“I’m writing a book no one will read” and other reasons the PhD can get you down

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The other day I received an email from a stranger. A final year PhD student wrote to my to thank me for the piece on PhD “survival strategies” that I wrote recently for the Guardian and to which many others contributed.

I have to admit that this kind of feedback, as well as the comments the piece received online, the tweets and facebook shares, made me feel good. After all, they suggest that what I do (other than writing my thesis) is actually relevant for some people. It is precisely this feeling of doing something meaningful which we, as PhD students but also as “full-blown” academics often don’t have.

How many times have I heard my peers respond to the question what do you do for a living with a disheartened: “I write a book. A book no one will ever buy or read. Apart from my parents – if I’m lucky.” With this attitude it is of course little surprising that PhD students are less than excited to work on their research – and even start to resent it.

It is not surprising that we then don’t produce the outputs that are expected from us until we don’t have much of a choice because a deadline is approaching. Most PhD students hence refer to themselves as procrastinators – or failures. Often, they then begin to focus on other things – for somehow everything seems to be more interesting, exciting and “doable” than the thesis.

The only problem with this strategy: it is counter-productive given the time-constraints PhD students face nowadays.

So I have been thinking why writing a PhD seems to be such a difficult task to many of us, assuming that we are in fact intellectually able to complete the task we chose for ourselves – and for which we were deemed capable by our departments and supervisors.

While the individual reasons are manifold and will diverge from PhD student to PhD student, there are three causes that have repeatedly been suggested to me by my peers and which would like to critically examine here:

Writing is just not fun.

While some might argue that sitting for hours alone in front of a computer– whether it is at home, in the library or the local Starbucks – is not the most exciting activity in the world, I would like to challenge this argument. After all, there is something “fulfilling” in turning a white page into a piece of paper that captures one’s thoughts, ideas and ability to create a structure. My email friend from this morning – let’s call him John – confirmed this perception when he admitted that in his free time he likes to write fiction.

Even though I acknowledge that academic writing is not the same as writing a novel, a poem, a short story or a blog, there is a sufficient number of similarities between them to conclude that John – and others – actually don’t have a problem with writing as such.

After all, due to the availability of wireless internet, online resources and portable computers we can now choose our writing environment and no one has us to sit alone in a cold, windy and dark room anymore. Rather, we can choose the place and environment which we find most stimulating. We can join writing groups or make arrangements with our peers for “group library sessions” (and breaks). So, I dare to argue that most of the time it is not the writing activity itself that makes the PhD such a difficult undertaking.

My supervisor does not support me.

A second argument often brought forward by PhD students is that they do not get sufficient support from their supervisors. John, too, suggested that the reason for why felt miserable (“I spent three years in a place where I haven’t had fun”) was because he was poorly supervised. He told me about the lack of support from a “mentor” who barely deserved this title and who, rather than sharing his knowledge and experience, pointed out that he was not a baby-sitter. When John asked him for advice, he was sent a link to a website called “let me google that for you”.

Against such experiences, it is little surprising that John – and so many other PhD students – feel like they are caught in a personal fight rather than an enriching experience. Yet, the truth is that difficult relationships can be found in most work places and incompetent bosses are not exclusive to academia. One might argue that the relationship between a supervisor and the PhD student is – or should be – particularly close and that potentially negative consequences of a dysfunctional relationship are more harmful for an intellectual project that depends to a large degree on exchange and creativity. Yet, I do believe that in most cases a sufficiently motivated and thought-through project will not be destroyed by poor supervision.

I cannot focus.

Finally, a third reason that I came across many times when talking to PhD students about what holds them back, is a lack of focus. The cademic environment is one of constant stimulation where one is surrounded by a world of knowledge, inspiration and ideas. But this should not come as an obstacle to PhD students who have proven that they can in fact focus – and commit to an area – much more than others. After all, we decided to “stick” to our respective subjects much longer than all our peers who left university after their bachelor or master degrees.

Hence, I am convinced that it is only normal that after years of university-experience we become interested in what else is “out there” and the activities of our friends outside the ivory tower. I would even argue that as “good academics” we should not beat ourselves up for being interested in the findings, methods and ideas of our peers.

The inconvenient truth

It seems to me that it is a lack of sincere motivation for our own research that seems to be the problem to many of us.

I don’t know why we are not as fully committed to our projects as we should or could be, in particular as we often choose the topic ourselves. (At this point, I would appreciate any insights into what holds people back from completing tasks in general.) But I know that it is much easier to blame others for our “PhD-blues” than ourselves and I am convinced that what has to change first and foremost is our attitude towards our own research.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to let our supervisors and universities “off the hook”.

They do have a responsibility to guide us and provide us with the basics for a productive environment. We need sufficient workspace, financial assistance, writing support, career development services and – probably more than anything – an open ear from our supervisors.

But it is equally important that we realize that even if we do not get the constructive feedback we deserve and which has long been identified as an essential quality of successful leaders in the business world, we can turn our PhD into a success story.

What we need is “simply” other channels to receive positive recognition. The latter may come from realizing that we are a good friend, supportive partner, successful teacher or a good fictional writer. Or we may get our little “success story” from positive feedback on a small blog piece.

Whichever activity we identify as our personal success, we should “celebrate” it and take it as an opportunity to be proud of ourselves. As a consequence, we will generate a positive attitude towards ourselves which in turn triggers our creativity and helps us remember that writing a thesis is only something we do – and does not define who we are.

Author Bio: Inez Von Weitershausen, a PhD student at the London School of Economics who blogs on people, thoughts, experiences, feelings on the Epiphany blog.

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