On finishing early


Engaging with #phdchat on Twitter and other platforms is equal parts terrifying and hilarious for a new PhD candidate (see @legogradstudent and @GameofAcademics as evidence). The internet can quickly become a vortex of stories of bad supervision, huge writing deadlines and long journeys through the Valley of Shit. It seems that stories of happy, early completion of a PhD are as real as unicorns.

But as @thesiswhisperer points out in the later chapters of How to Be an Academic,if it was all bad, people wouldn’t finish their PhDs or become academics at all. To that end, I would like to share a positive PhD story. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows (because nothing ever is) but I hope it serves as a counterpoint to the many stories of woe (which are important in highlighting some of the deep inequities and flaws in the current state of academia in Australia and elsewhere).

My wife and I decided to start a family in 2013; at the same time I was offered the chance to enrol in a PhD in English Literature. So, with three months to go before our baby, Nigel-Wade*, arrived (my wife carried him), I started my doctoral studies. “How hard can it be? Babies sleep all the time!” I thought. “You’re mad!” I was told by my colleagues and boss, who nonetheless gave me their total support. So there’s the first three positives: I had a supportive partner, a full-time job (more on this later) and supportive colleagues. Having that good personal support network was obviously a huge advantage and the first sprinkle of unicorn-magic.

The other big advantage I had was a crack supervisory team (see The Tyranny of the Awesome Supervisor) who had different but complementary approaches to my work. This meant instead of feedback in stereo or open disagreement, feedback on my writing was often double-layered and therefore doubly helpful. One supervisor tended to provoke me to think more deeply and read more widely to enrich my scholarship, while the other got into the nitty-gritty, honing my writing and developing my academic voice. I know this is not everyone’s experience and I cannot advocate strongly enough that finding a good supervisor is one of the key ingredients to being able to become a PhD unicorn.

Yes, I did say earlier I had a full-time job (and I continue to do so). Work and study are not incompatible, but another bout of unicorn-magic made this work well for me. As a school teacher, I get about 12 weeks of holidays a year (for angry rants about how little teachers do, please see MP Andrew Laming). As my wife prepared for her return to work, Nigel-Wade was enrolled in a day-care centre we loved. Him being in care allowed me to work full-time on my thesis in my school holidays (I have been teaching for 15 years and so have been able to get to a point where I rarely have to bring work home) and so I would not speak to my supervisors for the 10 weeks of term, then send them 5000 words at the end of each holiday. I think the key here is not finding a work/study balance, but rather being very productive in the time you give to both. I work hard at work and at uni to ensure I have the time for other things.

So, my recipe for unicorn-magic so far, is support, good supervision, and good time management – if you aren’t across these read ALL THE POSTS on the Thesis Whisperer blog immediately! The real horn on the horse though is WRITING. I watched another PhD student read, and read, and read, and read… and then not submit their unfinished thesis because they had overwhelmed themselves with research and were unable to find a way through to a finished product. Even if it is not your natural mode of working, writing to think or to synthesise is a unicorn-hack of epic proportions. My own approach was to do a ‘chunk’ of research and reading (e.g. second-wave feminist responses to Mary Shelley, or understanding the methodology of contextual biography) – this might be a few days or a week, but rarely more than two weeks. At the end of this time, I would turn all my notes into prose – much of which became a part of my thesis or where spun off into conference papers of publication submissions. The first 2000 words I wrote for my literature review were rubbish, but as I read more, I added and refined chunks until it evolved into the 12000+ word chapter in my thesis.

I studied part-time, while raising a child and working full-time (I went 0.8 in my last year to allow me to engage more consistently with my work as it approached completion) and submitted my thesis for examination 5 years and 2 months after I started, 10 months prior to my official deadline for submission. I know I am hugely privileged to have had all of the positive experiences I have had and lucky that my studies were not derailed by serious illness or disaster (because as everyone knows #lifehappens). Was it all rainbows and sunshine? No. Of course I would have preferred to spend my holidays at home with my boy and I am revelling in that now I can. The guilt all parents feel of putting their child in care is real and unavoidable. Did I have negative experiences? Yes. The dressing down from a senior academic at one of my first conferences made me question the validity of my work.  The elation of a book contract was quickly dashed by a soul-destroying peer review that saw the contract vanish in a puff of very un-unicorn-like smoke.

Doing a PhD is not easy. But some have it easier than others and it is possible to become that mythical creature who finishes their studies in the given time with their personal lives and health intact. Following much of the wonderful advice in the #phdchat community and writing often might mean when you wander into the forest of academia, you are the one rare unicorn who emerges unscathed.

*note: this is the pseudonym we used for our unborn foetus, we did not name our child Nigel or Wade and we definitely didn’t hyphenate the two. Apologies to any Nigel-Wades reading this.


Author Bio: Dr Alison Bedford is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Southern Queensland, parent, wife, secondary History and English teacher, sessional lecturer in History teacher education, and generally busy human.