful thing, as it turns out. And so, I feel this post that I wrote three weeks ago, is rather timely to post now. Because my life coaching session today was all about Developing a Process, and respecting that the Process is as important as the End Result, if not more so. And that the Process should be done right the first time, which takes time, care, and consideration. And that I shouldn’t apologized for the fact that it is a Process, and it is Going to Take Time. Maybe a lot of time.

So, on with the blog post.

You’ve seen those memes right? The ones that have six images and say things like ‘what your friends think you do’, ‘what you parents think you do’, etc.

There’s one for nearly every job out there, I think, judging by the number I’ve seen. There’s a few for PhD students too.

Most of them are pretty spot on, but the reality is that people are always going to be a bit unsure of what you actually do as a PhD student, especially if you are working in an area most people have never heard of, much less know anything about. Take it as a learning opportunity and explain it to them. You need to practice disseminating your research to the masses, after all.

At the end of the day, though, there are certain inalienable truths to being a PhD student. Your parents will always think you have your nose to the grindstone and are working in the library twelve hours a day. Your friends who aren’t students will assume you sleep all day and party all night (or vice versa). The general public will simply revere you as Amazingly Smart and be astounded at how you can actually do such a thing. They will also assume you spend all day in the lab, even if you are a history student. The academic staff will know you spend most of your time procrastinating by reading blogs, looking at comics, and all around drinking far too much coffee, because that’s what they did when they were PhD students. Your supervisor will expect that you’re hard at work doing their research, rather than yours, or writing amazing articles for peer-reviewed journals. And you? You know that what you really do is a combination of all of the above, sometimes all in the same day, and that’s really okay.

But what matters is that, no matter what you ARE doing in your PhD, it’s a process. And it’s in progress. And that’s okay. You don’t have to apologize for, or explain that, to anyone you don’t want to. Or anyone who is going to judge you by their standards. So whatever it is you DO do, keep doing it, and don’t worry so much about what others think you do. It’s all valid.

The Definition of the PhD

‘Piled higher and deeper, huh?’ So someone said to me in my first year. I have no idea who they were, but they weren’t in academia.

The PhD often feels this way. By the time you reach writing-up stage it’s going to feel like you’re on the bottom of a very large pile of research with no shovel to dig your way out.

What may be a funny thing to people outside academia is not funny to you. They will laugh in impressed amusement and crack jokes about PhDs, but that’s mostly because they only understand enough to be thoroughly overwhelmed, and they don’t know how to display that other than to try to be funny. That’s okay; they don’t mean anything by it. Feel free to correct them if you think it will help, but equally, it’s usually not worth the time.

You won’t get it until you do a PhD. Even working with a Masters degree in academia will not make you any more likely to understand what it is like to do a PhD. It is a singularly wonderful and awful experience. You’re basically pregnant for three years and then you have to give birth – in public.* That’s never going to be fun, but the pregnancy can be amazing. And after the birth, you aren’t going to care at all how bad it was because you have your baby now.

At the end of the day, take one thing from the people who don’t understand and therefore try to make jokes about it: it has to be funny. Because if you aren’t laughing, you’re crying, and most days crying wins out. Laugh as often as you can, at whatever you can. If you find your humour gets a little skewed, that’s okay. Stress does weird things to the mind. Just laugh it off and remind yourself that you’re pregnant: mood swings and strange thoughts are par for the course.

And so are the ice cream cravings.

*I should point out at this juncture that I have never had kids. But having many friends who have, I’ve asked them what it was like; the pregnancy, birth, and afterwards. There are a shocking number of similarities.