Monday, June 30, 2008

So You Want to Do a PhD?: Part I

Cutest image in the world from Golly Molly

I'm reluctant to make this blog all about doing PhDs, because that's not what it's supposed to be about, and I already alienate enough people socially with the "P-word" - I don't need to do it more online!

But I had a lot of feedback about my last post on doing a PhD, and thought I'd share a few thoughts on what prompted me to make the decision in the first place, and some of the reactions I received.

Deciding to do a PhD seemed quite an unremarkable thing to me at the time. I love studying English, I had a good idea of what I wanted to study, and the opportunity to work with a great supervisor. But for what I thought was an uncontroversial decision, I received a surprising amount of backlash from some people. (Not, of course, from my close friends.) A few of the common reactions were, "Why would you want to spend another four years at uni?", "You're too young/old to do a PhD", (I'm only 25 now!) and "Why don't you get a proper job first?" I was blown away! I wondered why so many people felt qualified to judge my decision so openly, but it seems like you just need to get used to varied reactions. Even now, a few months away from completion, I try not to say 'PhD' when I meet new people - it just elicits a lot of hostility.

So none of that should be taken as a reason not to pursue a doctorate - more just like a friendly heads-up that people can get weird about it...

But these are some things that might help you feel good about your decisions. You might want to do a PhD because:

-you have a really great idea and feel passionate about researching and writing it.

-you see a PhD as a positive next step in your career and are excited about the thought of publishing.

-you want to get into academia.

-you want a period in your life where you can think, read and write with as much freedom as possible.

-you are organised and goal-oriented. Self-motivation really helps here - you're on your own a lot.

Since beginning my candidature, I have decided (at this stage) not to go into academia. Do I regret my thesis? Not at all. It has taught me so many invaluable things which I couldn't have imagined before - and not just about my topic area. It has been an incredible experience to have to think so hard. Of course it's difficult at times, but getting through those patches has made the results even sweeter.

OK, that's enough for one post. I'd love to keep hearing your feedback - anything I should cover next?


  1. The bizarre anti-PhD prejudices of otherwise reasonable people often take me by surprise. As the boyfriend of a PhDer I have come across the raised eyebrows, the knowing smirks and the inevitable "Hasn't she finished yet?" wisecracks. I see two possible reasons:

    1. Once you get to a PhD, it's no longer possible for real worlders to secretly assume that you're actually studying for a thinly veiled vocational qualification. So they are jealous and defensive because you're doing something completely out of their box.

    2. A lot of people have no idea what doing a PhD actually involves and resort to humour, hoping to change the subject as quickly as possible.

    I'm a massive fan of the Doctorate, and regularly defend academia to the hordes of naysayers (mostly to deflect awkward questions about my own career choices...

    I came across a quote from a book review today: "You can be a role model by making the hard choice. ... I hadn’t really considered that making a hard choice could actually inspire others, and I think that’s important."

    It might not have seemed like a hard choice to you but to most people a PhD is a pretty huge deal, and really quite inspiring. Tell that to the naysayers. ;o)

  2. I totally forgot about the "hasn't she finished" wisecracks... These comments are not particularly motivational or helpful. A PhD takes four years at minimum, so just cool out! So far, my thesis has been referred to as a 'master's', a 'paper' and an 'essay'. It's a book!

    I don't so much want role-model admiration, as I do just social acceptance :) I understand the need to resort to humour - I do it myself - but it's also nice to be human, and just say, 'so how's that going?'!

    Great post, Ben - thanks for your thoughtful comments. Perhaps we also need a support group for partners of PhD-ers?!

  3. Too true!

    The question I find difficult as a PhD student is 'what are you going to do next?' I have been asked this regularly since day 1.

    It's not so much the question itself, but the tone of can you hurry up and get onto the next thing so we can all be sure that your decision to do a PhD wasn't quite as nutty as we think it is now? I am sure it's slightly more kind-hearted than that, but it never feels like the right question to ask. It makes me feel rushed, tense and invaded and it usually results in me saying something snippy (although am much better these days!).

    As for future posts, perhaps more on choosing/narrowing down a question, then stuff on time-management, ways to stop yourself from 'reading forever' (for theoretical component), tips to get writing for the day, and desk/computer organisation systems (too late for me!). Not sure if this would be too esoteric for some of your readers though?

    Thanks for the insightful, reassuring post!

    x x x

  4. Good ideas, Monkey Mind. I shall get to it over the next few weeks. Perhaps only a PhD post per week to save everyone else the boredom :)


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