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.