PhD: Expectations vs Reality

To sum up this week, I’ve read a load more positive/balanced articles about only children, transcribed an interview with one nasty only child and one nice one, discussed my next board with my supervisor which will hopefully be in mid-June (have you ever tried to find a date and time where three academics are free?  It’s painful) and been shopping because in a couple of weeks I have an informal interview for a little job - nothing substantive to write about for a blog, in other words.  So, as I’m feeling reflective, I thought I’d write about how PhD has measured up to my expectations so far.  Hoping it might be of use to anyone who’s applied for/thinking of applying for a PhD and wants to know more about it.

Misconception One: That PhD would be an isolating experience.  How many people warn you that, as a PhD student, you’ll be extremely lonely?  Sure, I’m on my own when I work, say for a few hours a day.  As an introvert, I don’t mind that, and actually get extremely agitated if, for example, someone’s chatting in the library.  I need quiet to concentrate.  But I’ve been lucky there’s a good number of people in my cohort, not to mention a large MA group I also have friends in.  I’m actually more sociable now than I was at MA, as our year were a pretty disparate bunch.  I’ve got postgrad friends who have the same social interests as me - be it coffee and a catch-up during the day, drinking and dancing at night, or pulling together to get the history postgrads as a whole talking about their research, profiles, career aims and what have you, and even formulating and organising a little conference.  Outside of that, I’ve met fellow PhDs and post-PhDs who I get along and share research interests with, and they’ve helped me and I hope that I’ve helped them.  And in neither case do we talk about work all the time - well, we obviously don’t discuss research methods when we’re at the student club night!  And just because you’re a postgrad/mature student doesn’t mean you’re barred from participating in student societies - being vice-president/secretary of LitSoc has got me out of the house and given me non-work-related tasks to do.

**Misconception Two: Everything is difficult and dramatic.  **So far, everything has gone really well, so naturally I’ve been suspicious.  Where’s that horrible snag everyone is meant to hit?  Am I missing something big, and is that why everyone else who’s doing a PhD seems to be working so much harder than me?  Well, according to my supervisor anyway, not everyone hits a huge snag.  I do think I may have ended up being supervised by THE MOST RELAXED MAN IN THE ACADEMIC WORLD but if you’re achieving things and not breaking your back over it, don’t over-analyse it, just go with it and enjoy it.  Of course you have to work hard and push yourself somewhat, but working hard doesn’t mean bumping into obstacles constantly.  I experienced a similar conflict when my friends were seeing the boards as a big ordeal, both the first one and the ‘conversion’ one - which apparently will just be like a normal board, they just happen to decide whether you continue based on it.  My supervisor was constantly reminding me that it’s not a test, and his former students were telling me that they actually enjoyed theirs.  Again, maybe I’m just lucky.  You might not be able to be totally calm about these things and I understand why, but on the other hand DON’T PANIC either.

Misconception Three: **I would become this productive machine.**  Surprisingly enough, doing a PhD doesn’t alter your personality or circadian rhythms.  I’m still naturally lazy; for example, I’ll write 1,000 words or so and feel so pleased with myself that I’ll take the rest of the day off.  I still rarely get up before eight, and even then I have to force myself to do so by taking a slot at the gym that means I’ll get home and actually do some work before lunchtime.  When I was 13, I had a Geocities website (those were the days!), and I remember waking up at seven one morning, thinking I was going to get out of bed and do loads of work on it, then promptly going back to sleep and waking up at 11.  The stakes are higher, but I can report that I haven’t really changed - I’m not so undisciplined that I sleep until 11 unless I’ve got a gym slot or other appointment, but I can make myself get up before half past nine.  I prefer to get up a bit later and work a bit later.  And it hasn’t changed that I experience a droop at around 3pm, which sometimes I work through with some kind of stimulant, and other times I take as a cue to have a nap.  Basically, thinking ‘I’m going to get up early and work all day every day!’ isn’t much use when that’s not how you know you can operate.

Misconception Four: That my days would be filled with research and nothing else.  Kind of related to misconception three, the pre-PhD expectation that I was just being a wimp before and could just work and work and work.  But also, you actually end up with a surprising number of engagements when you’re doing a PhD, be they meetings (with staff or catching up with friends, which are both VERY important), short courses or talks.  Before I started my PhD, I would ask PhD students what a typical day involves, and now I know why it was such a difficult question to answer.  This is what _some _of my days look like:

8:00: Get up, go to the gym, get a shower.
10:00: Do some work.
12:00: Lunch.
12:30: Do more work.  Occasional breaks for Twitter.
4:30-5:00: Stop working.  Check social media/play a game/sleep.
6:30ish: Cook and eat dinner
7:15ish-midnightish: Leisure time.

This is what one day recently looked like:

8:45: Get up, go to the gym, get a shower.
10:45: Read a journal article.
11:45: Lunch and kill time as no point starting anything when I’m going out soon.
12:30: Get a bus to the university, drop some money off for a course and sit around a bit.
1:00: Meetings.
3:00: Go to the library but be too busy finding things in the catalogue to do any actual work.
4:00: Go to a talk.
5:30: Wait for and get a bus.
6:00ish: Get home, fall asleep as really tired.
8:00: Cook and eat dinner.
8:45: Leisure.
10:00: Realise I need to order books from the British Library for the next day.  Spend ages figuring out what I actually want, whether I can buy them online for cheaper than the train fare or get them from the university library.  Find that a couple of books take 48 hours to arrive, so order them for a later date.  Get there in the end.
11:00: Leisure.
Midnight: Bed.

Some days, you do just get tied up in admin, or there’s a meeting and a talk on the same day, and that’s fine.  I think this blog post has basically been an advertisement for not worrying too much and that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing a PhD - basically, don’t force yourself into a schedule that’s not right for you, or work into the night if you haven’t had time during the day - as long as you’re reaching all the milestones at the right time, I don’t think it matters.  Basically, be ready to write something when the time comes to write a paper for a board, and have something to report when you meet your supervisor, and you’re doing it right.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK