The ups and downs of PhD research



Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s been 5 years since I finished my PhD, and when I finished, I remember thinking that there was so much I wish someone had told me about what it’s really like to do a PhD. Yes, there are lots of books of the ‘how to write a thesis’ variety. But what about the emotional journey? What about the changes in your health, your social life, and your relationships with those closest to you? And what about all the mistakes you make while trying to figure things out?

I made many, many mistakes. Some were stupid, others colossal, most were avoidable, but I had no one to tell me what to expect, so how could I have known?

I started designing The Ups and Downs of PhD Research because I just wanted to pass on some advice, and it’s since developed into a workshop that I think offers a safe space for students to voice concerns about how they are coping with their PhD, and also get advice from each other on the big and small stuff that keeps them awake at night. The starting point for my workshop is my own PhD journey, which I talk through using a timeline. I have put some of this on Prezi, and below are my thoughts based on certain points of my journey:

During my PhD journey, generally speaking, there were more highs than lows, but the lows seemed to last a lot longer. For example, the months spent transcribing my interviews and analysing my diary entries turned me into a she-devil. I’d never done anything like that before, so hours and hours of sitting in one position numbed my mind and body. For those of you who are thinking of transcribing: you have been warned.

Analysing my transcripts and diary entries was both a high and a low. I got a real buzz when research participants starting doing what I’d asked them. ‘My god,’ I thought, ‘they’re actually doing it.’ It’s quite a powerful feeling being able to control a tiny bit of someone’s daily ritual like that, but the flip side is that looking at all the data can be nerve-wracking, and I was initially paralysed with indecision about how to proceed with analysing it, or where and how to begin writing it up. I could have spent a decade coding on NVIVO, and it was only when an NVIVO-savvy friend looked at the screen and said, in a gentle voice so as not to wake the demon within, ‘there’s quite a lot of branches there…you might want to think about the bigger themes,’ that I realised how myopic my thinking had become.

I had no idea what I was looking for in the data. Not really, not if I’m honest. I could see themes bubbling to the surface, but I had no idea how to connect them. It was only reading that made the process of analysing a bit easier, particularly finding Metaphors We Live By in a charity shop, and then reading Opening Pandora’s Box cover to cover, and knowing that I had just read something that gave me permission to write about my data in a way that was right for me. I had spent the previous months trying to stuff my data into a template that my supervisor was pressing me to use, and I was really struggling to make it work, but this particular stretch of reading formed my ‘lightbulb’ moment and it only happened 6 months before I was due to submit.

At the risk of sounding like a line from The Bridges of Madison County, maybe everything I had read up until then was to prepare me for what these two books had to offer; if I had read these books in my first year I would have dismissed them. Your lightbulb moment will come to you too, but reading is the key, and reading outside your discipline will help you flex your brain cells and make new connections between your data sets.

My first year was defined by what I had to produce for my sponsor and I was not prepared for being ignored by them. When an organisation asks you to run a pilot study, you kind of assume that what you’re doing is important, and although it remains important to you, organisational politics and staff reshuffles mean that, at some point, you slide way down on their list of priorities. So don’t take it personally when you hear nothing from them, just complete what they ask and move on. Unless you want a job with them once you’ve finished your PhD, in which case, throw yourself at their feet (in a dignified way, of course).

My most frequent highs were from being immersed in the research process. When things were going well, it was addictive. I was devouring books and taking in ideas quickly, I was making connections between my emerging data and the theories I was reading, and, crucially, I was enjoying it. There is nothing like the feeling you get when you’re in command of your data and your research process. Obviously, it doesn’t come close to life affirming moments like births and marriages, but on the rare occasion when things are going well for a few days or weeks, you feel like a proper, bona fide researcher, and that’s important for your self-esteem.

The distractions were many; sponsors in my first year, teaching in my second year, and worrying about my future in my final year. I wish I hadn’t taken on so much teaching in my second year; the only person who really benefited from this was my supervisor. And I wish I hadn’t blindly followed other students down the ‘must apply for postdoc’ path in my third year. When you’re working exclusively amongst doctoral students, some of whom are so obviously being groomed to become mini versions of their supervisors, it’s easy to forget that there’s another world out there, away from academia, full of opportunities to use what you have learned during your doctoral training. Don’t forget that another life is possible, and it’s really important that you at least map out some options that will make you happy in the long term.

The continual stress, sustained over years, will take its toll on your body and mind. I was a spritely 33 year-old when I began studying and, 3 years later, I think I had the body of someone 20 years my senior. It was (mostly) environmental factors that impacted on my health, and it improved when my environmental stresses were reduced: long hours sitting down, staring at a computer screen without blinking, eating at my desk, lack of exercise, not enough fresh air, not enough time off. You all know what I’m talking about. When you begin thinking about life after a PhD, ask yourself if you can continue working like this. If it’s not for you, then some of the options you mapped out for yourself become more important than others.

As I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and what I’ve presented on Prezi is merely a snapshot of the major highs and lows. There was much more drama over the 3 years, but that’s for another blog post. The journey can be a bumpy ride; more of a rollercoaster than a smooth, upward learning curve. Like-minded students will help you make sense of what is happening. I hope you can take something from my experience, and I hope it doesn’t put anyone off signing up for a PhD. I still think (even with the ups and downs) that it was an important part of my personal journey, and that it has given me ‘that extra something’ that clients (and my new employer) look for in my particular field. I’m glad I did it.

Author Bio: Since completing her PhD 5 years ago, Nilam Ashra-McGrath has been running workshops on The Ups and Downs of PhD Research. She begins the workshop by sharing her PhD journey using a timeline, and has finally put some of this into a Prezi format.