Ever wondered what it might be like to finish a PhD? Well someone wrote to me about it…you see the action of writing a blog more often than not is similar to the same noise as a large word-sized vacuum cleaner. You pump the words out and WHOOOSHHHH off they go; sucked into the universe never to be discussed again. Not writing here for a while felt bizarre and relaxing all at the same time. Id developed some strange Carrie Bradshaw’esque inner monologue where I spoke to myself in blog-post talk. Id be showering thinking about the universe, composing my thoughts in 800 words ready to be delivered to the outside world and then I’d step out of the shower realising I still had shampoo on my head. Ive never been good at mindfulness.

And then I wrote this and it connected with people. Lots of shares, lots of traffic and I found my blog tribe again. The reason why people write, to connect with others travelling a similar journey.

My friend Kathy sent me the beautiful words Ive coped in below, she wrote it after she read my post. A typed out, detailed exploration of what my words made her ponder. That’s never happened before. It made be smile.

So to anyone deep in the postdoctoral trenches, balancing preciously between sanity and stupidity, writing a large volume of words that honestly won’t really be read by many this one is for you.

Dr Kathy McKay and Laks the wondercat

The art of becoming a doctor…

(you can follow Kathy here on twitter)

In July 2011, I officially graduated with a PhD.

Finally. God, finally.

It took a very long time – six birthdays, several relationships, two cats, three changes in government, and the entire Twilight series.

There are students who intuitively understand the academic arena and flourish within its domain from the start. Far-sighted and clear-focused, they are able to function within a strict introduction-literaturereview-methodology-results-discussion-conclusion paradigm. On track to submission earlier than anticipated, they hand a neatly referenced copy of their thesis for supervisory review six months before the due date.

There are other students for whom a PhD is a jungle-like maze. Lost in a wilderness, they stumble upon moments of brilliant clarity, surfacing every so often to send their supervisors enormous lyrical documents of questioning hypothesis and contextualised evidence. Submitting anything, however sweat-soaked, becomes the ultimate goal. A glimmering hope of completion remains on the horizon, so close and yet at least another 18 months and the loss of a scholarship away.

I was one of the latter.

During my time as a PhD student, I read a lot of books about how to most effectively complete a PhD. Mostly because these books were easier to read than the books around the actual topic of the thesis. And it’s not that they weren’t useful; I still use some of the writing and construction techniques. Rather, the calm and inspiration I felt after finishing the book or completing the session didn’t last much pass the session itself. In an attempt to demystify it, one presenter called the thesis JaFPhD (Just a Fucking PhD); the books stressed that it wasn’t meant to be a Nobel Prize, or change the world. The PhD remained passive in these sessions though; it wasn’t alive. However, more than an inanimate creation, after so many years, my PhD became a monster to be defeated. This monster was a Suessian-Wonderland hybrid: the green beast of Oh the Places You’ll Go seemed altogether too friendly and PhD defeat seemed to take more than just a pat on the nose, but the Jabberwocky seemed too bloodthirsty and vicious, although the PhD made about as much sense. It entered every dream, even waking ones, knew every insecurity, seemed to feed off any anxiety. Life became akin to one of those childish nightmares where I would continuously arrive late for a test I hadn’t studied for, asked questions to which I rarely knew the answer. Once slain though, I felt as though these anxieties and insecurities would disappear – I hoped the scales would fall from my eyes, the shadows would scatter and the sun would come out again.

I was idealistic to say the least. I didn’t immediately understand that Dr Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go is a heretofore unrecognised paean to the PhD journey – its wisdom should not be underestimated simply due to recurrent internal rhyming patterns. I didn’t realise how heartbreakingly apt it all was. The problem was that I came into a PhD wearing very rose-coloured glasses.

However, I was not alone in this beautiful vision. The attainment of ‘Dr’ before one’s name has long been romanticised. Cloth-bound books read in leather-bound chairs in libraries where sun streamed in through small stained glass windows illuminating particles of dust attaching themselves to ancient tomes spread throughout. Men with interesting facial hair wearing cord jackets with elbow patches; women with angular bobs to match their glasses with a style that set them apart. Passionate debates in small cafes drinking strong coffee and even stronger wine. People took ‘Dr’ seriously because you were obviously serious.
Yet, much like the romanticism attached to consumption, it does not take much to scratch the veneer to see the hardship below. There is only so much lovelorn paleness one can survive; although, it must be admitted, a PhD is less likely to directly kill you.

Undoubtedly there were tremendous moments where things became understood, ramble became structured, and hypotheses became proven. The friend I shared an office with almost the whole way through the thesis joked that my writing process involved three days of twisting my hair, deleting more than I wrote, before, something would spark all of a sudden and words would come. Those moments felt like clichés – sunshine on a rainy day, the soundtrack at the end of a romantic comedy, brown paper packages tied up with string. Those days kept me going during the less tremendous moments, the days of hair-twisting, which happened more frequently.

It was all relative though. There were urban legends around the campus, as I’m sure there are on every campus, about studies that went wrong – that went awry in a way that they could become nothing but urban legends. The idea that they could really happen was too terrifying. These stories – of plants dying, electricity failing, libraries closing, unique resources disappearing, null findings – were every student’s bogeyman. So you repeated the mantra of ‘flexible methodology’, told yourself that even a negative finding is a unique contribution to knowledge, and carried on with your fingers crossed and good luck charms attached to your desk.

In this way, you’re often then left questioning whether what you’re feeling or experiencing is normal. There tends to be concern gnawing in the back of your mind as to whether you’re doing enough, whether it’s good enough, whether you could do more, and how you could do that ‘ more than good enough more’ better.

And then it begins.

Finally finishing the PhD has made me realise that – and with apologies to all those researchers whom I admire beyond measure – academics are predominantly neurotic. We thrive in our normalised dysfunction. There is a madness in all of us – a madness that is present in everyone, some admittedly more than others, who has ever completed a PhD. That fear in the back of our minds – the one that wakes us up in the early hours with IDEAS thus requiring bedside notebooks and patient partners. But this fear is not entirely negative. For every interrupted night’s sleep, there is that incredible ‘a-ha’ moment in the shower borne from a mind whirring to try and drive the fear away; problems get solved as a by-product. In essence, the fear drives us to be better. It drives us to create methodologies that are innovative and strong. It drives us to write more and create beautiful lists of work that will take years to do.

And if it doesn’t, perhaps it should.

It came as a shock to realise that other people don’t wake up at 6:30 in the morning talking about the progress of their paper or how they’ll change their project proposal, before coffee or ‘good morning’. Sometimes, potentially for their own mental wellbeing, partners live on the other side of the country, or the world.

But in all my reading, there are two things no one tells you about a PhD.

No one tells you about thesis dreams.

Mine were a wandering series. There were two dreams: the first started around my second year; the second in the year before I submitted.

In the first, I was in a dark and green-lit hospital – the kind that appears in horror movies involving psychiatric wards. There was water everywhere, dripping from the walls and ankle deep. Wearing a white dress, my left wrist was attached to a drip – it was always itchy. I spent whole nights wandering up and down corridors looking for something and never finding it. I would wake up exhausted, scratching my wrist.

In the second, I was in a dark forest. Like the first dream, I was wearing a white dress but, instead of a drip, my left wrist was badly bandaged; the wrappings were frayed and coming apart. Once again, I spent whole nights looking for something amongst the twisted trees, running after the sunshine that would occasionally appear. Again, I would wake up exhausted, clutching at my wrist.

In this way, PhDs also inspire you to learn about other things. I started reading books about dream analysis simply to make sure I wasn’t going completely mad. Apparently, my subconscious was telling me I was overtired and stressed. It’s always been very bright.

In contrast, while people always tell you that you should strive for balance, to have a life outside the PhD, what they don’t tell you is how to work it in with the neuroses described above, the ones that wake you up early in the morning when part of your work-life balance is to sleep.

Because the easiest answer is, of course, to simply not have one. However, as the aftermath of my own PhD heals, and as I’ve started supervising students within my own academic career, this cannot be the only answer. Certainly, an academic career is by no means bound to set hours and you carry your work with you, whether intellectually bubbling in the back of your mind or emotionally working through the stories you’ve heard. Yet, as a read Sarah’s piece, it struck me again – how we carry our stress of the rejections and drafts and constant re-thinking. How we don’t always speak it as openly as we’re often told we should but then – as Sarah said, that process may not be the best fit for some, may not be for every experience.

I acknowledge what I carry – certainly researching stories of suicide and resilience makes me feel as though I ought to be more aware, better at coping with it all. However, it’s taken the adoption of a small cat “with a personality” to help me have moments of stillness, and peacefulness. Where all I am focused on is her chirping nature as we play with the toy mice or she pushes my phone out of the way so she can curl up with me. More and more, the small things, the tiny moments, get me through the aftermath – and I realise how much they got me through the PhD process itself.

What it also makes me remember though is one part of the thesis document that didn’t cause anxiety – in fact, it was the part I turned to when I needed to write but I couldn’t face writing. The acknowledgements. I certainly didn’t hack through the jungle on my own; that monster was slain by a village. And that village went beyond my supervisors. It included my family and friends who still loved me despite the fact that I spoke about nothing else for eleventy-seven years. These people who fed me because, god knows, I was incapable of creating anything more difficult than vegemite toast for the final six months; the people who made me the coffee that gave, to badly paraphrase Socrates, the spark of life; the people who accepted my shuffling, hysterical, temperamental, exhausted self into their own lives; the people who celebrated the small victories as though they were large ones and let me cry on their shoulders for everything else. And the people who still do this when needed.

What sort of words get you thinking about how they relate to your life?


Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Such beautiful words! What I want to know is whether that person who finishes their PhD 6 months before the due date in a relatively unscathed state really exists? Or possibly I don’t – that may make my own PhD journey just that little more difficult. And, god knows, it’s hard enough as it is. Thank you Kathy for your beautiful words, both here and in your ever encouraging supervision sessions!!

    • Thanks so much Alison! I’ve heard tell of these people but everyone has a different journey and they’re all full of peaks and troughs. There’s so many amazing aspects to doing a PhD but they’re bloody hard work – and pragmatism seems more calming and healing than romanticism. Must admit though – supervising now is amazing and such an honour – you are all so entirely inspiring!


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