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What’s the hardest stage of a PhD?

Hi! The new job is going great! There is a lot to learn and process about taking the next step into senior management that eventually I’ll be able to put into words and share as more ‘insider’ tips. Writing Well and Being Well is now available for pre-order and is heading into production, i.e. the stage of publishing where you stop editing it and start turning it from a manuscript into a book, it should be out in September.

This post arises, as these posts often do, out of a conversation with a candidate who is in the last few months of her thesis. ‘It’s the hardest part of the PhD’, I said to her as she was telling me about how tiring and all-consuming her writing had become. She’s working on a thesis where the writing is the work. A third person in the conversation did a science PhD, and when we looped her in, she hadn’t had the same experience. That’s totally unsurprising, because I find I tell people ‘it’s the hardest part of the PhD’ a lot, but I’m often talking about different parts.

Oh yes, well, it turns out it’s complicated. One day I’m going to learn to write blog posts that aren’t 2000 words of ‘it depends’ but today is not that day. I’m still here blogging over a decade later (I missed my 10th anniversary! The blog was born on 12 Feb 2013, can you believe it?) though, because there are still complicated things to explain, to explore, to work through together. Anyway.

The doctoral journey looks different for everyone, but there are some common hard parts. Knowing that these parts can be hard for lots of people is often a bit reassuring. It also helps you to plan—I had a lot of friends doing their PhD ahead of me, so I was able to watch them and know what might be coming for me and deploy my disaster script.

Even with all that foreknowledge though, I didn’t deal with my hard part perfectly. I completed my PhD on time and with the assurance that what I was experiencing was ‘normal’… but it wasn’t great for my health. I didn’t sleep enough, I didn’t exercise enough, I didn’t keep up my hobbies. So I still made mistakes, just less-bad mistakes. You’ll make your own mistakes, this is a learning experience and most people only ever do one PhD! But hopefully this information will help you also make less-bad mistakes, and still finish and still know that your journey is okay.

When the hardest part is the beginning

For many people, the transition into the PhD is the hardest part. You have been working, or doing coursework, or caring for others, and then you have to transition into this weird new world of research. There are all these hidden codes and expectations that no-one explains to you. The way that teams, deadlines, ideas, language, writing, meetings and learning work may be radically different. You are excited about doing a PhD, and proud of being smart and being good at uni, and suddenly you are completely lost, you realise you don’t know anything, and you keep getting stuff wrong. It’s confusing, dispiriting and a bit scary.

The transition into the PhD, though, is probably also the best supported. Most of the doctoral study books cover how to get started in lots of detail. Universities often have orientation and induction processes to help you get settled. Increasingly, even beyond North America, universities offer coursework or regular workshops to help you find your way. Even if you haven’t found the books or blogs or podcasts yet, there is a lot of support out there for you.

When the hardest part is the middle

The middle is particularly hard for experimental researchers. You have identified your problem, got everything set up to start doing experiments… and none of them are going well. The problem with moving from research that replicates other well established findings to an original contribution to knowledge means that its really hard to get good results. If you could just set up the experiment, do the experiment, and get meaningful results straight away, that would probably be a sign you were doing undergraduate science.

So your experiments fail. A lot. And they keep failing, in new ways, for months. That equipment you built keeps breaking down. That algorithm keeps showing errors. You can’t get the technique right. You realise that your original hypothesis is a dead end. And then the next project also leads nowhere.

Eventually, you fix things, solve problems, persist long enough, and have something solid to work on and enough data to put together a publication and eventually a thesis. You’ll get there. But the middle is tough.

The middle can be tough for any PhD though. You have been working on your thesis for well over a year by now, and you still aren’t finished. Your work is good for the stage of progress, but not good enough to submit, and it won’t be good enough for another year. Unsurprisingly, this can prompt a crisis of confidence in even the most successful doctoral candidates (for an example of this, see Inger Mewburn’s class Thesis Whisperer post, ‘The Valley of Shit‘).

I still remember the sinking feeling as I approached my second year review, with 60,000 words of draft and most of the archival research done. I surveyed all the work I’d done, and I’d done so much work. The drafts were good drafts, but they weren’t finished yet. The research was solid research, but it wasn’t finished yet. The argument was progressing well, but it wasn’t finished yet. I had another year of candidature, and another year until my PhD was ready to submit. I was still getting lots of feedback about what needed to be added or changed.

This middle part of the PhD has been less well covered, which is why Inger, Shaun Lehmann and I wrote How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble, which is all about how to deal with feedback. The middle is when things aren’t working yet, when all the troubles with your research and writing need working through.

But your best resource to get through the middle is to find a research support community—because everyone will be going through the same thing. Your lab team might be competitive or you might be a solitary humanities researcher, but you will find people who are having similar experiences right across all kinds of research. You might find a Shut Up and Write community, or go along to your department seminars, or to your university progress workshops, or join an online PhD support group. Particularly when it looks like you aren’t making progress, make time to connect to other researchers.

When the hardest part is the end

In recent years, a lot of work has gone into trying to make the end of the PhD less difficult. If you have published your research as you went along, then you might be able to avoid the dreaded ‘writing up’ crunch. Desktop publishing software, citation managers, text matching software, spell and grammar checkers have all made the work of producing a thesis much easier.

It was only 15 years ago that I had to save my thesis onto a USB stick, get on a bus for three and a half hours, print out my 100,000 word thesis on single-sided double spaced paper, manually interleave the musical examples which were done in a seperate software package, spiral bind each copy, and then walk it over to the research office to submit it. Now you can just upload a PDF.

That isn’t to say the end of the PhD is easy for anyone, but it’s not necessarily the hardest part for those who are ‘writing up’. Writing up means that the data and analysis and graphs and code are where the real work happens. Your analysis, critical thinking and contribution are not done in the writing. You know you are in such a discipline if you go to a conference and speak to your slides without a script. The exact words you use don’t matter that much, as long as your data and your data visualisations are robust.

However, in arts, humanities, and some creative and social sciences PhDs, the analysis and data are done through the writing. Every word in your draft matters because if you are loose with your writing, your reader won’t be able to follow the points you are making or understand your research. This puts a lot of intellectual pressure on the final months of the PhD, the final draft is the final version of your research too.

These word-based disciplines often value a high level of integration across the PhD thesis too. A PhD with publications that explores a suite of related experiments will need to be brought together with ‘framing’ material, but you don’t have to rewrite each article to weave the thesis together as a cohesive whole. In a ‘big book‘ thesis, the final draft is often when the argument and logical progression finally click, when the right word for the concepts final crystallise, when all the threads and themes finally get tied into a bow. So getting to that final draft is when you need to do the most galaxy-brain thinking.

Human brains aren’t really designed to hold 80,000 words at once. They certainly struggle to turn those words around 360°, integrate three plus years of thinking, perhaps radically reorder them more than once. You might start to dream about the words. You might run out of brain space for other important tasks, like talking or driving. Be kind to yourself while you are facing this massive task, draw on your support networks, and know that it won’t last forever.

Again, it helps to face this part of the PhD in a community. This is why Peta Freestone, Liam Connell and I started Thesis Boot Camp, a 3-day writing intensive for late-stage PhD candidates. You have a huge amount of work, it’s really hard to do, and doing it together in a supportive environment can help you make incredible progress. Lots of universities around the world now do their own versions of Thesis Boot Camp, and any writing intensive or writing group will be a huge help. The three of us wrote up our wisdom into Your PhD Survival Guide which is about your final 6-12 months. When we wrote the book, we realised that there was hardly anything published about these final critical months of the PhD, though a lot of academic writing guides and communities implicitly support this stage of the process—I recommend my Whisper Collective teammates Prolifiko who have a new writing productivity book out; and the Doctoral Writing SIG (Special Interest Group) who also host wonderful regular online writing discussions.

When the hardest part is what comes next

Three things happen simultaneously as you finish up the PhD. First, your identity shifts and you become a peer scholar. You get a new title, and move from being a student to being a researcher in your own right. This is a huge shift—you have been a student for cumulatively two decades or more. Now you have to be an expert, a teacher, lead research projects, and set research agendas.

This identity shift often marks a major employment shift too. If you were a full-time student, you will need to find a job. Or you might be looking to change the job you were doing, after all that’s one of the major perks of doing a further degree. You might have to move university, city, country or industry. Or you might be dealing with the frustrating reality of applying and not yet getting the jobs you want.

And finally, for some people, the end of the PhD is the end of their time in the academy. Whether or not you wanted to pursue a research career, the job market means that many people will be handing in their library card and swiping out of the campus one last time. They will return for graduation and maybe for some alumni events, but either your time as a researcher will be coming to an end, or many of your fellow PhD candidates will be moving on.

The identity shifts, the farewells, the endings, the frustrations of a job search and the challenges of moving are all hard too.

Fortunately, this transitional part is again pretty well covered for resources. Be kind to yourself and avoid ‘quit lit‘ think pieces. Instead, look at resources from my fellow Whisper Collective teammate, Jen Polk, in From PhD to Life, or Karen Kelskey in The Professor is In. Inger’s project PostAc might also be useful here. Talk to your university careers team. And stay in contact with those friends you made along the way—it’s often much easier to make friends at uni than on the outside.

Whichever part of the PhD you personally find the hardest, know you aren’t alone, and you don’t have to tackle it alone. A PhD is hard, of course, but it should be ‘hard like climbing a mountain, not hard like being hit with a stick. I hope this post helps you as you tackle the hard parts of your doctoral journey, and know that I’m always cheering you on.

Photo by Jamie Davies on Unsplash

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