Five Things I’ve Learned from My PhD

I don’t often write about my work here, mainly since a large purpose of this blog, for me, is to give me an outlet to write about other things. But I thought I should give it a little space, at least. I did write a draft post entitled ‘How My PhD Is Going’, thinking it might be a good update for those who were curious, but it turned into a long, melancholy lamentation, betraying how hard it is for me to approach the subject without feeling blue and discouraged. Not because it’s going badly – just that the final phases are very tiring, even a bit boring. Then I decided I should spin the issue more positively and ask myself, ‘What have I learned from this experience, with three years behind me?’

First of all, although I’ve been a prolific writer since the age of twelve, I have learned a lot about writing from this degree. Particularly the structural aspects of how to create a ‘texture’ and flow of the overall piece which facilitates clear movement through the argument. Because of the size of a PhD thesis, it isn’t always evident where a given piece of information should be placed. There are telescoping introductions, for example: the introduction chapter to the whole work, the introduction section to each chapter, and within each chapter each subsection usually has one or two paragraphs of introduction for the specific text under study. Much information in my thesis has hopped between these kind of sections before finding a final resting place in the location where it is most logically needed.

The other writing principle that I picked up in a workshop is about transitioning with a ‘before and after’ structure. That is, the start of a new section or new paragraph, or even a new sentence within a paragraph, should be linked to the previous one with an evocation of what has just come before. Either by saying explicitly, ‘As I said above’, or by deftly re-mentioning the main point of your previous section or sentence: ‘This conclusion’ or ‘Thus, all these features of the narrative…’. Then you move on to the new statement. Starting with ‘the before’ forces you to stipulate the logical connection between it and ‘the after’, or the next point or argument. It also eases the reader’s ability to follow the logical train of the argument.

I’ve also learned many skills for managing a large and long-term project. Although I do feel that business-style project management might be too unwieldy for a PhD project, I do wish I’d learned even more about this, because it’s interesting to me, but for now the tips I’ve picked up from others and my own trial and error have produced some idea for how to keep a large project moving and under control. Having a good system of organisation right from the start, for me, is vital, because at this stage there’s no way I could remember where all my notes are or where a quote or photocopy came from without a good system. My ‘notes on secondary texts’ folder started out without much in it, but now contains 324 documents! That’s in addition to any handwritten notes which are alphabetised in a binder. Imagine if I hadn’t had a coherent and capacious system from the start (shudder).

One thing tied to managing a project which I’ve learned – or have certainly been trying/forced to learn – is how to keep small parts in relation to the big picture. Honestly, before this I thought I was a big-picture person; I always liked to know the overall plan and goal of a project before starting it. But apparently my detail-oriented side is most prominent in my academic work, and for the last year and a half my supervisor has been pushing me to figure out ‘the big picture’ of my thesis. You know, in some ways (confession here) I don’t care that much what the big picture is, because it’s the analyses that interest and satisfy me. However, I’m realising that the overall point or emphasis of my thesis does matter insofar as it structures all the individual parts.

Awareness of the big picture has also helped me when I get to the point of overly nit-picking. Especially as I have been pushing my chapters towards a finished state, I’ve been trying to focus on whether each bit of writing makes the point I want to make. If it does, it actually doesn’t matter whether it’s ordered in the most perfect way, or reads totally flawlessly all through. If it makes the point clearly, it is good enough, and the details can be worked out later with as much time as remains.

The next thing I’ve learned is a slightly more personal skill. Namely, coping skills for discouragement, anxiety and depression. I don’t like to make blanket statements, but it seems to me that everyone I know who has done a PhD has suffered from at least one of these things at some point. Maybe that’s just a part of life rather than part of the postgraduate experience, but I think the one unusual feature of academic work is that there is very little pressure or motivation to carry on if you aren’t feeling on good form. There is no daily timesheet, expectant boss or manager, or wage riding on any given day’s work. Often, there is also a dearth of ‘easy tasks’ to ease yourself back into working when your brain is giving out.

So, I’ve found that it has been really important not just to prevent getting into a slump (they did cover this in my orientation), but to deal with it effectively when I do. Sometimes I give myself a specifically limited break, sometimes search out a thoughtless task to complete for a feeling of accomplishment, sometimes move to work in a different place – as well as many other strategies. But these are useful things to learn.

The final thing that came to mind is also a more personal one. It stems from some advice I received before I started my PhD. What I’ve learned is that I am still the same person I was before (for good or ill!). Before I started, a former professor of mine commented to me, ‘Well, it won’t change who you are.’ I thought it was a strange response to hearing that I was starting a doctorate. It was only some time later that I began to realise one possible meaning of that. Part of me had hoped that graduate school would alter what has always been my fundamental problem of adult life, which is being too interested in too many things, and simultaneously uninterested in any concept of a career. I did hope that perhaps academics would be the one perfect career that would induce me to love it forevermore, and be happy devoting all my energy to this one vocation. It would make my life so much simpler. Alas, while I have loved my graduate experience, it hasn’t lessened my interest in other pursuits or the fact that my primary focus has always been on wanting home and family (which is distinct from actually being married, which I also wanted but knew might not happen).

So that’s the summary of a few things I’ve learned. It’s been useful to write out. Happy Friday!

One thought on “Five Things I’ve Learned from My PhD

  1. Thanks for sharing. It is helpful to articulate what goes into this kind of work and especially reflect on what you have learned through the process. Sharing it with us is good “food for thought” whether we ever write such a thesis or not.

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