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.

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’.

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.

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!

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.

 

Viva Preparedness

I did a favour for a friend recently. She organises training sessions for PhD students at my former university in England. She was looking for someone to offer their personal experiences about the viva, and since it was for distance learning students, I figured why not! I’m at a distance these days anyways, being across the ocean in Canada. If everyone else could be at the class virtually, so could I.

But it meant I had to think about my viva for the first time in a year. And to think of it in something other than terms of overwhelming dread. That wasn’t going to be a very helpful approach to the future viva students. The point is not to severely concern anyone. After all, viva experiences are all individual and I know many people who had lovely experiences. But then, I know people who liked exams too, and personally they always just gave me anxiety attacks no matter how prepared I was.

I think this particular topic deserves several posts, but let me start at the beginning.

How to Prepare for Your Viva

First, don’t freak out. That’s really very important and for some people will be very hard. My goal was to not think about it until I absolutely had to (to prepare) and therefore put off the freaking out part as long as possible. If you are one of those people who maintains a cool head even in the most stressful situations, you already have a leg up. If you aren’t, I sympathise. The best you can do is remind yourself that freaking out before hand isn’t useful.

Once you convince yourself (or pretend you have) of that, it’s time to prepare. Preparation is the key to being calm in stressful situations, in my own experience. Preparing for a presentation to the point of memorisation makes me much calmer going into a conference, for example. For my viva, I just read my thesis cover to cover as many times as I could handle. I used colourful tabs to mark the most important pages so I could come back to them again and again as it got down to the wire (including on the plane over to England).

With the help of my supervisor, I came up with a list of ‘likely’ questions. Not the only questions, mind you, but ones the examiners typically ask or ones that directly related to identified issues in my thesis. This might take you the  most amount of time, because you have to think like someone else and that’s hard. But if you can figure out 10 questions you have a fare chance of getting asked, you can prepare answers.

Don’t prepare answers. I mean, don’t write them down in a script. Just think about them.  Share them with your supervisor(s). Make sure you understand the question and can answer it fully in your head and out loud. DON’T memorise them (you are not going into your viva to deliver a script. You are doing this to become used to having your work questioned and being able to respond). I found it best to have my supervisor ask them to me and me answer out loud, as in a mock viva. It felt better saying them to a person, rather than just in my head, and helped me get used to the inevitable stumble that’s so common when you’re nervous! It also got me used to coming up with different answers to the same question and to discovering answers I hadn’t even thought of at first.

That was pretty much my month of viva prep. I had returned to Canada after submitting my thesis, so I had to fly back to England for my viva. I don’t travel well. I travel a lot, but never well. I get horrible jet lag and can’t sleep on airplanes. I knew I was not going to be at my best, so I went over several days in advance and stayed in my friend’s empty house (he was on holiday). It meant I had a comfortable environment, with a kitchen to hand and no one I had to speak with. I mostly slept for two days. On the third day, I went over my whole thesis one last time. That was the last time I look at my thesis. Cramming into the small hours of the night before an exam has never been my style. I always stop before dinner the night before. If you don’t know it by then, you aren’t going to. And I did, after all, work on the thing for 3 years!

That was all the prep I did. I know several people who did more mock exams and with more than just their supervisor, but all around, this was the amount of prep most people recommended to me. And in the end, I don’t think I could have prepared anymore.

Next up: Viva Day

Post-Graduation

This strange and bizarre reality happens after you graduate. You’re done. DONE. It’s all over. They can’t take it away from you now (I tell myself this because the alternative is unthinkable). You are a PhD and you have a piece of paper and a hat (if you bought it) to prove it.

You are not, absolutely not, a student anymore. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Because no matter how bad it got during my PhD and no matter how many times I thought ‘the real world must be better than this’ I knew otherwise. I knew I had it good. And I miss it. And not with rose-tinted glasses either; I just plain miss all of it, and that includes the stress. At least I had something concrete to be stressed about.

Now I just stress about life in general.

But it’s a strange place to be, post-graduation. You are done. Many of your colleagues are probably finished too. You have other friends still doing it and now you are cheering them on from the ‘I finished – so can you!’ perspective. And you are either a) unemployed or b) lucky. If you are B, congrats, I’m exceedingly happy for you. If you’re A, you are probably also thinking ‘Maybe my PhD wasn’t so bad…’

Let me tell you, it wasn’t. Oh, trust me, I had months it was the Worst Thing I Have Ever Decided to Do and I regretted all my life choices. But now, on the flip side, and definitely in the A category, being a miserable PhD student is still better than being an unemployed PhD. Because at least I have something concrete to focus on: finish the PhD. Now my concrete has become the mythical: get a job. Because when people ask you ‘what do you do?’ you get to answer ‘I’m a PhD student!’ and they get excited. Now I answer ‘I’m working on a variety of things’ by which I mean job searching and making no money off trying to freelance. Generally, people get the message and stop asking. Some don’t. Then I come up with really impressive words for what I kind-of-sort-of-don’t-really-do. And they lose interest.

But hey, I have a PhD. A a LOT of people in the last months have said some version of ‘congratulations, that’s amazing’. And yes, that feels nice. For about .5 milliseconds until your brain reminds you that ‘yes, PhD: UNEMPLOYED’. But it’s weird, this post-graduation thing, because everyone around you who has not done a PhD thinks you have done the most amazing thing ever [WHICH YOU HAVE. Let me be clear, YOU HAVE.] And in your head, if you are the A person, all you hear is ‘if you can do that, why can’t you find a job?’ Because that’s what you ask yourself every single day.

If I did my PhD, and I have a shiny piece of paper to prove it, why am I still struggling with everything else in life?

Because. I promise you, others who have not done PhDs are struggling with life, and they don’t have a PhD on their wall to slightly console themselves with. But yes, most days, looking at that piece of paper fills me with no emotion whatsoever, except failure. Because yes, a PhD is a massive accomplishment, but if that’s all I do with the entire rest of my life….I’m going to have a problem.

So, things are changing. And this post is the first public step in that change. If academia is out (it is), and if no museum in this country wants to employ a PhD (or so it seems), then that leaves only one place to go.

I have always found it best to be my own boss. Hello consulting*, how are you?

*posts galore on this step-by-step process to come. And if you haven’t check out From PhD to Life yet, head right here. Because that’s been my biggest inspiration these last weeks, and if so many other people can do it, so can I.

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.

Divorce Rates (why people stop their PhDs)

I’m lucky. I know I am. I finished my PhD. It was a hard slog and there were weeks I considered stopping, but I didn’t, and I have my doctorate now.

But that does not mean that people don’t stop their PhDs. I hesitate to use the word quit, because that conjures up all sorts of negative connotations. To quit sounds like to fail. And stopping your PhD is not failing (failing your PhD is failing). It’s choosing to take a different path, because you realise the one you are on is not the right one. It’s no different than quitting your job because you know there are better options out there. And we wouldn’t consider that failing, would we?

Why stop your PhD? There are many reasons, and each one is as individual to the person making the decision. But let me list a few of the most common ones, and the ones I’ve actually encountered in people I’ve met.

You might decide to stop your PhD because of academic reasons. By which I mean: you don’t like your supervisor, your department, your university, your colleagues, etc. These are all valid reasons. If you hate your supervisor, or they are never around, or they want you to do different research, those are good reasons to stop your PhD. You might start it again at a different university (in fact, I suggest looking into other universities, if you stop for this reason; one university doesn’t mean all universities). If you aren’t happy with things, give serious consideration to why and what you can change. If you can’t change much, it might be time to look elsewhere, or reassess if you really want to do the PhD.

Another reason to stop is that you don’t like your topic anymore. This does not always mean you will throw in the hat. There are ways to change your topic without stopping doing your PhD entirely. I know people who have done it. I sort of did it myself (post for another week). Discuss this with your supervisor and other staff if you aren’t happy with what you’re doing. Can you change it and still stay in the department? Still keep your funding? Once you’ve figured out where you’re at you’ll know whether stopping is the way to go, or whether changing to a different department/university might work. But there are always ways to change your topic and still do your PhD.

Some people decide part-way through (or earlier, or later) their PhDs that it’s not for them. Sometimes it’s because they realise it won’t advance their career the way they want it to. Other times it’s because they just don’t like doing a PhD. Perhaps they’ve been offered a dream job. Perhaps their family situation has changed. If you simply decide the PhD isn’t for you, or it isn’t the right time to do one, then do stop. You won’t enjoy it anymore and it’s more stress than you need if it’s not helping you in life. I think this is a grand reason to stop doing your PhD and if I’d had the guts to actually stop mine, this would have been the reason.

Another reason to stop might be more along the lines of you just can’t handle it anymore. It’s okay. PhDs are stressful things. They can cause a lot of mental and physical anguish very easily. And it’s hard to get out of it. It’s hard to make it better. And sometimes it’s just too much. I completely understand. I seriously considering stopping for this reason at one time or another, but everyone feels that way at some point in their PhD. I took a sabbatical and realised I just needed a break. That may be the issue. If it is, take a break. If taking a break doesn’t help, give serious consideration to whether a doctorate is worth the misery. Because it can be miserable doing a PhD and I’m of the opinion that nothing in life is really worth the sort of misery that leads to depression and anxiety. They’re very hard to get rid of once you have them.

There are other reasons, of course. As I said, it’s a personal decision, and your reasons are your own. But whatever your reason – or reasons – know that they are valid. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to move on. It’s not failing. It’s not admitting defeat. It’s making the right decision for you at the right time. And once you stop (if you don’t start again somewhere else), don’t worry about people asking you ‘why did you quit?’ You don’t have to answer that. Your reasons are your own and they are right for you. Don’t let other people judge you. And never, ever let anyone tell you it’s a failure to stop doing your PhD.