How (not) to do a PhD

My colleague, PhD candidate and friend Lilia Mantai has recently submitted her PhD (on time) and received a Faculty Highly Commended award for her achievements as an HDR student. Last year, we gave a keynote at the Western Sydney University entitled: PhD Student: Doing, Being and Moving On. Some of this post is drawn from that, but I have been reflecting further on slow academia and PhD candidature for a paper we are co-authoring (with another colleague) on early career academics and PhD candidates’ perceptions of time.

Image result for PhD comics slow

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

I completed my PhD very slowly. Here is the short version of a long story – it reads like a series of dot points, but I will resist expanding on each point for now.

My PhD was poorly planned. I didn’t have a well-defined topic. I was still very much an undergraduate in my thinking and approach to research. (The longer version of this point has me travelling in India and finding out I was an accidental PhD student via postcard).

I worked four days a week in an area unrelated to my PhD. (My first jobs were in costumes and wardrobe at amusements parks. I also had a stint as a rides operator at Luna Park).

My first supervisor (who didn’t have a PhD) suggested reading in the library for a year.  As I clarified my topic, I changed supervisor. My new supervisor honed my academic writing, but was experiencing a tumultuous time professionally and personally and was something of a force for chaos.(The longer version of this point has my supervisor banging the table and shouting ‘Lazy scholarship!’).

I became pregnant. Unlike my PhD, this was planned. Unfortunately, my baby hadn’t read the plan. My daughter was very ill. (There is a bit more of this story in a previous post). The University refused my request for parental leave so I took it without official approval.

Eighteen months later, I had a new – and fantastic – supervisor. The words flowed and the thesis formed a coherent whole. I graduated when my daughter was three years old. I have written about my PhD experience with a colleague in a book chapter “What Feelings Didn’t I Experience” (this links to a preview, feel free to contact me for an author copy).

My PhD was the effort of a tortoise. But, even though I didn’t realise it at the time, the fallow time proved valuable. If at all possible, try to find a way to build this into your PhD journey.

The formidable thesiswhisper Inger Mewburn had a post on this topic back in 2011 (I warned you this blog would adopt slow reading strategies):

I am almost obsessed with Fast. I’m constantly after the next technique or process which will increase my output. This is because, much of the time, Fast is Good … But recently I’ve started to think about Slow and how it might apply to academic work, because there are aspects of it which just can’t be rushed … In a way, doing a thesis is like a long, slow conversation with these ideas and things … What if losing control is an essential part of writing a thesis? Realising you have lost control forces you to slow down. When you stop talking so much, you can listen better. Maybe then your thesis will tell you what it needs.

A recent Tomorrow’s Professor email (subscribe if you don’t already!) was The Slow Grad Student – Do Less and Be Mindful. The piece includes some great links so is worth reading in full. Here is a taster:

Here are four practices to help you slow down. These are micro-practices that can make a small, but noticeable, difference: 1) Do Less … 2) Make Space to Be, Rather Than Do … 3) Eschew Performing Busyness … 4) Cultivate Community.

I will follow up some of these links and strategies in future posts, but for now I would add: find ways to write differently.


One thought on “How (not) to do a PhD

  1. Thank you for the advice, sometimes it’s good to take things slow 🙂
    I can also be the rush-fast person who’s only working.
    Life is more than working fast and in the end (as I hope and believe) the PhD (experience and thesis) will be better 🙂


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