Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, Higher Education, PhD, research

Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 2 (research): Breaking out of the cocoon that is called a PhD

The topic of mental health in higher education is usually debated in relation to the rising number of mental health incidents among students, or the growing stress levels experienced by staff.

The Guardian, for example, recently revealed how “British universities are experiencing a surge in student anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression”. The topic gained media attention after a series of suicides affected one university in particular, between 2016 and 2018, although it appears to be a more widespread phenomenon.

Similarly, workloads have become unmanageable for many academics, having to juggle their time between teaching, marking, course development, board meetings, examining theses, producing 4* publications, grant income, and so on. In fact, staff increasingly falls back on counselling and occupational health in universities, as a recent HEPI report by Dr Liz Morrish, entitled Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, has shown.

Who tends to be overseen in this context is the PhD student. Embarking on a PhD project is exciting: you’re at the start of a – hopefully great – career, maybe you’ve won a PhD studentship, or your university is highly ranked. BUT, it can also be really daunting: you need to produce something good now, become an expert in your field, and you have to do it all by yourself.

In sum, doing a PhD can be empowering, but it can also shred your self-confidence. Competing fellow students. Insensitive dinosaur-professors slashing you off at conferences. Pressure being put on you to finish your thesis on time. Feeling cut out when you can’t join your peers because you’re having to work on the side.

Sure, you have a supervisor, but they won’t be holding your hands, or chasing you up. You have to learn how to manage your time, develop research skills, and write academically.

Now it’s OK to make mistakes. Like I replied to one of my proofreading clients, when she apologised for her “crappy” writing: it’s a PhD student’s prerogative to write in a crappy way. For the record, she got the highest score in quality of written English, and she didn’t only have my proofreading skills to thank for it.

Nevertheless, a PhD puts a lot of pressure on people. It can be daunting.

Doing research – be it in a public archive or at home – and writing a thesis is generally a solitary routine, which can be thoroughly demotivating, especially if you don’t have an office to go to.

I used to migrate between home, library, and computer rooms (regularly leaving behind my pen drive), and I remember how it made me feel lost. I was the only new PhD student in my year, and those who had started their PhDs in previous years were all teaching, or doing it part time. I hardly ever saw them, and we never organised anything as a group.

This is another issue: PhD isolation also prevents you from confronting your research with other people, and as a result, it’s harder to grow as a scholar. Talking about your project, what it’s about and why it’s so interesting, can help you clarify your ideas, maybe even open your eyes to things taken for granted, or that skipped your attention.

So if you risk being isolated during your PhD, here’s five practical tips on how to break out of that cocoon:

  1. Groups. See if there’s a postgraduate community in your department or school, and if there isn’t, why not start one? It can be as simple as having lunch together or a coffee break in the common room. And if you’re a “PhD orphan”, have a look outside your department as well.
  2. Seminars. Your department or school is bound to be running postgraduate seminars, which are nice and informal. Also try to attend some postgraduate conferences in your discipline (some of which award travel grants for unfunded students). Avoid major conferences, though, at least in the first two years of your PhD, unless you have a smashing conference paper that you know will make you a superstar overnight.
  3. Training. Most universities offer a postgraduate training programme, which are free to attend, and usually come with coffee and biscuits. Great way to meet new people and also take a break from your research/writing routine.
  4. Study areas. Another good way to break out of your cocoon is to do your research in a space where you’re bound to meet your peers. This is particularly relevant if you work from home, where it’s easy to get demotivated or distracted. Instead, identify a public space where you work well but can also talk to people. It gives your day structure, and it will get you out of your pyjama!
  5. Social media, I didn’t start using Twitter until fairly recently, but I see a lot of PhD students and ECRs talking to each other there, sharing feelings of anxiety and frustration, but also supporting each other (for example at #PhDchat). I guess it’s not as nice as chatting with people over tea and biscuits, but it’s a fair alternative. And it’s always good to get a rant out of your system.

Now all this might not be your thing. Maybe you’re perfectly happy working from home, and your weekly yoga class is all you need to satisfy your socialising needs. Maybe your PhD community includes someone like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, and you rather have a quiet lunch on a bench outside, taking advantage of a beautiful autumn day.

That’s fine. As long as you develop a routine that you’re comfortable with.

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Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Student staring out the window at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about doing academic research:

It’s that time of REF again!

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