Sometimes doing a PhD seems like a silly idea, especially when people ask if you have a career change in mind and you have to point out that, no, actually, you’re quite happy in your current job (which clearly doesn’t require a PhD). When you find yourself saying no to invites for nights out, just in case you wake up the following day with a head that’s bursting full of ideas but that’s also too sore to use those ideas, the PhD can seem like a punishment. When your friends ask you what you’d like to do for your birthday, in 8 month’s time, and you say “Studying? Conferences? I can’t make plans for that far away just in case,” you suddenly wonder if it’s really all worth it.
I’ve got several more years of this ahead of me, and perhaps I’ll not know for sure if it’s worth it until I’m finished, but at the moment, yes, I think it’s worth it.
Why? Yes it’s time-consuming, yes it takes over your life, yes it costs a lot of money, but it’s also interesting, challenging, fun (sometimes), and rewarding.
I suppose the ‘interesting’ bit comes down to subject choice. My subject is academic persistence, and, as a previous ‘drop-out’, I guess I have an inherent interest in the subject. As a doctoral student who exercises persistence each and every day, that interest intensifies. I have a lot of interests and could probably muster enough motivation to study most subjects, but finding a topic in which you have a real interest can keep you reading when you feel as though you never want to see another paper again. It’s also harder to give up when you have an opinion on your subject because you want to make sure people see it your way.
I don’t think anybody would argue that a PhD is challenging. My supervisor reminds me at most supervisions that I’m studying at level 12 of the SCQF Framework and that, as such, it has to be challenging, just in case I forget. I don’t think the challenges are anything like what you expect them to be, or what other people think they are. It doesn’t have to be all ‘words so complex you can’t leave home without a dictionary’, or equations like those you see on the Big Bang Theory. The challenges lie in the anxiety you feel when you are making decisions not to read a particular paper because you know deep down that it’s not relevant but…what if it is? Challenges wait for you overnight, so that in the mornings when you know you should get up at 6am to do some reading before work, but can’t because you’re simply too tired, you feel annoyed with yourself for the rest of the day. Challenges are when you’ve given yourself a target of 1,500 words for the week, but you only wrote about 850 – if you don’t write the rest you’ll feel like you’ve failed, but if you do write the rest you’ll write for the wrong reasons. Challenges come in all shapes and sizes, but one by one, you overcome them. You did it at the undergraduate level; you did it at Masters level, and now you’re doing it at level 12 on the SCQF Framework, just in case you forgot.
Can I get back to you about the fun part?
I have to assume that the greatest reward will be the doctorate at the end of it, but there are snippets of reward throughout the process. The upgrade from MPhil, for example, shows that your hard work is paying off. Mine was over a year ago now, but I still remember how good it felt to be told that my research is exciting and valued. My latest reward? An email from one of the most well-respected researchers in my field, complementing me on my research plans and asking both for my results when I complete, and for my thoughts on his latest work before it goes to publication. It’s nice when anyone shows an interest in your work, but this is special. It reminds you that what you’re doing is worthwhile and that anything worthwhile is not usually easy.
In case you didn’t get the hint, I didn’t meet my self-inflicted challenge of 1,500 words this week. I wrote around 850 words, thought about writing any old rubbish to make up the word count, and then came to my senses. Instead, I got working on organising and downloading all the articles for my next section. Over the next week, I’ll be reading those articles and taking notes just as I did the last time, as I think I’ve eventually found a way that works for me.