Being the final blog post of 2018 is a strange sensation, as everyone focusses so much on both the year that has passed and the festivities to come. This was the year I finished my PhD – a hand in in September, a viva in December and here I am now, poised on the brink of corrections and looking to a new adventures come 2019. I used to loathe writing that leaned heavily on the ‘inspo’, writing that, at my lowest points, simply felt farcical. Looking back, I was naive to dismiss so much of it, and in the last year the voices of those who have gone before me has been one of the most pivotal sources of solace.
Doing a PhD isn’t always the life-affirming quest of passion and insight that we want it to be. Conversely, it isn’t always the emotionally wrecking ordeal that we fear it will be. In truth, it is a mix of all of these things, and amidst that, there’s a lot of mundane activity that somehow gets overlooked in the enormity of the task at hand. I would wager that not many of us out there have thought about the intricacies of setting your thesis draft for printing – did you know about mirrored margins? I did not. I learned approximately 10 hours before I was due to hand in. It is surprisingly stressful and confusing. (To any scholars of margins out there: I apologise for my own ineptitude, and salute your tenacity!)
To those who are out there wondering if they will ever finish the tasks they’ve set themselves in doing a PhD, I offer the following observations. They are not universal maxims but they were true for me, and I hope that you might find your own truth and direction in there too. Because you will find, as the months pass, that suddenly you’re over the summit of themountain and barrelling down the other side. It happens without warning and the way in which the speed picks up is alarming. But it means you’re on your way, and the momentum will carry you far: it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be finished.
So here is my wisdom such as it is…
Write without fear.
This was my biggest learning curve. I was lucky enough to attend a couple of Rowena Murray’s writing retreats in 2018. The first was generously provided by SGSAH, and allowed me to dig deeper into my own anxiety about writing. While there is a cost involved in these retreats, if you have external funding, these are a great investment. If, like me, you are self-funded, consider if there are ways you can make your own retreat (see my next point); or politely suggest to concerned parties such as family or friends that a nice birthday or Festivus present might be a donation towards attendance.
What Rowena’s method taught me was the importance of flow: gritting your teeth and simply writing for allotted sections of time. Not getting distracted by references, tangents or worries – just putting words on the page and worrying about the rest later. My productivity skyrocketed on those retreat days, and gave me the confidence to find my own voice in my writing and in my scholarship. It also led to the beginning of #remoteretreat, which segways nicely into my second point.
Build a community.
This is a perennial suggestion from PhD bloggers and it is a very good one. Build your own village of people who understand you, and who you can ask honestly for things, whether it’s simply time, a cuppa or a proofread. As Victoria Shropshire put it so well, get the right fruit for your bowl.Spend time with people you love outside of your research – my trips away with friends were a huge source of comfort and inspiration over the six years of my thesis, and I was touched by how much they supported me in the final months. Last week, when I was victim to the post-viva slump, I had coffee and cake with my partner, and two dear friends, one of whom has been a mentor to me since I was 19, and another who had just sat their own viva the week prior. This simple act of cake and anecdotes about our experiences lifted my spirits tenfold. The love and support that you have out there is real, and exists even when the chips are down and the negative self-talk takes hold.
I found Twitter to be incredibly useful in 2018, particularly when I started promoting the idea of #remoteretreat. I offer an overview of this on my own website, but the real action is in the #remoteretreat hashtag. On an ad-hoc basis, researchers and students offer to facilitate a day of writing that adheres to the Murray model, but via an online medium. The accountability of the system seems to really work for people, and the gif selection is sublime. There’s a huge community of open-minded and honest researchers out there who want to support each other, and retreat days bring that spirit to the fore. I’ve met a lot of lovely people this way, and the community continues to grow.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right not to mention PhD Women Scotland who are a force of magic with their writingcommunity: they offer writing days (which I have attended and adored) and amazing resources such as the list of suggested writing locations in Scotland. Read it, add to it and get yourself to one of the writing days if you can. They are fantastic.
This is a hard one to master. My own experience was a strange one in many ways – I took time out due to my mental health struggles, and I worked throughout my degree, as so many of us do. In that sense, with one foot out of the ivory tower at all times, I had a sense that if all else failed, I could, possibly, survive in the ‘real world’. My experience equipped me with compassion and transferable skills that have, if anything, enhanced my professional and personal life, but it is very easy to let the perceived enormity of ‘Academia’ and ‘A PhD’ eat into your soul and take up residence in your brain like some kind of awful monster. It makes you feel small and helpless, and like you will never break the surface of the water that you’re submerged in. This is not true. You have worth and value far beyond what your studies dictate. You are bigger than your fears, your anxieties and your research.
Amy Poehler, best known as Leslie Knope of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and a source of innumerable gifs, offers the following advice to millennials in her memoir ‘Yes, Please’, a book that I found incredibly uplifting and funny, if you’re looking for something to read that’s not research-based. (Tiny content warning for profanity and heteronormativity)
Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Here’s the thing. Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget you birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It’s never going to leave its wife. Your career is f**king other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you. (…) If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else
Your PhD will often be a bad partner, it is healthy to remember that you have a village around you of supportive and loving people who will take care of you and help you carry the burdens and that your worth is not tied into your research.
If I had to pick one of these observations as being the most important, I’d pick community every time. You are not alone – we’ve got your back.