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.

What makes a PhD?

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One of the reasons I started this blog was to try and show friends and family what it is I do, and why I was crazy enough to give up a good, well paid job with nice stable prospects to return to be a poor student who will potentially be unemployed in just over a year and a half, if I’m lucky. So what is it I actually do? Well the first key question has to be:

What is a PhD?

The dictionary definition of a PhD (or Doctor of Philosophy) is “The highest degree awarded by a graduate school, usually to a person who has completed at least three years of graduate study and a dissertation approved by a board of professors.”

So how does it work?

In practice I do what is judged to be 3 years worth or original research, write a huge long report about it (“the thesis”) about it and then sit in a room with two experts in my field and try to stop them tearing it to pieces (otherwise known as “the viva”). Along with this there are other deadlines such as the monitoring committees every 6 months (essentially a report and mini viva) and various talks/ posters etc.

It can get pretty stressful around these key times but I think it’s fair to stay a large amount of the stress is self inflicted: at the end of the day you’re producing you’re own original piece of research so it needs to be your best.

A nicer side is that we also get to  snazzy locations for summer schools (mine was in Italy) to try and learn about our field and conferences (although so far these have been less snazzy- Loughborough and Leeds).

Some alternative interpretations of what I do.

Some alternative interpretations of what I do.

So what do I actually do all day?

A PhD can work pretty much like a normal job if you want it to. I have a desk in an office, a computer, a wheely chair and a contract. You’re expected to do a certain amount of work in a week and although there can be some flexibility in when you do this (some people can end up doing some very odd hours, especially come writing up time) most people tend to stick to roughly 9-5 plus or minus a few hours (naming no names!). I tend to work more than this as do a lot of my colleagues. Often come writing up time people will be in most weekends- even before then it can be quite hard to switch off. It’s not an easy option but it’s not completely unmanageable.

Generally it’s better to be in when other people are around and there are certain things during normal working hours such as seminars you need to go to. So other than sitting at my desk cursing Matlab my day can also consist of:

  • Seminars: An opportunity to hear speakers from outside or inside the department. Attendance is expected, as is remaining awake although this is achieved less. At Reading Met we also have an informal weekly seminar given by 1 or 2 PhDs which is a good relaxed opportunity to practice speaking in front of a friendly audience.
  • Research group meetings: As with seminars but smaller and more specific- so I’m part of Arctic group (which despite the name does Antarctica too). It’s less formal and we also have socials so are a good way to meet people from different levels of the department.
  • Demonstrating/ teaching: Nice way to earn some bonus cash and get some teaching experience, less nice if you get lots of marking.
  • The dreaded weekly supervisor meetings: Mine actually aren’t that bad but you can tell when people have theirs as there is a sudden panic to produce some kind of plot to demonstrate what you’ve been doing all week. They’re an opportunity to discuss results (or lack of results) and plan future work. I always worry about mine but then come out excited about progress and what I’m going to do for the next week… and then I get a cup of tea and check facebook and suddenly it’s all gone…
  • Procrastination: Reading is excellent for this. At any one time we could be covered in PVA glue making props for the panto, honing our croquet skills for the golden mallet, predicting which ever sporting event is happening/ the next week’s weather, sharing the gossip from the latest department pub crawl (hearing senior staff stayed out longer than the undergrads is always enjoyable); it’s a wonder we get anything done really…

    Me as Professor Scrooge in last year's Met Department Panto. Photo Stolen from Carly Wright.

    Me as Professor Scrooge in last year’s Met Department Panto. Photo stolen from Carly Wright.

So are you actually a student?

Yes and no. We are technically students (yes NUS discount!!) but without the massive long holidays and lie ins, and we mostly do get paid even if it’s not a huge amount. Some brave people fund themselves (most of them I’ve met will be part time in order to do this), the rest of us will be funded by research councils or industry.

So what happens after? Do you become a lecturer?

I wish it was that easy! The way academia works is that a lot of PhDs will become Postdocs if they wish to stay in research, this is where you have a fixed term research contract. This can put a lot of people off: once you get a job you’re potentially having to then look for another one after a year or two and this can involve a lot of moving around- in fact it has been argued that you’re more employable if you can show you’ve worked at more than one institution. Those who do want to stay in academia will eventually need to find a more permanent position but these are much rarer and competitive meaning that the future is somewhat risky.

In fact a lot of PhDs will end up in careers outside of academia for this reason, or becuase after 3+ years they find that they just don’t want to do any more research.

Is it worth it?

At the moment, yes, absolutely. I get to do something I (most of the time) love every day and it’s great. Although I may come back to you and update this when it comes to writing up…

I’ve definitely not had the experience that a PhD can be isolating, my department is a really supportive, fun place to be and within the University the graduate school does a lot to encourage PhDs from different departments to interact, ranging from free breakfasts to 3 Minute Thesis competitions. It can be quite frustrating and stressful at times and you need a lot of self motivation but I guess that is just the nature of research- if it was easy or obvious then someone would probably have done it already! But  I don’t want to make light of the fact that it can be incredibly demanding in terms of keeping yourself going and the pressure of knowing that you need to get this work done or you’re wasting 3+ years of your life but if you think about that too much you’d probably never get anywhere. And hopefully I’m getting somewhere… as long as my next model run is successful…