What they DONT’t tell you before you embark on a PhD

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(originally published in Australia Asia Pacific Institute Review Jan-March 2016, p. 9)

Well, if you thought that working on a PhD was about spending 3 years (or more? Yay!) reading and writing about your pet topic, you’re wrong. The first thing they don’t tell you is that editing will be much more important than writing. Yes, you will spend hours writing but even more hours proofreading, checking the facts and testing the strength of every claim you make—never mind that you know this, how do you know this?

This has the effect of making some labour over a paragraph a day perfecting and polishing while others dash off 1,000 words in the same time, certain ‘it’ll be edited anyway”. Either way, editing is going to be hard, on you and your supervisors but mostly, on your ‘magnum opus’. To survive you must learn how to kill your precious darlings, detach your creative pride from your brainchild and cast a beady eye over every last detail. It’s painful work but necessary and once done will vastly improve the final thesis.

What else do they not tell you? That working on a PhD is a solitary intellectual business where you’ll be besieged with questions and swimming in a sea of unknowing. The task will seem enormous but its contours will reveal itself eventually if you keep reading, thinking, writing and, this last is important, talking about the ideas and issues you’re trying to work out. Your supervisors are more like lifeguards at the beach than a lifesaver. They will point out how, when, and why, what you shouldn’t do certain things but you’re the one that has to tread water or swim to keep afloat.

Apart from your supervisors, find people you care to have meaningful conversations with you about whatever you’re wrangling with. It need not be the same few every time and frankly, it is probably healthier to talk to different people about different ideas on different occasions. The important thing is to actively search for that willing listener who will have a dialogue with you. Talking about your thesis is like teaching it forces you to articulate your thoughts so someone else can understand it. Once they’re clarified writing comes easier. Keep them to yourself and even the smallest snags can seem insurmountable.

You should also accept very few of your friends and family to grasp exactly what you’re doing in the next 3 years or so. Even fewer will get why you want to spend your time on theory. Be prepared to spend every family gathering explaining why you are still studying and what you are trying to achieve.

And then there is the issue of money. Unless you have independent means or a trust fund you should know working on a PhD will leave your finances in a dire state. It’s an all-absorbing solo exercise that tends to crowd out the work you would normally do for a living. A scholarship helps but if you haven’t realised it yet, they are increasingly rare.

What many postgraduates do end up doing is enter into the world of sessional teaching. That means casual teaching, if you’re lucky, in areas related to your research. As casual work goes, the hourly rate is attractive and you will, in fact, be serving an apprenticeship in tertiary teaching. It’s necessary experience if you want to land a position as an academic post-PhD and as I mentioned earlier, useful for externalising what you know in clear, simple language.

What they don’t tell you is how easy it is to fall into that abyss of casual teaching work and never come back out for air. Teaching is a giddy, gratifying performance that can be very seductive. When you’re teaching, you’re in charge, when you’re writing your thesis, it can feel like you’re free falling. Easy to see which option appeals more. To complete that PhD though, manage what teaching you take on but always place your main objective – working on your thesis – front and centre.

If you remain undeterred and stoic about what lies ahead, here’s a final thing you should know about embarking on a PhD: you won’t come out at the other end of this process the same person. Change is inevitable but then, maybe that is why you started a PhD in the first place . . .