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Thinking about committing to a PhD? Make sure it’s what you want because I can tell you from experience that it WILL take over your life! Here are the main things that you need to prepare yourself for, and mitigate if possible!
OK, so maybe at the beginning you will feel pretty chilled about your work. But as time goes on the pressure builds. The research team are pushing you to present at conferences and publish papers, your supervisors are requesting you meet more regularly and you are so sick of the project that you want it done and dusted! I like to analogise it with climbing a mountain (something I did last year)- the climb is slow and steady until you are around 2/3rds of the way up and then you are hit with the final summit- there are sharp ridges, scary drops and huge boulders to clamber over- it’s hard work… but the peak is in sight! During that final climb you will work until your muscles (and perhaps your brain!) hurt, you will wake up in the night with the answer to the problem you couldn’t solve the day before or with a better way of structuring your results. Night or day your PhD is on your mind. All. Of. The. Time.
If you can’t take criticism, don’t do a PhD! Your supervisors will tell you your work is crap, your articles will be rejected from publication, hell you’ll even beat yourself up about how rubbish your work is! Your skills will improve as time goes on and it’s all developmental (hopefully your supervisors won’t be too harsh on you!). Take the criticism on board and learn from it, it’s all constructive. A PhD isn’t like writing an essay for a degree or an MSc, it’s not so easy to cut corners!
3) Scatter brain
Remember when I said you WILL have your PhD on your mind night and day? Yep, this is a major cause for the condition I like to name ‘scatterbrain’. Sometimes I talk at my husband (note the word ‘at’ rather than ‘to’) about dummy variables, structural equation modelling or contingency coefficients…but I know he has no idea what I’m talking about. I’ll jump from a normal conversation to talking about statistics, I even started rabbling on about logistic regression at the pub last Friday (lets see if I get invited out again now)! Half the time you’ll make sense to nobody other than yourself, but as long as you have a supportive network around you to put up with your scatterbrain you will eventually learn to articulate efficiently again post-PhD.
4) Caffeine/wine overdose
Speaking of pub, I honestly don’t think I could have got this far into my PhD without wine! There’s nothing like a glass of wine or three after a long day of concentration to dull your mind and help relax- this is something I have particular difficulty with in life in general. The negative side is however that the ‘mind-dulling’ effect wears off half way through the night resulting in problem number 1. Some people turn to coffee as their motivating stimulant, for me, if it’s too early for a glass of vino you will generally find me sipping a nice warm green tea- it’s proven to help brain function you know!
You will be frustrated, a lot. Two years in you’ll look back at your literature review only to think ‘I could write so much better than that now’. But you don’t have time to re-write the lot. But you can’t submit that rubbish. But what if you just amend a bit? But then it won’t flow. Before you know it you’ve lost an hour to scatter brain. Point number 3 is a killer.
6) Becoming a nervous wreck
MPhil-PhD transfers, annual reviews, colloquiums, conferences… they are all there to test you. As if standing up in front of 100 people to talk about your research (that is not yet complete and therefore you do not know EVERYTHING about it yet) isn’t bad enough, but you then have to defend your work. People critique and question what you say and you have to fight to defend your work- you’ve dedicated years to this and it can be quite disconcerting when people don’t think it’s as brilliant as you do!
7) Lack of social life
Forget having a social life. You have no choice but to work weekends so your Friday night isn’t much more than a couple of drinks… too much would impact on the quality of you writing the next day! Plus you’re shattered- concentrating on my PhD all day tires me out more than any job ever has! After you’ve turned down invitations to social events for several months your friends stop asking you, and by the time you’re near completion there’s a fair chance you don’t have any friends left. That bring me on to point number 8.
8) Loss of friends
I like to think that my friends understand what I’m going through with this PhD, but how can they? They haven’t done it, hell some of them haven’t even studied beyond their A-levels 15 years ago. Hopefully your friends will wait for you, and when you have submitted your thesis you can go back to having the strong friendship and great social life that you had pre-PhD, but take it from me- having loads of friends and seeing them all of the time is not sustainable. A PhD is like a full time job, if you actually have a full time job on top of that then when are you going to find the time to see friends? I always justify myself when I do see people, but I don’t think that they can ever truly understand… I just hope that they realise it is not personal in any way!
9) Family disputes
Chances are you probably won’t have a great deal of time to see your family either. Before committing to a PhD make sure you have the support at home, because you’ll need it! Sometimes my husband makes remarks like ‘but you’re at home all day you can do the washing’. Sometimes this makes me cross, even though I know that he isn’t serious! I don’t visit my family who live a 3 hour drive away nowhere near as much as I would like to because that takes away an entire day, if not a weekend- I just can’t justify it- every weekend I take off is an extra week added to the length of time until I finish. As with above, my family can’t really understand what it’s like because they haven’t been through it themselves, but fortunately they do tend to be supportive.
10) Putting your life on hold
For me, this is a big one. I’ve recently got married and my husband and I would like to think about starting a family in the not-too-distant future. But doing a PhD is like having a child! I wouldn’t feel right having a baby at a time when all I can think about is my PhD and I suspect there would be one of two outcomes- 1) the baby wouldn’t get the attention it deserves 2) the PhD wouldn’t get the attention it deserves. So I’ve decided to put starting a family on hold, but I also feel that my friendships are on hold, my social life in on hold and my career is on hold… All the more reason to race up the summit of the mountain…
Do you have experiences of your PhD taking over your life? Please do share in the comments section below!