Help! My Child/ Partner/ Friend is doing a PhD… Or ‘5 things never to say to a PhD student’

With Christmas fast approaching many PhD students will be feeling some trepidation about returning home and facing questions about their PhD, ‘when will you be done?’ and such. I wrote this blog as a result of looking for something to send my family to explain why some questions are just a bad idea and I couldn’t find it- there’s lots of advice for people who are parents doing PhDs but not so much for parents of PhDs.

Chances are you want to ask these questions because you are genuinely concerned for someone’s progress and wellbeing and then are justifiably upset when they may snap/ cry/ run away in response. In academia an unusually high proportion of peoples’ social circles will have or be doing a PhD and it’s very easy for us to forget that most people who are clever enough to steer well clear of academia will have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re doing it or what it involves. There are plenty of stats out there that start to suggest just how hard a PhD and academic life can be: 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, 10% have contemplated suicide, 53% of UK academics have mental health issues etc. and most family and friends will want to help ease those pressures where they can. So here I hope to go some way to explaining why some unexpected questions or comments are quite so unhelpful. Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas or improvements.

At the suggestion of a colleague I’ve also made this entirely serious cut out and keep mini-version to aid any PhD who’s feeling the pressure of the season. Feel free to distribute as required 🙂

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1.When will you be done?

A PhD is a new piece of research. No-one has ever done it before. Sometimes it goes smoothly, more often that not it doesn’t. If we knew how it would go it wouldn’t be new. No-one wants it done more than us. Reminding us that it’s not finished yet adds to the irrational guilt we all have that we’re somehow failing by not being done yet with the thing that justifies our entire existence for the last few years. We’re already under time pressure to do it before our deadline/ the money runs out. There are also factors out of our control (how long it takes our supervisors to read our drafts, how long we have to wait for lab/ computer time) so it’s often not even something we can make happen any quicker, much as we’d really really really like to.

2.Have you got a job yet?

This also comes in the form of ‘what are you doing next’ or worse ‘when are you getting a real job?’. PhDs are pretty full on, and the final stages when they’re most full on is the time this question crops up the most. It’s likely fine to ask what we’d like to do next, or if we’d like to stay in research if you want to know our plans. But reminding us that we don’t yet have ‘real’ employment following submission is just adding to the guilt of someone who would very likely love to be able to send in a bunch of job applications but doesn’t really have the time given that they’re doing some crazy amount of hours a day writing the thesis. Or rerunning all their work and rewriting the thesis. Definitely don’t ask then.

3. Any kind of ‘jokes’ about being a student/ staying in bed/ extra long holidays

I wish. Actually I’m working way harder than I would have done in my nicely paid graduate job for less than half the money. This is probably because I once thought I loved what I do and it was worth it. Now I no longer have the ability to love anything… (I joke, but seriously…). 99% of PhDs I know work incredibly ****ing hard. We don’t come in at 9 and go home at 5 and switch off. We check our simulations at midnight on a Sunday and end up going back to the office after having allowed ourself an hour or two off to go to the pub.* We might have the flexibility to have the odd midweek morning off but this only means we just end up staying a whole lot later when we do. There may be the odd person who can derp around for 3 years and then write it all at the end but they are definitely the minority. And we don’t get massive holidays in the summer or break up for Christmas.

*Yes I’ve done it and some of my best work has come out of this. Also some of my very worst where I made some ice melt by making it colder or the time I worked so late I forgot I owned a bike and walked all the way home. Current PhD students maybe don’t follow in my footsteps.

4. What is the point of what you do? Are my taxes paying for this? What use will this have in the real world?

If our research is funded then it goes without saying the someone important (or more likely several people) thought it was worth funding. We constantly have to justify our research in transfer reports, papers, thesis, every talk ever. Sometimes we just don’t want to do that any more. If you’re genuinely interested then that’s great and we probably will happily talk about it and why it matters, communication science is great and important, but if I’m not aggressively asking you to justify your job then I think it’s only fair to ask you to do the same.

5.Unhelpful comparisons

‘Your cousin started his PhD at the same time as you, why aren’t you finished too?’ ‘Did you know this person you went to school with just bought a house/ got married/ has two kids/ sold her business?’
How quickly you get to the end of your research is often pot luck and vastly unrelated to how hard you work. As I said above, it’s new. Some people get lucky and get it done quickly, the rest of us just try not to hate them too much.

 

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Even in academia people get it wrong all the time.