Hard work vs hard work

In ‘Should a PhD be hard?’, I differentiated between hard because of academic challenges, vs hard because of external challenges like people being mean to you.

In this post, I want to differentiate between ‘hard because it’s complex and challenging’, vs ‘hard because it requires a large volume of labour’.

Hard 1: It’s messy/complex/distressing/insoluble

The best reason to do a PhD is to solve a ‘hard’ question. PhD students often bring novel approaches to thorny problems. They have three plus years of pure research time to struggle with the really knotty problems. That is hard.

Some methodologies lean into the hardness. For example, grounded theory assumes that reality is messy and you have to create new theory from complex reality. That’s extra hard.

PhDs are often a time when you tackle material that is unfamiliar to you—new techniques, new theories, new bodies of knowledge. Learning all about a new field so you can write a single paragraph is hard.

I recently had to grapple with some deeply nasty research. I was dealing with racism and the debate in the field about whether what was happening was racist (it is, fyi). I was deeply distressed by the horrible primary texts I was dealing with, and by reading about all the ways that they were typical. This kind of research is hard. I am lead author for this chapter because my co-author is personally impacted by this specific form of hate, and didn’t feel able to take the time to deal with the material and everything it stirred up personally. So, it’s even harder if the material is directly impacting you.

Versus Hard 2: It’s a lot of work

There are lots of tasks that are time consuming or require careful checking… but can then be carried out as if you were a human research robot.

These are often tasks where technology offers solutions—spellcheck, citation management, finding books or articles in the library, mailing the article to a journal. (I am JUST old enough to have experienced life before all of these: I spent hours with dictionaries, style guides, card catalogues and annual indexes, and the postal service.) Still, keeping up a database of references doesn’t save you from the drudgery of having to format and upload citations; nor does uploading a document to the publisher’s portal exempt you from the struggle of technology.

There is still a lot of labour involved in research: whether that’s typing up transcripts, travelling to archives, trawling through databases, double checking code and calculations and much more.

Citations and formatting according to the style guide is a lot of work in terms of time and effort, but it’s very mechanical.


So, the first kind of hard needs me to be in the right mood—resilient enough to deal with the challenges, energetic, focussed.

This means that often I am not in the right mood. Sometimes that is a deal breaker (we nearly gave up on the nasty research as too hard, if only it wasn’t so urgent and necessary). But oftentimes, you can keep the project moving until you can get into the right mindset, because the bulk of a research writing project is typically made up of the more rote kind of hard work.

The other kind of hard doesn’t need me to be magically on, it’s more important is that I turn up to my desk and stick at it for long enough to get the thing done.

Hopefully this helps you identify what you find hard, and how to tackle the hard jobs! Seeing inside someone else’s process also helps you. People often tell me about how they believe they ‘should’ write, and how they believe they ‘should’ feel—and then feel guilty if their experience doesn’t match their beliefs. Showing what it’s really like on the inside, for many writers, can be reassuring, inspiring and useful!

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