PhD Things I Wish I’d Known About Before Starting

I'm a pole dancer WAP - With A PhD. I get many questions about things I wish I'd known about PhDs before starting, so I'm sharing them here.

In case you missed it, I’m now a pole dancer WAP – With A PhD. That’s right, after three and a half years of blood, sweat, tears and some ridiculous chapter headings, I’m now Dr. Carolina Are and my PhD is DONE. Doing a PhD wasn’t a piece of cake, and given that I knew very little about academia and the PhD process before starting, a lot of PhD things came as a surprise to me. Since I get many questions about doing a PhD, and about the things I wish I’d known about it before starting out, I decided to put them in a blog post which I’ve been planning for ages, but that I never wrote not to jinx myself before the official PhD completion date.

My Background Before My PhD

I have a BA in Journalism and an MA in Criminology. In between the two, I worked in PR, social media strategy and blogging between London and Sydney. I was not particularly well-versed in research techniques or in producing a giant piece of academic work like a PhD. I also knew very few academics who could prepare me for the reality of what doing a PhD is like.

Some people do a PhD straight after their undergrad and Master’s, having chosen a straight-up academic route from the word go, meaning that they have methods and academic practices fresh in their head at the start of their doctorate. Others get to a PhD later in life. Maybe they’ve worked in a field long enough to build a network in it that will help their research. Maybe they will have an idea of what issues to investigate during their study, or maybe they have worked in academia somehow – e.g. through lecturing – and want to take their career further.

I didn’t have any of those experiences. I got burnt out while working in the PR and social media world, and decided that perhaps research was better suited to my passions and lifestyle. I was very academic in high school and enjoyed reading and studying, but putting together proposals or research plans – let alone methodologies – wasn’t necessarily my area of expertise. For all the above reasons, I had no idea of what working in academia or doing a PhD was going to be like, other than the obvious “you’ve got to write a lot for like, three or four years” – so if you are an academic and lots of the things I write seem obvious or silly to you, that is why.

Picture by: @dandimmock via Unsplash

Before you go ahead, please know that 1) this post is aimed at non-academics 2) I’ve already shared some PhD tips in a previous blog post, written when I had just started my second year as a PhD candidate. You may find that post helpful too, particularly if you’re interested in the practicalities of applying and in the day-to-day stuff, but this article has the benefit of hindsight and some much needed work/life PhD related insights.

PhDing and Working

I wish I had known how much of a job a PhD was. I wish I’d have known it wasn’t “just writing” as I initially thought.

I started my PhD with the knowledge that I was able to juggle a lot. Working in PR means juggling the needs and tasks of different clients as well as events and internal company duties, so I knew that doing a PhD and getting on with life wasn’t going to be a massive problem for me. In a way, juggling a lot and being able to write a lot, and fast, did help me.

The thing is though, doing a PhD is kinda like a job – and in fact, most people receive stipends once they start their PhD, meaning that they are supported by grants or institutions while doing their research. While this may mean that, as part of your scholarship agreement, you may be required to teach for a number of hours, knowing that you can spend a large chunk of your PhD years focusing on your research with guaranteed funds may help defuse your anxiety.

I, however, got no scholarship. I was offered one by an institution I will not name. Sadly when my MA marks were submitted (a bit later than UK students’ ones, because I did my MA in Australia where term dates are a bit different), suddenly the institution had a place for me but no money. Luckily the uni where I did my BA, City, University of London, had offered me a place on a fee waiver agreement – meaning I could do my PhD there without paying tuition fees, but that I had to support myself financially.

A fee waiver was a fantastic opportunity to continue my research – something I couldn’t afford without that support. However, having to do your PhD while also having to support yourself financially is, it turns out, exhausting. Precisely because the PhD already feels like a job, and needs your full attention, having to juggle other jobs with it to pay your bills while also trying to make sense of the research you’re doing can be challenging.

Picture: @martinadams via Unsplash

By year two, working and PhDing was already doing my head in. I had taken on a variety of jobs – career advisor in the university’s student centre, visiting lecturer, research assistant, freelance writer. Yet, because all of these jobs were part-time, I wasn’t making much. I could afford this flexibility only because my parents bought me my house – which is a huge privilege – because otherwise, if I also had to pay rent, a pretty unsustainable lifestyle would have become even more unsustainable.

To add to this, when you’re a PhD student you gain the weird status of both student and – if you teach as part of it – staff member, meaning that the support you get as an employee is sort of ‘tainted’ by your student status. This means that, for instance, you may only be allowed to teach for a limited amount of hours, resulting in a fairly low monthly salary which often doesn’t help much towards your expenses – meaning you’ll need to get another job and juggle more. Your weird employee status no man’s land may also mean that when you ask the university’s health service for mental health support, they don’t know how to treat you. Everyone has double responsibilities towards you, which sometimes means you may get less help.

All of this meant that I soon realised that if I had a scholarship during my PhD, I would have probably enjoyed the process more. The fact that I had to juggle so much during my research – and that the majority of academics working with you somehow expect you give your thesis your full attention as if you didn’t have to pay the bills – kind of soured the whole process. By the third year, I was done. I wanted to submit, and I was probably very difficult to deal with. But I was juggling way too much, and only working as a pole dance instructor (which was somehow more lucrative than being an hourly paid lecturer who could only teach for a limited amount of hours) allowed me to defuse some of the money anxiety.

In short: if you don’t have a scholarship available, have a good think about the smartest, less stressful way to support yourself.

Picture: @dandimmock via Unsplash

There’s No PhD For Dummies Guide

Another thing I realised only into my final year of PhDing is that often, no one in your institution tells you how to become an academic. In my case, I was lucky because my partner helped me figure out what being academic looked like for me. Discovering it – and discovering all the mistakes I made and the time I wasted – was disheartening.

Picture by: @windows via Unsplash

In the middle of lockdown 1.0 I began submitting academic papers to journals. I got published a few times before that, but these papers felt ‘big’, because they suddenly blended my pole and activism experience with my research. Yet, I was being rejected left, right and centre, with pretty horrible feedback. I started feeling like my almost three years of PhDing had given me nothing. So I sent my partner a paper and he was like: “Yeah, you have no line of argument. The juice is there, but everything’s disjointed and you’re not justifying your statements. You are crossing the line from academic into activist/journalist.”

It was only then that I realised that applying my journalist/PR technique of writing everything about a topic and then editing, editing and editing without figuring out my line of argument first was doing me no favours. Once again, for most people this might be obvious, but it wasn’t for me. I had been feeling useless, lost, without a direction, and only then I found out the reasons: I hadn’t realised how I worked, so I hadn’t communicated it to my supervisors. They were having to deal with pages and pages of content to feedback on – I had already written more than required by my PhD word limit by year two! So my supervisors were commenting on the small things instead of guiding me towards the high level, “this is how you get your research into a publishing / submitting stage” side of things because they were most likely overwhelmed. They probably thought I would have figured things out in the end, but I didn’t. My partner did.

Once I figured out what was happening – and improved my working style as a result – my papers started getting published and my thesis became PhD submission material. But this, to me, only became one more example of how no one tells you how to become an academic. For example, you may do a variety of courses about which research methods are appropriate for your research… but this doesn’t mean that anyone tells you how to use them, how to apply them to your specific context.

Research methods – and, in particular, research methods to be applied to my own study, which focused on ‘new’ social media platforms and their related posting practices – became the bane of my doctorate. I knew how to get the most out of social media conversations because of my previous job, but I kept reading papers about social media research methods and taking courses and modules to apply these to my thesis… and I guess only learning how to take the process and use it in your own way is what makes you an academic.

Basically, if you’re used to a direct brief from your bosses and a straight-forward work, approval, end process… you’re not gonna get it in academia. So figure out how you work, communicate it to your supervisors, and deal with it.

Always Explain Your Research As If You Were Doing Your Viva

Your Viva – aka viva voce examination, or thesis defence – is one of the most important steps in your PhD, because it determines whether you become a doctor or not. It builds your status as an academic, it gives you your title and it’s actually an incredibly valuable learning process. As my examiners and supervisors told me multiple times, it’s probably the only time anyone will want to hear about your research. But the Viva is what you’ll be gearing up to do, particularly in your last year, which is why it’s important that you come to it prepared.

A big help in my Viva prep was the fact that I published my research and spoke at conferences – sometimes having to respond to very challenging questions – throughout my PhD. I can’t recommend submitting papers to journals and conferences enough, even if you feel it might take time away from your research. In the end, being used to this process will make your Viva prep way less daunting, and just a repetition – or an extension – of what you’ve already been doing before.

Once again, my partner was massively helpful towards my Viva prep because, since he’s ANNOYINGLY inquisitive and literally questions the air you breathe, he had basically been conducting mini-Vivas over dinner with me since we’d met. I once showed him my chapter headings and he was like: “WUT? Why do ‘sniffer dogs’ deserve their own heading?”

In my defence, sniffer dogs were a huge element of the conversation among members of the Twitter subculture I was studying, as their role in the high-profile criminal case I was examining was contentious. But having to justify my structure, claims and research to an outsider repeatedly helped me prepare me for my Viva, so much that my external examiner said: “This was actually just a comment, I wasn’t asking you to justify yourself this time” multiple times. I guess I had become a bit too used to debating what my partner was saying!

So, in short: have mini Vivas throughout your PhD and if you can, publish your work. Others reading and critiquing what you do, or having to justify your claims even in a random conversation, will make you feel more confident on the big day.

Managing Your Social Life During Your PhD

This may be slightly less of an academic concern, but managing your social life successfully during your PhD means you’ll have a safety net to keep you going.

In my previous post, I mentioned that doing a PhD can be lonely. I didn’t mind that so much because I am a lone wolf, but I think it’s important that you find friends both in and outside of academia. This is because having just one or the other isn’t enough to keep you sane.

During my first year of my PhD, I lived fairly close to my university and I used to go to a lot of student events, hanging out mainly with other PhDs and less with old friends, who had jobs and a less flexible lifestyle. It quickly became apparent that basing my social life on academia alone was depressing me. Why? Because PhD students – like yours truly – are miserable. We focus on one issue and dig deep into it, while at the same time being the least important cog in the academic machine. Going out with PhD students only meant remembering everything that was wrong with academia.

Similarly to how hanging out with PhD students alone won’t help you find respite from academia, hanging out only with friends who have no idea why you’re doing this to yourself won’t help you feel understood. This is why balancing the PhD chats with friends outside of academia will help you find respite from this giant thing that is taking over your life. It will help you focus on something else.

The above sound like a no-brainer but, once again, it took me a while to figure this out. Guess doing a PhD doesn’t mean you know better about life, uh?

Is A PhD For Everyone?

PhDs are not from everyone, not only because they are expensive and/or exhausting. Throughout my third year I started thinking that the fact that many PhD students quit should not come as a surprise. My interpretation of doing a PhD is that the process is a form of hazing: the PhD tries to break you to find out whether you really want to be an academic. With this, I don’t mean it isn’t worth it or that it wasn’t the right thing for me, or that, looking back, I wouldn’t do it.

I’m proud to be Dr Are and I’m looking forward to (hopefully) becoming a full-time, established academic. But if you’ve woken up one morning thinking: dunno, maybe I could do a PhD? Well… read this post in advance, and lose some hope ye who enter. Doing a PhD is as rewarding as it is exhausting.

More resources on PhDs can be found below:

  • More about applying for a PhD here;
  • More about opportunities and advice on sites such as FindAPhD;
  • Follow one of my fave academics, Dr Ysabel Gerrard, for more tips about academic writing and info on being an academic.
Did you find this helpful? If you liked this post, consider buying me a pizza 🙂

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