Musings on the unruly PhD


PhDdreamOne of the things that really annoys me about being a PhD student is all the unwarranted, generic advice that gets doled out to me:

  • “Go overseas for a postdoc”
  • “Publish as much as you can during your PhD”
  • “Don’t waste your time on teaching or tutoring. It’s all about research output”
  • “Don’t do your PhD at your undergraduate institution”
  • “Quit all your other hobbies and interests. You must live and breathe your PhD or you will die sad and unsuccessful”

Ok, so I made that last one up – no one has ever said that to me.

But it does seem like there is a lot of cookie-cutter advice for PhD students. People offering such advice obviously do so out of good intentions, but the problem with these broad suggestions of how to crack into academia is that it’s never that simple. These recommendations never take into account individual needs and preferences:

I don’t want to go overseas – I love my home and have a great life I don’t want to leave. Publishing sure is a great idea, but I also have this pesky thesis to finish.

I LOVE teaching and tutoring – it brings me happiness and also gives me an opportunity to develop a whole bunch of important skills beyond writing the dissertation. I also love my undergraduate institution; I wanted to stick with my Honours supervisor for my PhD because he is the supervisor dreamboat: passionate, supportive, engaged, and organised.

Despite these very good reasons for not following particular bits of advice, I’ve still had a nagging feeling that somehow I’m doing everything wrong – that I’m not following the “right” PhD path. This is where ‘The Unruly PhD’ by Rebecca Peabody comes in.

This is not your average “This is how to do a PhD” book. As a PhD student herself, Peabody had a strong desire to read “stories about people who had gone through the same things that [she] was going through, who had made it work one way or another… [She] wanted to have a beer with graduate students who had nothing to lose by telling [her] their war stories” (p. xi).

And that’s exactly what this book does. It’s a collection of interviews with scholars, and essays authored by Peabody, but based on in-depth interviews with people on the other side of a PhD. There are thirteen individual stories overall about people who are now in academia, people who are now out of academia, and people who decided that quitting their PhD programs was the right path for them.

The innovative combination of interviews and essays means that ‘The Unruly PhD’ is a useful read for a very broad audience, because there’s going to be at least one story you connect with:

Thinking about doing a PhD but not sure about the realities of it? Read this book.

Partway through a PhD and feeling like you’re doing everything wrong and everyone around you has it all figured out? Read this book.

Partway through a PhD and desperately unhappy, but convinced that quitting your candidature would mean you’re an epic failure? Read this book.

Rather than offering ‘one size fits all’ advice, Peabody shows that “there are as many right ways to get through a PhD as there are students willing to forge their own paths” (p xv).

This is a lovely way to approach the idiosyncrasies of the PhD, because it helps us reframe how we define a “successful” PhD student.

It doesn’t all have to be about a good publishing record, or being a smooth networker. A successful student is one who sneaks off for a few hours a week to surf. A successful PhD student is one who takes her partner’s needs into consideration when choosing a new institution. A successful PhD student can even be one who decides that the PhD is not the path they want to walk.

What makes these people ‘successful’ is that they’re happily on the other side of a PhD.

Peabody is embedded in the humanities, as are many of her participants. She is also writing from the perspective of being in the US tertiary system. But the book focuses on the more ‘human’ aspects of undertaking a PhD (work/life balance, not going totally crazy, keeping yourself happy and healthy), so it doesn’t matter one jot where along the science/humanities continuum your research interests lie, or where you are undertaking your PhD.

This collection is an affirmation of different ways of doing a PhD. It offers no ‘advice’, as such. It just presents some honest and in-depth stories about different experiences of this weird and wonderful thing that is a PhD. Taking a peek through this book really is like sitting down with someone over a pint and hearing about all the stuff that doesn’t appear on their CVs: the false starts, the hard decisions, and the uncertainties.

After reading ‘The Unruly PhD’, I still have a feeling that I’m doing my PhD a bit differently; I’m not following a ‘normal’ path. The difference is that now I can see that I should stop worrying about how everyone else seems to be doing their PhD and celebrate that I’m doing my PhD my way.

Author Bio: Catherine Ayres is  a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology at the Australian National University who is researching the multiple and sometimes conflicting ways we conceptualise and experience ‘Nature’, specifically in the realm of national parks and other protected areas.