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Getting through your PhD

Doctoral researchers need to be committed and tenacious in their work but they also need to know when to ask for help from others. The research drawn on here is a longitudinal study of about 40 social sciences doctoral researchers in two UK universities. Once a month for several months, they completed logs describing their activities and feelings over the course of a week in order to capture their daily lived experiences.

About half of them were also interviewed to provide a more in-depth understanding of their experiences. Concerns about time management and problem solving were two of the themes to emerge. Although the interviewees are social scientists, what they have to say could be relevant to researchers in any discipline. Excerpts of their interviews are spoken by actors in the audio clips below:

Audio clips...

Acme, 29 year old female PhD Researcher in geography talks about meeting with a friend over cyberspace to help with her writing routine.

Transcript: My supervisor had said that when she did her dissertation, she worked with – she’d gone through this work schedule with a friend, and that every day, they would work for x hours and they would just write. So this friend and I decided to put ourselves on working schedules, a month ago. So every day, for 2 hours a day, Monday through Friday, we get on Skype together. So at the beginning, we chat, “So what are you going to do today?” and for those 2 hours, we just write, whatever, we just write. She’s in the US doing her PhD. We’re not chatting. We just chat at the beginning – “I’m here, this is what I intend to do,” and then she tells me what, and after an hour, we check in and see, so if we’ve had any difficulties, we’ll just talk it and bounce ideas off, and then at the end of the 2 hours, we say, “So how do you feel?” and sometimes we work for an extra hour and sometimes we don’t… So like she could be working on grounded theory and I’m working on methods, and I know that the time in with her, I write.

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Atmor, 33-year-old female PhD Researcher in education talks about preparing her upgrade paper.


Transcript: This week the most important people to my progress were dear classmates and friends. We are all in just about the same place with upgrade papers. It has been very motivating as it seems that everyone is to some extent stressed and it is reassuring that we are all in the same boat and have to face similar daemons… I had writing blocks, and talked with friends, then dropped it for a few hours to clear my head and relax.

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DK, 29 year old male PhD researcher studying education talks about how his supervisor helped him with his writing.

Trancript: I’m trying to think back to some of the discussions I might have had with my supervisor about key difficulties that I was facing.

Okay, yeah, there were a couple of big ones. Number one was…arriving at the right…at the right voice for the thesis. I think a lot of PhD candidates struggle with this one. It’s not obvious what sort of voice is appropriate for a purely academic piece of writing like the PhD, and I think…students who actively seek out ways of determining their voice do so by reading as many academic papers as they can in their discipline, and then imitating the voice and tone of those papers, which was okay for me, except that I found that many of the papers I was reading had a much more rigorous dedication to theoretical concepts than I was willing to…than I was willing to have in my own paper. So my supervisor and I talked at length about this, just how much of this theoretical…grammar, how many theoretical concepts should I allow, or should I force, into my writing, when that wasn’t my natural inclination for the content of the PhD. Now, he was very encouraging. He said that he feels as though students default to a language of theory and a voice of theory very often out of a feeling of insecurity, very often because they feel as though the PhD thesis has to be theory-laden, and it has to be living proof that they’re able to grapple with theoretical concepts at the highest levels of academia, right? …

And it’s true that the PhD is sort of supposed to be evidence of your ability to engage with the academic community on many levels, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be very abstract, either in the content of your PhD or in the voice, and so he was comfortable with me taking a more…eh…em…I guess descriptive tone throughout the PhD than I thought I would be allowed to do. So that was one of the key challenges that I faced, and there, my supervisor really offered a lot of encouragement.

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In the example above, DK and his supervisor were in agreement about what they wanted to achieve. In another case they disagreed, and this quote shows how DK resisted his supervisor suggestions:

Transcript: The running discussion between my supervisor and I, about the nature of a chapter, what is a chapter. First, many PhD students, I think including in our Department, enter the PhD writing process expected to publish at least three or four of their chapters… My supervisor was encouraging me to treat each chapter as if it was going to be a paper that was about to be published, but I found that very difficult, and that’s because I was…I was more comfortable with the idea of writing a thesis that was a coherent whole, as opposed to a collection of discrete chapters.

And I think it was difficult for me to…even right up until the time I’d finished, it was difficult for me to negotiate the tension between those competing expectations, right. I know other PhD students who handled it very, very well – Each chapter, they write each chapter with the expectation that it’s going to be published, and whether or not the entire collection of chapters is as coherent as it could be is kind of an irrelevant concern to them. To me, it was more relevant, so it was a little bit harder. Now I’m happy with, yes, with the overall coherence. I feel as though I’ve built…I think I’ve built…I’ve made an album rather than a collection of songs.

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DK also spoke about the tensions that writing up placed on his relationship with his wife, but also how they found the solution together:

Transcript: If you enter into a moment of extreme creative productivity, and it’s 11.30 at night, you’re faced with a dilemma: do I push forward until four o’clock in the morning, right, because I’m in this great writing space? I mean, these are rare occurrences, right [laughing]! It’s a very valuable moment here! Or do I go home to my wife, or my fiancée or my girlfriend or my significant other? It’s not – the answer is not obvious, because if you…if you sit there at your desk and you produce, and you come home and your wife is really upset, then that could possibly have negative repercussions on your ability to produce the next day or the day after or the week after, right? I mean, you need…you need to maintain harmony in your personal life in order to maintain a sustainable practice of writing as well, right. So sometimes, it’s actually wise to sacrifice productive moments for the sake of maintaining harmony in the larger picture, but knowing when do to that is the trick [laughing]! It’s often quite hard to speak with your significant other about these matters, unless she has also gone through the PhD process herself, or at least some academic moment in her life when there was a hefty writing component. In my instance, my girlfriend, now my wife, she never went through something like this. She didn’t have a frame of reference for it, and my descriptions only go so far, right, because the bottom line is the PhD is a fairly unique…project, not something that you’re ever going to encounter again, even if you’re in academia – you know, three years of writing one thing! It’s a really weird project actually!

And communicating the unique circumstances of that, even to, you know, even to your lover, it’s very hard. So there were definitely moments when there were strong misunderstandings about how my life was being lived and what impact that was having on her. The interesting thing though is there were times when tension in my love life could actually generate creative outputs on the PhD end [laughing]! So you don’t want to get into the danger of trying to…what’s the word…over-engineer these kinds of situations, over-think them.

I mean, but the point is…your love life and your PhD life, the interconnection between them is not an obvious one, and sometimes it plays out in funny ways, unpredictable ways.

My wife actually, she was much more successful at…at…coming up with solutions in this regard than I was. She was really…well, what helped was that she was very proud of what I was doing, and so eventually we sort of settled into this…this habit of…of her actually coming into the office during the nights that I knew I’d be there really, really late. That was, surprisingly, not distracting to me at all. So, I mean, to be very specific, if it was ten o’clock at night, and I called her and I said, “Look, I’m doing really good work here and I can’t come home – why don’t you come over here?” she’d do it. She’d come over, she’d bring a thermos of coffee, and she’d either sit in my office on her laptop or she’d go into the main computer room, and just – she just played Scrabble or watch a movie or something. It was a lot better than her sitting at home, you know, playing music and pretending that she didn’t miss me. We were still in the same building.

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Elizabeth, 43 year old female PhD researcher in Education talks about the importance of her relationships with other postgrads who became close friends.

Transcript: I met up with another PhD students socially and we talked about how we were progressing and problems we are facing.... although we research different areas we meet up to reflect on our work informally. We discussed various issues around case study research such as how to define it and the ethical dilemmas it may present. This helped me think about how I was going to approach and present the ideas around case study research within my thesis.

I've also got a friend who, I suppose it's all about identifying with people, I visit another woman as well, and she's got children the same age as me. They go to the same school, we live round the corner from each other, so we are notorious for meeting up for lunch and having a glass of wine and a good moan and talking about how we are progressing or not.

We just got to meet each other at an induction, realised that we had these things in common and she’d often give me a lift which is really helpful. So it just grew based on our just having the same sort of, living in the same area it has developed from there.

We send each other e-mails or meet up... we're both under the same pressure. She's been having extensions to her house, you know. We both have children going through A-levels and so you've got to balance all those things, and it's nice to have somebody who understands, who is in the same position as you.

I think some of the closest relationships I've got are with people with common problems - with these friends I just feel as though I'm on their level sort of thing.

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Jerry Lomax, 35-year-old male PhD Researcher in education talks about his relationship with his supervisor.


Transcript: Yeah, that’s the one thing that’s been a constant here, my relationship with my supervisor is very strong. I would say my personal relationship with my supervisor is very strong. I love him to death. I think that he is…he has some issues… I think he’s disorganised, and I think that he would admit that he’s disorganised in a lot of ways. I think that he…eh…can slip into the background – and I think this has happened with a couple of his supervisees, that he can…he can become way too passive, and he does his own work and he sort of…he loses track of where people are. But that’s…that’s also, I mean, our responsibility, to keep up on him and get him…which is not always easy, because he does a lot of his own work and it’s not always easy to get him when you need him, but eh…for the most part, I think… I’ll say this: the thing that I needed the most, and the thing that he’s been fantastic with, is being supportive, and he is…ah…a wonderful man, and…somebody I’ve become very close friends with, which I think is the way I like to have…work with my professional and academic life as well.

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