#startingthePhD? managing expectations


If you are starting out on a PhD you are probably expecting it to be hard work. That’s not wrong. A doctorate isn’t easy – it’s an extended piece of work over a long period of time. It takes energy and effort to stay focused and working on working on.  Stamina.

But you can’t expect to maintain the same pace and intensity throughout. There’s inevitably be some ups and downs.  And some of these can be anticipated. There are some predictable points in the PhD which are challenging –

  • getting the research question or the hypothesis sorted out,
  • reining in the literature and working out how to structure your account of them,
  • devising a strategy to tackle all of the data you have generated
  • finding the theory that allows you to explain what you have
  • cracking the structural nut that leads to a coherent well-argued thesis text
  • clarifying the contribution that you make, to the point where you can say it in a couple of sentences.

These are challenging things precisely because they are places where you are doing work that is new to you. You’re pushing at the edges of what you already know. New thinking.

Formulating your “answer” to research “problems” is not necessarily going to come quickly, or to order. You may have to slough around for a quite a while before the pieces gel. So expecting that there are going to be some stuck points is sensible.

It’s also sensible to anticipate times when you’ll feel out of your depth. You’ve no doubt heard about imposter syndrome – more correctly called a phenomenon, as it’s not an illness, but it is something that a lot of people experience. Imposter phenomenon isn’t something to be frighted of. It’s pretty logical if you think about it. Feeling like you don’t know what you are doing or talking about is a perfectly rational response to being halfway through a project, to being in the company of people who have been reading and researching for a long time, and to having to put your emerging ideas out there. You’re really not yet sure of what you’re doing. And that’s the doctorate. It’s what it’s about, it’s built into the three year project. You’re not at all deficient or defective if you feel like a bit of a fraud sometimes.

There are of course ways to deal with the fear that you might be found out at any moment –  good preparation. rehearsing, learning a bit of improv, owning the work in progress. But it’s also about recognising that not knowing and being unsure are integral to research and are as much a part of the process as actually knowing.

Along the way there may well be other dips and troughs too, related to your project, life, the weather – and these days, various forms of lockdown. These are unpredictable in the sense of when they happen – but you can realistically expect there might be a few life related bumps. After all, not a lot of adults have three to four years (or more) where nothing much happens.

If your plan for your PhD has a bit of slack in it, a bit of flex, then you can likely weather a lot of the PhD trickiness. Taking advantage of all of the support for wellbeing and self care, as well as finding and keeping the information about support services, is simply sensible forward planning.

You may worry however that the PhD is inevitably going to be an ordeal. You have probably read a lot about the trials and tribulations and not much about the pleasures. There are loads of stories out there about poor supervision relations, dysfunctional labs and departments, institutional discrimination and bungled or neglectful administration. These are all true and it’s as well to know that these are possible. But it’s also the case that these don’t happen to everyone. And when they do a lot of people still find a way to get through them, with help from support groups and sheer bloody-minded determination.

But there are times when the PhD is simply a joy. Anticipate these too.

There are creative pleasures in piecing together disparate pieces of literature, finding a way through a knotty data question, seeing the patterns finally emerge out of your time-consuming analysis, finding a text that really moves your thinking on, locating the big idea that will make the writing work. There are energising conversations and new friendships where ideas bubble over and unexpected collaborations happen. There are local and international networks where your work not only finds a place but is seen as important and exciting and where you encounter new and surprising perspectives. There is affirmation when others read even your most tentative ideas – and find them helpful or interesting or provocative.

These fulfilling occasions are also potentially waiting for you too, confirming your decision to undertake such a long haul intellectual project.

Finally. One last thing. You do need to know, as you start on the PhD, that the majority of supervisors and grad school staff not only understand what it takes to start and finish the doctorate, they also want you to succeed. We mightn’t always know what is best or right for you, and we might make mistakes, but our goal is the same as yours – that you get to do the walk across the stage wearing the floppy hat and full academic dress. We’re here to help.