Support Systems

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

It’s been a bad month. Your research/field work isn’t going well. You have started to wonder if you’re on the wrong track. Maybe you worry your research question is the wrong one. Or that your methodology doesn’t support it. You feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you need to get done before your next advisor/supervision meeting. You feel stressed and anxious. You aren’t sleeping well. You routinely procrastinate or overwork (or both). You cancel plans with friends because ‘you don’t have time’, but you still aren’t making progress.

But hey, you tell yourself that it’s all part of doing a PhD. That everyone goes through this. Or you tell yourself that it’s just one more reason you aren’t cut out for this. That you should just quit. It’ll be better for everyone.

You know something is wrong, but you can’t quite figure out exactly what that is. But you’re embarrassed to talk to your coworkers, or feel that you’ve complained too much to your friends already. Or you worry what your parents will say if you admit to them that you think this is just too hard.

First, forget about other people. Their opinions in this are not what your focus should be. This is about you. This is a time you get to be completely and utterly selfish. If something feels wrong, it feels wrong to you. And to change things means making it feel right to you.

If your family won’t support you, turn to your friends. If your friends don’t understand you (and refuse to try), I’d suggest some new friends. If your coworkers won’t listen to you, go to your advisor. If your advisor won’t listen to you, try your university’s counselling services. And if they don’t have time for you, go to a health care professional and tell them you need to speak to a professional. Someone WILL listen to you.

Being overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and feeling like it’s all too much are not just ‘part of the PhD’. And they do not mean you aren’t good enough to do a PhD. They are part of it because almost everyone experiences this, but they don’t need to. It’s not a requirement to get your doctorate, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This isn’t about ‘if you bleed enough, you’ll get your degree’. People can do a PhD without having breakdowns. Without feeling like they aren’t worthy. But I will say that those people are fewer by the year.

If you’re in the majority that are struggling, it’s okay; you are by no means alone. But you need to have a support system around you to deal with these struggles when they happen. It’s best to have this system in place when you start your doctorate.

Get your family on board. Make sure they support you from the get-go. Make sure they know how hard this is going to be; that you are going to miss family parties, that you are going to miss seeing your family when you have a deadline, that you aren’t always going to call every Monday, etc. Whatever you normally do with your family, both those you live with and those you don’t, make sure they know that there will be times that that ‘normal’ won’t work for you. Don’t apologise for this, but make them aware. Most families won’t go ‘but we come first’; but if they are suddenly confronted with you having to miss your mother’s 60th birthday party because your advisor set you a deadline in two day’s time, they might not understand. So warn them ahead of time.

Get your friends on board. Your close friends, the rest of them aren’t really going to be very useful. They are going to be the sort of people who check in in two years’ time and go ‘aren’t you done that thing yet?’ But your close friends have likely already seen you at your worst. They have been through the trenches with you. They can go through them again. And you want people who are not PhD students. You want people who have other interests and other hobbies, so when you talk to them you can have a break. But you want friends that can be shoulders to cry on, comfort on the bad days, reason and sanity when you feel you are losing both. They don’t have to understand the details, they just have to be willing to be there for you.

When you start your PhD, learn whether your advisor will be a support person. Some advisors are great at this. Some of them suck at it. Figure it out early on, by talking to other students, by talking to your advisor, etc. whether they can be there for you or not. If they cannot, you know to look elsewhere when the going gets tough.

Find coworkers. Colleagues. Other PhD students. In or outside your department. These people will understand you perfectly. Sometimes, they may not be able to be there for you, if they are having a hard time themselves. So find several people that fall under this category, to ensure that there will be someone who can listen/help/advise when you need it.

Discover who at your university does counselling services. Every university offers this in some way, whether formal or informal. Know where to go before you ever have to go. And never, ever, be ashamed to use these services. They are there for a reason. Sometimes, talking to a stranger is easier than talking to a friend.

A PhD is exhausting. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s not easy for anyone. And, at least for everyone I know, there are times when doing your PhD is all the energy you have. There isn’t any left. These are the times you need other people. You need someone to help, someone to give you energy.

If you are having a day, a week, a month (a year) where it is all too much, for whatever reason, go to your support network. Go to your family, your best friend, your advisor, a coworker, your university. Know that there are people who will listen and there are people who will help.

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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.

 

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’.

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.

 

Guilty as Charged

There’s this thing that no one doing a PhD ever seems to talk about. After you are a few months in, you begin to feel it. It’s there, in the back of your mind, creeping up on you unaware. You firmly believe you’re the only one experiencing it, and that it means you’re not cut out for this. You try not to let it overwhelm you, but the further on you get, the more stressful the feeling becomes.

PhD guilt. I don’t mean you feel guilty for being in a position to do a PhD. I mean you feel guilty about doing everything other than your PhD. Eating, sleeping, commuting, socialising, resting, working. Everything that is not immediately associated with your PhD research is something that your brain tells you you shouldn’t be spending time on. Because clearly everyone else  only focuses on their PhDs. Clearly no one else ever sleeps or eats. Clearly no one else takes a day off. Clearly everyone is at it 24/7. Clearly you are not cut out for this.

Can I tell you? Every single PhD student feels guilty. ALL THE TIME. It also won’t magically evaporate because you submitted your thesis either, but that’s a monologue for another time.

So first? It’s okay. Really, it’s okay. It’s normal. It’s not okay that it’s normal, but it’s okay because it’s normal. Calm down. Acknowledge that you feel guilty, stop thinking you’re the only one, and move on. The guilt won’t go away, but you can learn to live with it in a way that won’t be too stressful. It will rear it’s head at the worst times, but if you know that will happen you can say ‘I know I’m feeling this, I know it’s because of XYZ, I know I can get through it’.

Second, do not let guilt stop you from doing things. You want to take 4 days off and go visit your boyfriend/family/friend? Do it. You need a rest day that is not a weekend? Take it. You want to grab coffee with a friend? Take an extra long coffee break. You can’t bring yourself to work on THIS or THIS today? Then don’t. Feel the guilt, but don’t let it stop you. You cannot do 24/7. You must have time for other things. Tell the guilt to bugger off. It probably won’t, but hopefully you can enjoy yourself enough that it’s only in the very back of your mind.

Lastly, guilt can be useful. If you haven’t worked on your thesis for a week and you feel guilty for not doing so, it’s probably time to let that guilt motivate you to do some work. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Sometimes, just reading an article will temporarily receive the guilt (and stress). Write a paragraph, make a bibliography for a topic, read an article, check out some books from the library, send an email, organise a meeting, etc. Even the smallest things can be enough to get you back on track, and push that guilt to the back burner.

But understand it never entirely goes away. And that’s okay. Everyone experiences it. You are not alone, your are not different, you are not failing at being a PhD student. It’s just something that PhD students experience. It comes from many directions, and some of that is academic pressure to DO THIS or DO IT FASTER or DO IT BETTER or any other form of pressure. A lot of it is from the assumption that every PhD student around you is somehow better than you are and if you aren’t working your ass off, you are clearly guilty of letting the PhD community down by not being good enough. You feel guilty because you believe you should be working solely on your PhD, because that’s what your university considers a perfect student (which is bull, really, because no one ‘only does their PhD’). And some of it is just the misplaced guilt of feeling like you have to prove yourself all the time, and when you are not proving yourself, you feel guilty for letting yourself (and your ideals) down.

I’d say ‘get over it’, but it’s not easy like that. It doesn’t go away. It comes and goes, but it’s never far. And it’s part of being a PhD student. But never ever think it’s not normal.

Being Alone

This is going to be a very honest post. I hope it resonates with people, but if not, at least I feel better about being open and truthful. I think we spend too much time thinking other people will criticize us, or look down on us, or we worry just in general about what people will say or do if we’re open about how hard life is sometimes. But life isn’t easy, and it’s not always good, and not talking about it when it gets bad does no one any favours. One of the things I learned during my PhD is that every hard situation and every bad thought I had, someone else had too. And there’s comfort in that.

I’ve talked about loneliness already, and about how difficult it can be to feel part of a community when you are a distance student, and how isolating it is even when you are on-campus, because you are doing your own project and you don’t necessary see people every day.

But afterwards can be lonely too. It doesn’t just end when you finish a PhD, though it can. I know people who are not lonely now that they’ve finished, and mostly that’s because they had a great support system already in place. I thought I did. I had friends and family and I’m back living within driving distance of nearly all of them. I thought that would be enough. But there is something about finishing a PhD that makes you different than others, and it will be brought home to you regularly. Every time you tell someone or mention your PhD to people who do not have one you will get the ‘wow’ reaction. And it doesn’t feed your ego (well, it might, but I have no ego to feed, I spend a lot of time still thinking I don’t deserve my PhD), but it does make you feel different. And not in a good way.

I get a lot of reactions from people of ‘I could never do that’, ‘you must be so smart’, ‘I’m impressed’, etc. None of these comments are particularly helpful to me or my psyche. But all of them make me feel different. Not above others, but separate from them, and that induces loneliness. The fact of the matter is that while doing my PhD I had a whole community of people around me who understood. Even if I didn’t see them every day (or even every week), they were there when I needed them. There were people who just got it. I don’t have that now. I still keep in touch with my department gang, but they’re a long way away and we talk even less now, and maybe that’s not a good thing. But we’re out in the world and supposed to be starting our careers and so continuing the ‘PhD community’ doesn’t seem to make sense. But it creates a sense of loneliness that I know others have felt. And when your career isn’t going well, it’s worse.

I thought living back amongst family would help, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t see them all that often. They have their own lives. My friends have their own lives, and those lives are very different from a post-PhD career trajectory. I go months without seeing them. It’s hard to organize anything because they have families and husbands and full-time careers. Those all come first for them, and that’s the way it should be. I hope those would come first for me if I ever have any of them.

But there’s a sense of isolation now that I’m done and dusted my PhD. Now that I’ve graduated. Now that starting a career is all that’s left (and it’s not going so swimmingly, let me tell you, not that I thought it would). I am struggling with a lot of things and feeling alone is high on the list. I volunteer and I see other people my age at work, but it’s not ‘friends’, and I find it hard to meet others, especially in the community I live (median age: about 45). I know I should get out and do more, but a lot of the ‘more’ takes money, which I don’t have, being unemployed right now.

But I get the sense that people don’t talk about this stage in life. It’s still taboo to have a conversation about life after university when you don’t have your dream job, or your dream house, or your dream family. But a lot more people these days don’t have those, and are 35 and struggling with their career and feeling alone. And if we talked about it, maybe people would feel less alone. And maybe there would be less of a stigma surrounding the fact that not everyone finishes college at 23, gets a career and a family and is set for life. A lot of people struggle for twenty years or more to have those things, and some never get them (and some never want them, I should point out) But the sooner we all talk about how ‘different’ things can be nowadays, the sooner people like me stop feeling like we’ve failed, because we aren’t set up in life, because we chose university over a relationship, or because we chose a career that isn’t easy, or whatever the reason (all of which are completely valid and okay!).

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.

Amendments

Oh, the envy. That green clawing feeling that takes over your heart when you hear about someone who breezed through with no thesis amendments. You can’t help yourself. You try not to compare yourself to others, but that jealousy when others do so well is something we all struggle with.

Everyone wants to get through their viva with no amendments. Few people manage it. Remember that. I have met people who treated amendments like it was part of their PhD, a necessary and inevitable part. I met people who treated amendments like failing an exam and having to retake it.

I felt like the latter. Honestly, I knew I’d get amendments. I never even expected otherwise. What I got were things that boggled my mind and made me want to curl up into a ball and cry because I felt like such a fraud. I felt like I’d written the worst thesis ever, and my examiners were being super kind to even pass me. I felt like I’d failed.

Nearly everyone goes into their viva worrying they have failed. Most people feel the same going into any exam. But to come out of your viva actually feeling like you did fail is an entire other experience. I’d only had it once in undergrad when I knew I had bombed an exam. I was not prepared for feeling like it after my viva. I was not prepared for the feelings of failure and utter misery that followed me for weeks afterwards.

But you probably will get amendments. And you might even get a lot of them. In some departments this is more common than others. In some departments it’s more a 50/50 chance. Whichever department you belong to, know that you might get lots and lots of amendments. And you will probably feel like you failed. Or at least frustrated that you could have done better. It’s normal. But don’t let it destroy you.

It nearly destroyed me. I was so done with my PhD when I submitted, and to then be told, not long afterwards, that I needed to do another six months of intensive work felt like being on the verge of being released from prison, and being told you have suddenly been given six months in solitary confinement (well maybe it’s not, but this is how I envisioned it – it’s very much what it felt like in my head). It was only thanks to a few very good and supportive friends who – nearly daily – told me I was not a failure, that what I was going through was normal, and that it would all – eventually – be okay that got me through. I’m forever thankful to them, and passing on that good will is one of the reasons I started this blog.

So you’ve got amendments. If they are simple amendments, get on them as quickly as you can, get your thesis finished and graduate! Don’t let anything stand in your way. Simple amendments shouldn’t take you very long, and shouldn’t cause you much stress.

If they aren’t simple, well, welcome to the club. I completely sympathise. The first time I read through my required amendments (after a month of not even being able to look at the document) I had a panic attack and then I cried for three days. It seemed impossible that I would ever be able to do them. It seemed ten times harder than anything I had done in my PhD.

It’s not. It’s no harder. You might feel like it is, but it isn’t. You’ve researched and written an entire PhD. You can amend it.

I found it easiest to start with the simple amendments. The ones that I knew I could do and knew wouldn’t take all that much time. That got me through half the document in a few weeks and made me feel better about things. From there, I just tackled each of the other amendments one at a time. I didn’t try to think ahead to the next one, or how hard it would be. I didn’t allow myself (well, not often) to stress about how I was going to do that one. I concentrated on one at a time. If I hit a roadblock, I emailed my supervisor or talked to my post-viva Persons. And, eventually, I got through them all. That took five months (including the month of not even being able to look at the damn document). They had given me six months though, and even with the very long list I had, and working part-time at a job, I managed it in four. Never stress about the amendments deadline. You will have enough time, as long as you don’t spend five months freaking out before you start work [having said that, I know someone who spent three months freaking out and still got everything done in five months.]

Now, once you’ve finished your amendments, you have to edit and proof read them. I had my entire thesis proofed again, because I was worried about having any mistakes whatsoever in the final document. You may only want to proof the stuff you’ve changed, that’s your choice.

And then, then you submit it again. Your university will have specific requirements for how you go about this, and who it needs to be submitted to. At mine, we submitted to the head examiner who made the final call so it didn’t need to be fully examined again, or vivaed again. I submitted to the head examiner on a Monday, and I heard back on Thursday. I fully expected it to take about two weeks, so don’t worry if you don’t hear back right away. It does take time to read a thesis!

But when you do hear back, it will very likely be good news. I don’t actually know anyone (personally) who failed their amendments (unless they didn’t do them). In fact, I know a few people who did not do some of their amendments and still passed. But they did justify why they didn’t do them. For myself, there were two amendments I did not do to the extent asked for, but they were both minor amendments, and I wrote a note to the examiner to explain why I felt they were not necessary to the thesis (but would be for any further research). This is generally okay, but you must be able to back yourself up. Just ‘I didn’t want to do it’ is never going to be an acceptable reason.

Once you hear back, you might very well feel like they’ve made a mistake. I spent three months after hearing back wondering if I’d dreamed it, even after the official letter arrived from my university to say ‘yes, yes, we’ve given you a PhD, go away now’. If fact, I still had a little tiny part of me that didn’t believe it until after I’d graduated. It was only then I felt I could send my thesis off to all the people who had helped with my research and tell them ‘I’m done’.

Amendments, particularly involved ones, can feel like your world is ending, just after you thought it had finally gotten around to starting again. But it’s not the end of the world, no matter how many you get. Because, whatever amendments you get, you did not get ‘this is not an acceptable PhD and we will not be awarding you your degree’. Amendments mean you deserve a PhD, you just need a bit of help to make your thesis ready.

Remember that, when you’re in month three of your corrections and feeling like you’re going to go crazy if you have to do another day of it. You will get through it and it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Circle of Friends

Friends are important. No one is going to argue that.

Friends also come and go. Someone you were friends with in first grade you might not have talked to in ten years. Or they might still be your best friend. And someone you met last year might be your closest confident.

You can’t measure friendship in years. And it’s a bit difficult to measure friendship at all. I have many friends, but they fall into different categories. And it’s hard to say whether a friend from category A is closer to me than a friend from category C. I don’t particularly like trying to measure my friendships against each other. I am just glad to have good friends.

I was especially glad to have good friends during my PhD. I was also surprised how many new friends I made, some of which have become very close friends. I didn’t realize until afterwards how important these people have become to me, because I really wouldn’t be here now if not for them (I mean I wouldn’t have a PhD).

During the whole journey, I found that friends I had been close to before starting the thesis I barely talked to during it. This was in part because their lives were busy, and I was 3000+ miles away in another time zone. But it was also because our life struggles were very different. Where they were dealing with raising children, or getting married, or trying to survive their job, I was dealing with reading vast numbers of academic articles, trying to write papers, going to conferences, and thinking a lot. It meant that we didn’t have a lot in common anymore. But I also think most of my old friends got tired of hearing the ‘this is so hard, I’m so stupid, I don’t deserve to be here’ refrain that you admit to those you love.

I found this was alright, though. I’ve reaffirmed relationships with most of these people since completing. Some of them I haven’t, but as I said, friends come and go out of your life and likely it was time anyways.

But I have found so many new friends it more than makes up for it. I have found a wonderful number of people who understand because they have gone through or are going through the same thing. And that sort of commonality is the basis for great friendships. They were the people I went to when I was thinking about quitting. They were the people who came to me when they were having problems. They were the people I spent most of my downtime with. And they are still the people I hold as friends in these months afterwards, and hopefully in the years to come.

It means a lot to have people around you who are friends and who get it. Don’t underestimate how useful it will be to you mentally to find friends in people who are also PhDs. Your old friends may be the best friends ever, but if they have not been through this they will never quite understand, and trust me that having understanding is a huge boost on your bad days. Some times, the only way to get through is to go talk to someone who is also going through the same thing, and know that you are not alone.

So find fellow PhD students and make friends. You don’t need a whole bunch, but a few really good ones that you have some commonalities with and enjoy talking to are going to be a lifesaver at some point in your PhD journey. They also don’t need to be in your department, although it might be easier to find friends in your own school.

If you are doing your PhD from a distance, there are still ways to meet people, but you need to be willing to go out and find them. Ask your supervisor for the email addresses of their other students. Ask any student you meet if you can be PhD buddies. Find people on twitter who tweet regularly about their PhDs and start a conversation with them. I did this a few times myself, and found a lovely little community of support online. See if your department has a Facebook group who you can go to for help and support.

And don’t be afraid to blog or tweet about your experiences and difficulties, and see who responds. Social media can be a great way to make connections and you don’t have to meet with someone face to face to be friends with them. I have friends I’ve never met in person.

But do find people. Find friends who understand what you are going through and who you can rely on. You will need them at some point.

And don’t forget to be a good friend yourself.

Adulting

We’ve all heard the word these days. It’s on funnies everywhere, usually involving animals in less than eager positions. Usually with their heads buried in various bits of furniture or looking like their own pet just died. [This is my favourite.]

So what is adulting? Well, it’s a nice made up word that basically denotes what happens when most adults try behaving like adults. You know, doing the boring stuff, like paying bills and working for a living. An excellent resource for those of us (i.e. all of us) who are rather bad at adulting at any given time is the Adulting Blog and the book that blog author Kelly Williams Brown published in 2013. Have a look, because chances are, you need help at adulting; everyone does at some point or another.

Adulting is a fun word that a lot of PhD students have gravitated towards in the last couple of years since it first started cropping up fairly regularly in memes, tweets and on Facebook. I know the first time I heard it I felt like ‘where have you been all my life?’ Suddenly, everything made sense. I had a word to describe all those moments when I felt like an abject failure, and what was more, that other people felt the same way!

The biggest part of a PhD that people find difficult to adjust to is the sense of being alone. I’ll post an entry about that at some point. I found, though, that one of the hardest parts about being on the journey ‘alone’, my own journey, was feeling so detached from all my friends around me who seemed to be fantastic at adulting. Here they were, having children, getting married, buying houses, holding full-time careers, and here I was, reading books, sitting in my PJs all day, eating take away, living in student accommodation, checking FB 20 times a day, etc. I felt like such an abject failure at adulting. And I felt like I was the only one going through that. Like everyone else around me had their life figured out.

They don’t. I’m not kidding; they don’t. And everyone else in your PhD department definitely doesn’t. You are not alone, even when you feel that way. Your supervisor has another student who is feeling just as alone and just as bad at adulting as you.

I am still bad at adulting, but most days I manage okay and really, that’s all that you need. You just need to be okay. I’m still not a great adult yet, having only just completed my PhD. I live at home right now, and I’ve only just gotten a job as of yesterday (and it’s short-term contract only), and I don’t pay bills, or have kids, or a partner. But this is my adulting, and that doesn’t make it any less adult than anyone else. Yes, having a family and working a full-time job has a lot of adulting issues to overcome. So does being unemployed, living at home, and trying to start a career after finishing the hardest thing in your life.

There are so many levels of adulting. No one’s is better than anyone else’s. And no one is really better at adulting than anyone else, they just like to think they are. We all have challenges in life, and those challenges are individual, just like your PhD is.

So my advice is, don’t worry about adulting until after you’ve finished your PhD. If you want to spend the day in your PJs and only write 20 words of your thesis, go ahead. I won’t judge you, because I’ve done it myself. And your friends who are all off adulting won’t judge you either, because they are SUPER impressed you are doing a PhD. And your supervisor’s other PhD students won’t judge you either, because they’re doing the same exact thing you are, in their own way.

Really, the only one judging your ability to adult is you. So stop it.