I recently met someone who has loved their PhD from the offset. They feel like they know what they’re doing, like they have a final goal in mind and that nothing will stop them from completing it. I hate this person a little bit.
When I was first accepted onto my PhD I was thrilled, obviously. I had written my proposal, practiced my interview in the shower, I had spider diagrams of ideas and a pile of books just waiting to be read and analysed. I moved to my new city, unpacked, and sat in my new room for two months wondering how to get started. For the first year I battled with uncertainty, imposter syndrome and depression. My supervisors encouraged me to get writing as soon as possible, but everything I wrote was terrible, I had no real idea what I was doing. Then I had my confirmation seminar; I had to submit a plan, I had no choice. I got ripped to shreds during the mini-viva and had to resubmit my report. It gave me the impetus I needed to really work out what I was doing, and in the process I met some other PhD candidates who were going through the same thing. These two things got me going and helped me to actually enjoy my PhD.
So, if you’re doing your PhD, no matter what stage you’re at, this is some advice on how not to go crackers:
1. Find a community
The worst thing about the PhD is the isolation and consequent fear that you’re doing everything wrong and you’re the only one who feels the way you do. Speaking to other people who are going through the same thing and getting advice from people who have already been through it is invaluable, even if it’s just online through hashtags like ‘phdchat’ or ‘acwri’. If you can, find people at your institute, arrange to have a monthly coffee and whinge session, mental health breaks are important.
2. Keep track of your progress
This is crucial for two reasons – keeping all of your drafts, annotations and supervisor comments all in one place is a good thing when it comes to your viva, you can show your process and prove that you’ve done the work. The other reason is that it slows the welling tide of despair you will likely feel at various points. During those times when it feels like you’ve been stuck on one chapter forever, or that you’ve just wasted a year of your life, having a list of things you’ve already done and achieved can be a lifesaver. I keep track of everything through my blog, I try to write regular posts about what I’ve done on any given week or month, and always write about chapters, conferences and papers I’ve completed.
3. Keep reading. Keep writing.
It’s easy to spend all of your time reading – there are always a million new articles coming out, another book’s bibliography to mine for further sources, but until you start writing you don’t really know what direction you’re heading in. Once you get going, writing can direct you towards the reading you need to do. Saying that, once you are actually writing, it’s tempting just to bash away at that and do nothing else. And then you wonder why you’re stuck in a rut. Going away and reading something new, or re-reading a key source can give you a new perspective and spark new ideas. Always mix and match your reading and writing.
Emma Hutson is completing her PhD at Sheffield Hallam University. She is applying trans theory to post-90s trans authored texts and is on track to submit a little bit early. As an Associate Lecturer she teaches on critical theory, and creative writing modules. She may be found on Twitter – @Emma_S_Hutson and has a blog – https://phdanger.wordpress.com/
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