How to Fall in Love with Your PhD

How to Fall in Love with Your PhD

 

There's a difference between, "it is hard", and "it is killing me". 

So much of what people tell you when you sign up to do a PhD - from within and without academia - is that "you'll hate it". Or "you won't enjoy it". Or "PhDs are meant to suck".

Yet, prior to that point most of what you get is "Yeah, go for it". Or "You'd be so suited to a PhD". 

So, on one hand you're courted and told you'll be awesome. And then once you're in you're told it'll be f#cking hard! 

How can you tread the line between loving it and hating? Or loving it and being told you'll hate it? 

Firstly, if you're reading this as a supervisor, stop giving students mixed messages. Please don't tell a prospective student they'll love it. It'll be good. You'll be great. And then once they're enrolled, start telling them they'll hate it. It'll be hard. You'll get depressed. Be honest from the start. "You're suited, but it won't always be easy". "It is hard, but overcoming challenges is part of the growth process, and if you're interested in self growth, you'll probably find a PhD rewarding". "A PhD isn't for everyone. The statistics say 1/3 of students will have mental health problems triggered by their PhD". 

Also firstly, if you're reading this as a student, don't be selective in the messages you remember. Stop applying observational bias to your PhD process. Notwithstanding above, I reckon most potential supervisors are honest. Or at least explain there'll be challenges in a PhD. Even if they say you're well suited to them. And I'm sure there are heaps of people asking you, "Why do a PhD?" But before you start, you legitimately say ,"Because I want to". And that serves as a good response. When you're in the middle of the sh1t "because I want to" no longer cuts it. 

A mature age student was the person who suggested this blog topic. So let's look at age... 

The median age of Australian PhD students is 31 and the mean is 35 (I'm actually surprised by how high that is). And there is evidence to suggest that older people are better equipped at dealing with stress, and stressful events than younger people. Furthermore, older people have better mental health than younger people. Not to mention, as we age we also get better at self regulation. Whether it is life experience (I've been through worse, I know things will get better), self-regulation (I can meditate my way through this) or a combination of the two, older people are just better at it. Thus, perhaps the younger PhD student cohort, aren't equipped to deal with the stress. Aren't equipped to set appropriate boundaries. Aren't equipped to manage themselves.

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I recall having heard or read that as individual factors mature age, part time, female students perform better in their PhDs. Not that they are the top factors, but that they are more likely to complete and complete on time compared to their peers. You don't need to be all three, but it might help. 

However, when I try to find that information, or to find anything contemporary about those three factors they all seem to have negligible effect. That is, enrolment status, gender, and age don't appear to be associated with PhD completion. Articles actually state that. 

So, what is the major factor? Unsurprisingly, it is PhD supervisors and supervision. And although changing a supervisor mid-candidature is possible, not many students want to. As a supervisor, self-reflection might lead you to realise there are things you can do to improve the experience of students under your supervision. To help them love their PhD (and you'll see some suggestions below). For both PhD students and supervisors, getting to know each other might help (further) improve your relationship. Maybe get to know each other's origin story - how you came into research. Find out each other's hobbies other than research. Learn their most loved/hated data collection/analysis techniques. Ask your supervisor about their favourite research paper (theirs and/or someone else's). Find out their best discovery, realisation or insight. Ask them about their best, and worst conference presentation experiences. Share yours. 

Second is the student. Specifically personal, and social lives - they get neglected and lead to mental health challenges and burnout. Students see the PhD requirements as being all intrusive. Essential. Compulsory. Thus, they prioritise the PhD above all else. Friends. Family. Personal interests. These are all recipes for disaster. So, if you want to love your PhD, deprioritise it. Or at least put other things first some of the time. Like the saying goes - absence makes the heart grow fonder. Not to mention treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen. So, if you want to love your PhD, put it second, third or forth. And as a supervisor, help your students love their PhD by telling them to put it second, third or forth priority. 

The third most influential factor comes back to the supervisor kind of. It is the department structures and environment. As a supervisor, you have a role to play. Introducing your students to the department, school, and faculty they are part of. Showing them around. Helping them meet staff - professional, academic, research, as well as teaching. Putting events in place that help socialise students - e.g., welcome morning/afternoon tea, seminars, journal clubs, trivia nights. Students, you have a role to play too. You need to participate in the department, school ,and faculty events. Morning tea. Afternoon tea. Journal club. Seminars. These are all places where you learn about your field, research, and academic life in general. 

So, if you want to fall in love with your PhD (as a student) or want to help your students as a supervisor:

  1. Take time away from and deprioritise the PhD.
  2. Get to know your student/supervisor.

Host and participate in department, school, and faculty activities.


Dr Richard Huysmans helped build the first Victorian Allied Health Careers Pathway Blueprint. In addition, Richard has helped more than 200 clinicians, technicians, PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers.. He has provided strategic advice on leaving academia, staying in academia, returning to academia, partnering with industry, growing a career by building new centres and institutes, as well as establishing new programs. As a #pracademic, Richard understands the need to have practical solutions to academic problems. He knows how to identify transferable skills and what makes a good resume.

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