On Being a PhD Student

Chat with Rellypops welcomes Rod Pitcher as a guest writer. Rod is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. He can be contacted at Rod.Pitcher@anu.edu.au

In learning to be a PhD student one has to learn many things. Learning to do research and write up the results is one very important part. However, learning to overcome the problems is another. The problems that have to be coped with are similar to those that one suffers in everyday life, but they seem more focussed when doing a PhD. According to the literature many PhD students give up and drop out due to stress and worry causing depression. Thus it is important to be able to defuse them when necessary. Learning to cope with the problems will also help you in everyday life.

Here I don’t discuss the learning to do research or writing – there are plenty of places where they can be learnt. Rather I discuss the problems of stress, worry, and other things. I would argue that knowing what they are like and learning to cope with them is another important skill that comes from doing a PhD.

Being a PhD student takes up a large part of one’s life. It is not something that should be undertaken merely on a whim. One must be committed to getting the PhD, or the stress and worry isn’t worth it. On the other hand, the rewards are worth striving for.

The stress

Being stressed is an inherent part of the PhD candidature. There the stress of trying to get work done, the stress of waiting for comments on the work, the stress of trying to get one’s work published, the stress of giving seminars. All these add up to a lot of stress. There’s not much that can be done about it except try to keep it from getting out of hand by taking breaks and learning to relax. To combat the stress learning to relax is an important factor. You should always discuss your stress with your supervisor – after all, s/he is there to help you succeed and get your PhD.

The worry

Alongside the stress of the PhD there’s the constant worry about whether it will all come to a satisfactory end, whether one’s work is good enough, interpreting one’s supervisor’s wishes and suggestions. Again, there’s not much that can be done about it except learning to live with it. If you aren’t the worrying type of person you are lucky. On the other hand, the worry does act as an incentive to get on with the work to get it over and done with. Again, learning to relax will help with the worry, as will talking about your problems to your supervisor

The depression

Most PhD students get depressed at some time during their candidature. Again, it is something that you have to learn to cope with. When the work isn’t going well and the seems endless, it is natural that one’s spirit should flag. The best thing is to find something interesting to do, not necessarily PhD work, to take your mind off the depression and revive your interest in life. It’s always useful to have an interesting hobby that you can use as a distraction.

The work

Some of the work is sheer drudgery. It can be boring, tiring and thoroughly exhausting. However, much of the work is rewarding, interesting and worthwhile. It appears from my experience that you can’t have one without the other. The best approach is to enjoy what you can and just plod along and get the drudgery done so that you can get on with the next interesting bit. Keep in mind that you started the PhD because you were interested in the topic. When things go bad try to remember that. Also remember that eventually the good times will come back.

The rewards

The rewards for doing the PhD should be obvious to you if you have already taken on the task. The big one to many people is getting to be called Doctor, but there are others.

 Do you want an academic career? Then you will need the PhD to get it. It will form the basis on which to develop your academic career.

 Do you want to develop yourself? Doing research and writing your thesis cannot help but expand your horizons and develop your thinking.

On top of these rewards there’s the satisfaction of a job done properly and well. Completing one’s thesis and having it accepted must become important to all PhD student otherwise there’s a severe lack of incentive to do the work.

Recognition that you have done useful and significant research and sent your results out into the world to be discussed and used by your academic peers is rewarding and achieves the aim of advancing your field of research.

The results of your work might be important and change the shape of the world, either in a big way or, more likely, in your own little corner of academe. The recognition of your peers can establish your reputation in your chosen field and help you earn academic promotion.

 The PhD is worth the effort. There’s no doubt that it will change you. You will come out of the far end of your candidature being a different person from the one who started. All the stress and worries can be beaten – the fact that other people have done it proves that it can be done. All you have to do is decide how much you want the PhD. As in learning the skills of research and writing, learning how to cope with the stress and worry is an important part of the PhD which will serve you well in later life.

Remember, too, that most if not all PhD students have had the same stress and worries. They have learn how to cope with them, and so can you. The PhD is a constant learning process, make the most of it.

Do you have any hints for learning to be a PhD student? How do you approach learning how to research? What advice would you give in learning how to manage your study and other commitments? 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. This is really good advice thank you. I’m almost at the end of my first year (part-time) and have learned a lot, although it’s difficult to articulate what exactly. As you say, the stress, the depression, the work have all been part of it, as has coming to terms with the disappointment when I haven’t reached goals I set for myself. It seems I am my harshest critic. Sure, I have learned lots about my subject area, but so much more has been personal growth and I can feel it changing who I am. It’s helping me to be more considered rather than reactionary, and giving me confidence to go ahead with small goals that I thought might otherwise be impossible. It’s changing how I see and experience the world. I realise now that I have over committed and this worries me, but reflecting on these personal benefits recently has validated my reasons for wanting to continue my PhD journey and I am looking forward to seeing where I am in a year from now.

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