That’s my PhD desk. Yup.
When I had my final meeting with my supervisor, I described to him how taxing the final few months of my PhD had been. He put his elbows on the arm rests of his chair, placed his hands together to make a pyramid, and knowingly said, “Yes, but if you’d known how difficult it was going to be, you would never have have started”.
This is the essence of a PhD. Before you start, you have the sense that it will be a difficult pursuit. But you don’t really know how difficult it will be. What I want to do in this post is give you some idea of what it’s like to work on this single, daunting project. Is it for you? Well, these are the things you need to consider to make that decision:
1. Your marks: The general path for study in Australia is Honours, Masters, then PhD. However, if you have achieved a first class Honours degree (average of 80% or above), then you can skip Masters and go straight to a PhD. I took the latter path, and whilst the step between undergraduate study and Honours is huge, so is the step between Honours and PhD. Perhaps even more so. I can understand the argument for going from Honours to Masters and then, perhaps, turning it into a PhD if you choose, because the learning curve is less brutal. I suppose the difficulty lies in finance for most people, as it did for me. Very few are willing to put their lives (and money) on hold for longer than they need to, even if the intellectual journey will be a bit less shocking because of it.
2. Money: I was fortunate enough to receive an Australian Postgraduate Award which enabled me to do my PhD. If you have a good First, then you should apply for one too. The money is not grand, but it will keep you in stockings and gin. If you are moving from a salary to a scholarship, it is a BIG step down financially. I paid off all my debt before I started, but if you have a mortgage, car loans, etc money will be a bit trickier to negotiate. To be honest, even though I was debt free when I started, I am back in debt now. My savings are long gone, and I’ve needed my partner to dip into his pockets for me on many occasions.
3. The academic journey: The beginning of a PhD is great. You read interesting books, figure out your topic, have coffee with interesting people, and generally just having a good time. This lasts for about a year.
Then, things start to get a bit more serious. By the second year you are well in to hacking out chapters and sorting out a direction for your thesis, and you start to think about how much work it’s going to take to finish this. A thesis is “an original contribution to academia”, so there is no frame of reference for what you are writing. Finding your niche and working out the direction for your thesis is crucial, and very difficult.
In the final six months, things are insane. I am no stranger to hard work. In my last job I worked between six and a half and seven days a week, and routinely worked until 11 at night, so I was used to high stress and long days. But let me tell you, the last six months of the PhD is right up there in terms of hard work and stress levels. To finish the thesis, I worked 14 hour days with an odd day off here and there (perhaps once a fortnight), because it’s not until you get to the end of a PhD that you know how to write it. You look back on everything you’ve written, and see the inconsistencies between chapters and arguments, the weak footnotes, and you understand what you need to do with alarming clarity. It takes a lot of work. For me, the introduction and conclusion were the hardest part of the whole thing – my introduction alone was about 10,000 words and I revised it about 8 or 9 times.
4. Wellbeing: I exercised regularly and ate very well during my PhD, and even though I had to give up my exercise towards the end of my PhD, I feel like it really helped me think clearly through long, long days. When I did Honours I was working full time and studying part time, and amongst all of that I was drinking a crazy amount of coffee and eating junk. It made the whole experience much harder than it should have been. To operate at an advanced intellectual level for extended periods, your brain needs to be working at its optimal level. Eating decent food and exercising when you can has a huge impact on this.
5. Emotional support: If someone had told me that I would need emotion support to write this thing I would have scoffed. I’ve frequently had to manage work and study on my own and had no problems with that. However, I NEEDED emotional support to write this, particularly towards the end. Phonecalls to friends who had been through the same thing and a sympathetic partner made the world of difference to how I was feeling. Part of PhD success lies in the ability to keep working despite extreme amounts of stress, and a supportive network helps with these situations. Remember, though, that in order to get through this process, you need, above all things, endurance. You need to work on your own for long, long periods. At PhD level, you are not competiting with other people in your class, you’re competing with yourself, through all the stress and self-doubt.
But remember, the point of the PhD is for it to be challenging. The best academic minds in the world will be your reference point, and PhDs are not given out lightly. If you have drive, dedication, the ability to work long hours, and an inherent passion for your subject, then perhaps this is the path for you. Making this kind of decision is always going to be a scary leap of faith, but these are the moments that make life meaningful. If you decide to do it, good luck to you.