doing a PhD

Why your doctorate can make you feel like you’re drowning

This is not a cry for help. These aren’t my thoughts on the difficulties of managing money, time, kids, spouses, visas, conferences, the thesis, the job, or the dog, real as all these pressures clearly can be. Rather I want to share some of the impacts of early PhD studies on me, invite reflection, and offer a note of caution.

I am enjoying my doctoral studies more than any before it. I regarded my admission to the degree as a licence to read widely and write wildly. I’ve engaged with discourse from classical philosophy through neuroscience to behavioural biology, all through the lens of jurisprudential enquiry. I’m enthralled by it all. The possibility of realising nascent knowledge drives me forward. I feel accomplished when an idea reveals itself as a clear, sometimes seemingly novel, pure thought. If it does so at the right time it can manifest as a sentence or two which sparkles with satisfying clarity. Such is the evolution of a thesis, I hope. And a mind. 

My supervisors are quietly encouraging. Nevertheless, in their presence, I can feel woefully inadequate. I have said things to them that are just plain dumb, and other things just plain dumbly. An example of the latter kind was my remark that I found the PhD experience somewhat ‘destabilising’. When probed as to what I meant by that, I could offer nothing adequate. 

Where do we find a safe harbour?

Stumbling over the words of my attempt at an explanation, I muttered that everything was becoming less certain; I was less clear about what I knew, what I didn’t, and even about who, what and why I was. The global health pandemic didn’t wholly explain the phenomenon. No, I continued with deflating confidence, there was something in what I was reading, and in the process of learning itself, that was impacting me in ways I had simply not anticipated. I found it confronting. And I still do.

My research leads me to believe that our earliest hominin ancestors lived free of overt construct. They behaved first according to instinct and departed from it only when cognitive ability enabled them to believe that they had the choice to do otherwise. They resolved the existential problems with which they were confronted and, it seems in the process, transcended the objective fact of their entity as beings, to actually being. Our ancestors quite literally did ‘awaken’. I am left wondering if they did so in ways that I never have, can, or will. Thoreau said he felt as though he never did meet a person who was “quite awake”. It seems that, like me, he doubted that he was. His solution was Walden Pond.

There is perhaps an assumption that we, as modern humans, living as we do in this busy and sophisticated world, start from a position of self-awareness; with an understanding of what and who we are and the rules of our own existence. My doctoral studies suggest to me this isn’t so. I don’t understand very much at all. It is this knowledge, as much as any, that I can experience as destablising. 

Bertrand Russell validates what I feel. He wrote that philosophy ‘raises doubts’. It diminishes our feelings of certainty as to what things are. Russell regarded the doubt as liberating, enlarging our thoughts and freeing them “…from the tyranny of custom”. I agree. But when we are buffeted by those newly freed thoughts, encountered as part of the rigours of PhD study and life besides it, where do we find a safe harbour? 

I wonder if, more than any other course of study, the PhD doesn’t inherently involve breakage at some level, like a vase might as it smashes on a hard floor. For a time, there is only mess; scattered broken pieces that are disconnected from one another, such that the entity as a whole no longer exists (assuming that it ever did). Instead there are shards of sharp material that, if mishandled, will cause injury. The PhD candidate must confront that mess, all that ‘liberating doubt’, and try to understand what it represents. If the pieces are put back together so that something is (re)formed, better or differently understood, that is perhaps the true mark of a Doctor of Philosophy. But inherent in the journey, I think, is the possibility, and indeed the risk, that the vase will smash and that the candidate won’t be able to put it back together. It remains a broken mess which might never make sense again. Doubt prevails. 

Doubt doesn’t always feel liberating. It can be crippling, isolating, scarily confronting and personally challenging. Doubt is a frame of mind wherein feelings of being unsupported, anxious and depressed more easily surface, where we can feel deficient as researchers and our efforts pointless. We know that PhD candidates are susceptible to all these feelings, contributing to what Inger Mewburn has recently described as a “…frightening epidemic of mental health issues among PhD students.” No such epidemic has yet claimed me and one reason it hasn’t is because of my university. Increasingly I rely upon it as a space within which I can safely expose myself to ‘liberating doubt’. My supervisors are my ‘port of call’. For me at least these are important aspects of the value proposition of the university – it will provide me with the support I need to ‘break’, as it were, and then to try and reform. It will lessen the very real risks inherent in the process of my doing so. 

These are the risks about which I would caution new PhD candidates. They should be considered and reflected on more explicitly and universities could, I believe, lead and facilitate that discussion more than they do. A consequence of doing so might be candidates who are more resilient and better prepared to confront the all-pervasive and, yes, potentially destabilising doubts of the kind that go to the very core not only of who they are as researchers, but as persons. When properly supported within the educational setting of the university these same doubts are better able to become truly liberating and, in that form, are perhaps our best chance of moving toward that state of being “quite awake”. 

Richard Stewart is a practising lawyer in Melbourne and a confirmed PhD(Law) candidate at Southern Cross University. My research concerns the capacity for property law to be used as an agent for behavioural change. LinkedIn

I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting

The secret lives of doctoral students and how academics can help

Every year, thousands of students enrol into doctoral programs across Australia and around the world. New PhD students enter an environment characterised by the persistent pursuit for knowledge – there is always something more to learn.

They also hear advice about academia from all and sundry. When we spoke to students in 2021, one final year PhD student noted, 

“There are so many different aspects to learn about and it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. This leaves you always wondering whether you are missing something. There are also many different perspectives offered by others – everyone’s experience is so different that it’s hard to work out what advice applies to you and what does not.”1

Given that each person’s experience in a PhD program is unique, how does a PhD student come to know what their identity as a researcher is?

When someone asks you to describe yourself, on which area of your life do you focus? Perhaps you highlight your job or education, listing your interests and achievements. Maybe you highlight your religion and/or ethnicity, highlighting how these shape your approach to life. You may explore your family and personal life, showcasing the impact these areas have on your life satisfaction. The stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, who we are not, and who we ‘should’ be in our context, can be defined as our identity

Identity is multifaceted and continuously shaped through our experiences. It is also significantly influenced by the context in which we find ourselves – the implicit practices within our context tell us what is expected of us.  As researchers, we are particularly interested in the concept of academic identity – the stories people tell themselves and others about who they are or are not within the context of academia. A PhD student’s academic identity is, therefore, largely shaped through the narratives and practices they experience within academia as they conduct their research.

An area of special interest for us is the doctoral education environment in higher education institutions. As higher education researchers, we experience the daily influence of academia on our own sense of who we are. We have seen PhD students try to navigate the often implicit knowledges and practices of academia during their studies. These implicit knowledges and practices are rarely taught and can cause an environment of exclusiveness – a space where some are privileged while others are marginalised. We were interested in exploring how PhD students’ experiences influence their perception of their place within the context of academia.

We believe that, to understand the experiences of PhD students as they navigate this complex environment, you have to highlight their voices. By listening to their stories, we believe we can better understand their journeys and, consequently, design improved educational experiences. We have used this approach in the past, which allowed us to explore the personal journeys of several doctoral students as they reflected on their own studies.2 The autobiographical narratives that the PhD students wrote highlighted that the PhD significantly influenced their wellbeing, sense of identity, and intercultural competence. For example, one student noted:

“I understand the PhD as an office-like job; however, your job has a lack of clarity regarding how you are supposed to achieve your goals. You get to decide what you need to do each day, but your plans change all the time as your research results take your study in a new direction. This of course means that you have a great deal of flexibility, but it also means there is a lot of uncertainty during your PhD journey. Personally, this meant that I found my PhD journey extremely stressful and mentally exhausting.”3

To explore PhD students’ academic identity development, we conducted a large-scale research project exploring the experiences and lived realities of 29 PhD students at an Australian university. We used a creative approach that was designed to highlight the voices of the students through narratives and poems, allowing us to explore academic identity development from their points of view. The first findings from this project was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education and has since received significant attention from the academic community. An open access post-print version of this article is available here.

To start our research, we wanted to know why students committed the time and energy to pursue a PhD degree. We found our participants pursued a PhD as a stepping stone for future career success, to learn more about themselves or a particular academic topic, and to solve a problem in their local context. The students believed that the PhD was an all-consuming endeavour, something that should only be attempted by someone if they could fully dedicate themselves to the pursuit.

Further exploration of our participants’ experiences helped us to discover that PhD students experience significant pressure to build their personal brand. They felt that there was considerable tension between developing disciplinary knowledge and building professional skills (also sometimes termed “soft skills” or “transferable skills”). Yet they also felt that both these forms of personal knowledge were essential for later career success. Importantly, our study showed that several of our participants felt marginalised in their ability to develop these different forms of personal knowledge. They felt that their agency to take control of their own learning was hindered by various institutions that influenced the context of academia including the universities themselves, government agencies, and scholarship funding agencies. As a result, several students felt disempowered during their educational journey which adversely affected their academic identity.

As noted by one participant,

“This has been taxing intellectually but VERY taxing on my sense of self and my sense of self worth as a scholar.”1

The tension students experience highlights that the links between disciplinary knowledge and professional skills are not made clear to students. We believe that professional skills actually increase the applicability of disciplinary knowledge. For example, if PhD students do not have the ability to communicate their research to a wider audience, it is likely that their disciplinary knowledge will linger in relative obscurity. We also believe that the act of doing disciplinary research teaches a range of professional skills as a consequence. For example, conducting literature research to identify a research project for study necessitates the use of a variety of analytical skills. It is, therefore, our responsibility as educators to help PhD students reflect on the knowledge and skills they already possess. This reflective approach can help students develop an understanding of the variety of skills they have already developed during their studies, giving them the agency to seek targeted professional development approaches for future career success.

Importantly, our research should act as a clarion call for those in academia. We implore educators to value different forms of knowledge and skills. This approach will help the scholars and problem-solvers of the future develop a strong sense of who they are and where they fit within their respective fields.

Dr Lynette Pretorius works with undergraduate, postgraduate, and graduate research students to improve their academic language and literacy skills in the Academic Language, Literacy and Numeracy Development Team at Monash University.

Dr Luke Macaulay is a research fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Refugee Employment, Advocacy, Training, and Education (CREATE), researching the education and employment experiences of people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds.

References

1.     Pretorius, L., & Macaulay, L. (2021). Notions of human capital and academic identity in the PhD: Narratives of the disempowered. Journal of Higher Education, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2020.1854605

2.     Pretorius, L., Macaulay, L., & Cahusac de Caux, B. (2019). Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-9302-0

3.     Lau, R. W. K., & Pretorius, L. (2019). Intrapersonal wellbeing and the academic mental health crisis. In L. Pretorius, L. Macaulay, & B. Cahusac de Caux (Eds.), Wellbeing in doctoral education: Insights and guidance from the student experience (pp. 37-45). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-9302-0_5

How it feels to slay the dragon: handing in my PhD thesis

As I come to the end of my doctoral journey, having recently submitted my thesis, I have been asked a number of times by well-meaning friends and family about how it feels. I must confess that I have often wondered what it would feel like to finally ‘slay the dragon’ as my supervisor euphemistically put it. When I was finishing my Masters degree just a few years prior, it certainly felt a little like such a finality, much like the end of a relationship minus the tears and anguish. The conclusion of my Masters degree, for me at least, meant that the joy of writing, the creative thinking and the discussions that I had so valued had seemingly come to an end.

It is perhaps no surprise that it would only take a little prodding by one of my course coordinators that led me to abandon my sensible and permanent teaching position to pursue a doctorate. In retrospect, this reminds me of Steve Jobs salutary advice during a commencement speech at Stanford University, when he was reputed to have said, “stay hungry, stay foolish”. In Jobs’ reckoning, it was crucial to follow one’s heart and intuition if one desired to be truly successful. It was perhaps not so much pursuit of success that drove me, but an itch I couldn’t quite scratch. I am driven by the need to deeply understand my world and my place in it.

I was simply hungry to know more.

Almost four years have passed since that beginning. It has been a time to savour in many ways, not the least because of the manifold joys of intellectual pursuit just for the sake of it. It has been a luxury in this sense, but it has also been a time full of challenge and struggle. A time of personal growth and also a time of foolish abandon. Foolish because no sane person at the age of 43 with family-in-tow should ever reasonably contemplate fulltime study to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Even early on this foolishness was clear to me. I distinctly recall listening to a colleague who was also contemplating a PhD, but was pointedly pragmatic in wanting his work to be of ‘strategic’ value to his career. I am the type of person that likes to think they could eschew such pragmatisms. However, there is perhaps little profit in being otherwise, as conversations with seemingly vulnerable early-career and even more experienced academics have reminded me along the way. Even now, facing the job market again, perhaps I should have been more tactical at each and every turn, or at the very least more tactful.

I have perhaps been too provocative and even a little foolish.

When I first began this mischief of scholarly work, I stumbled across Lincoln and Denzin’s powerful argument that truly revolutionary work involved being brave enough to write ‘messy’ and ‘vulnerable’ texts that remained open to usurpation and openly conscious of its immanent contradictions. But as any well-seasoned academic would know, that’s simply not the point of the PhD. The discipline of the doctoral thesis necessarily effaces these slippages and ambivalences, which squeezes out the passionate voice of the neophyte idealist, insinuating instead the authorial voice of a freshly disciplined academic-in-waiting as sole conduit to the truths of our social reality. However, all is not so gloomy or final. It stands to reason that the disciplines of academic work cannot achieve full closure over all reckonings, or as Foucault suggests, a permanent provocation always remains.

Now that I have almost arrived at this so-called pinnacle of the academic journey (handing in my PhD thesis), it doesn’t feel much like an ending or even a pause. Nor does it feel like an achievement, where one simply needs to plant the flag atop the pile of rewrites, edits and the fragments of text that seemed to have swirled around in my head endlessly over these last years. Instead, the text that I wrote seems to have instead written me. I have not so much written a thesis, but become its product. In the end I did not so much write that messy and vulnerable text, but instead became myself what I intended for my work. I became that messy and vulnerable text. I can no longer leave behind this experience any more than I can leave behind my self. It is simply under my skin.

So where to now? And what have I learned, or what advice would I give? I have come to understand that one does not simply ‘pursue a doctorate’. I have learned that the task was not to slay some proverbial dragon or climb some lofty pinnacle. The task instead was to become; to become that messy and vulnerable thing I had hoped would carry my ideas. The task is to remain reflexively aware of one’s own contradictions and qualifiers, yet to also stay hopeful, hungry and foolishly curious about the world. This is a gift and a challenge in equal measures. Something I hope I can live up to in the years to come.

 

George Variyan is a doctoral student with Charles Sturt University working in the sociology of teaching, looking at teachers in elite private schools in Australia. George is also a Maths and Science teacher himself, and has worked in diverse school settings such as independent schools dealing with students at-risk, the elite private school sector as well as further afield in international schools. George currently lives in Perth with his young family, enjoying the warm climate and extended family nearby.