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  • vikki-houlden

Battling PhDemons

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

I was invited to take part in a RGS panel this week, on 'the Ups and Downs of a PhD and Beyond'. We had a really interesting discussion around routes, challenges and reflections as an Early Career Academic, and it got me thinking about how much has changed, and what I've learnt since I defended my thesis two years ago.

I found the writing-up phase of my PhD both exciting and debilitatingly exhausting. I'm not a great sleeper at the best of times, and the stress of turning three and a half years of research into a 60,000-word document had me surviving on flapjack, coffee, post-run endorphins, and about 5 hours sleep a night. There were a lot of cheers and a lot of tears. Was it worth it? I want to say 'YES', but actually I don't think I could put myself, or anyone else, through that again. So here is some advice I would give to my bleary-eyed PhD-ing self, if I could.

  1. You need to develop some healthier coping strategies if you're going to make it through in one piece. You will have to work hard but please take some more time for yourself, try to relax your body and mind, drink something other than coffee, and do things you enjoy outside of academia.

  2. Don't take your supervisors' or reviewers' comments to heart. They really do want to help (at least for the most part), and you're going to need to handle constructive criticism if you want to improve. By all means get annoyed about it to start with, take a break, and come back with a fresh mind and make improvements.

  3. Coffee is not a substitute for sleep. COFFEE IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR SLEEP.

  4. Talk to your family, peers, and your supervisors about how you’re feeling and never ever be afraid to speak out if you need extra support, because you’re not in this alone and your mental health is really really important. Especially your peers, as they're likely to be going through a lot of the same things.

  5. Start writing early. Writing up takes AGES and it really can drag. So allow a lot longer than you think to give yourself plenty of time, and account for the stages when you're waiting for supervisor feedback.. Think about how long you might need. Probably double that. And add a little extra, for luck.

  6. Building on that last point: Write down everything! Even if you're not writing up in full, make a note of useful references and the steps you took for your analysis as you go. Make notes during supervisor meetings. You think you'll remember it all when you come to write up, but you won't. You definitely won't.

  7. Make people accountable and don't be afraid to bug your supervisors. They really do intend to read your work and they should get comments back to you when they've promised. But they're also incredibly busy and you're going to have to send them a (not so) occasional nudge.

  8. Build on the experience of other PhD students. Ask about the kind of questions they were asked during their Vivas, so you will have an idea what might come up and can prepare some thoughts and responses.

  9. The output of your PhD isn’t just your thesis, it’s you. You've poured your heart and soul, and probably every last ounce of energy, into your PhD over the last few years. You've probably presented at conferences, been posed difficult questions, had paper or application rejections, sleepless nights, worked evenings and weekends. But through all this you've become an expert in your subject, while learning a whole host of academic skills. So be really flipping proud of your thesis, but remember that's only a part of what you've achieved.

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