I’ve been thinking about something that was said to me recently… “PhDs aren’t worth it.”
It would be easy to dismiss such a claim, bearing in mind the claimant was only 21 years old and hasn’t actually done a PhD, but at the same time, to pretend that any PhD student spends their whole four-plus years brimming with assurance would be a lie.
I would say I was one of the more confident people I knew of the dozen or so doing a similar thing, but that’s not just senility talking. Some people brim with confidence when they shouldn’t because their minds are incapable of grasping the enormity of their circumstances, but I’ll give myself slightly more credit than that for two reasons.
- For one, I love writing. It’s my “thing”, as it were, and has been for many years. In fact, now I’ve finished the PhD I’ve taken up writing full time (for a year or so), but this love isn’t shared by all. Sometimes fellow students would say things to me like “I hate writing”, and my response would be one of blunt astonishment. Well why are you doing a PhD then? You’re basically writing a book!
- Secondly, I’m very interested in the subject area. I wrote about the architecture of large, modern central public libraries in the UK, which is a topic that fascinates on a number of levels: architectural (obviously), library science (obviously), but also engineering, psychology, sociology, philosophy (there is a Ph in PhD, after all), history, politics… etc. etc.
Having made it through and out the other side, I have some suggestions for anyone wondering whether to take a PhD, little questions you must ask yourself whether you can achieve. Bear in mind that I did a qualitative PhD, meaning the data came from discussions and conversations, rather than from numbers and statics, so the following is relevant to PhDs more commonly found in humanities and social sciences.
- A PhD is fundamentally three things.
- There’s the academic study, the reading and writing. You’ll have to do a lot of this.
- There’s the research, which tends to involve a plan to get data, legwork, resistance to failure, modification of the plan, and then more legwork. It also – crucially – involved analysing the data. Analysis is a big one. Assume it will take months and hurt a lot.
- Then there’s the construction of the thesis. This isn’t just writing and it isn’t just analysis. It’s working out exactly what to write, planning how long it will take you, hitting writing targets for month after month, and then editing, editing, editing. Then printing. Then viva preparation. Then corrections. Then resubmission. Then, and only then, graduation.
Sounds pretty tiring, huh? Here are some pointers.
- A good relationship with your supervisor is essential. My supervisor was absolutely brilliant. She understood the subject, she really engaged with what I’d been doing every month, she read stuff promptly and gave detailed feedback. We got on, so the whole things clicked along from start to end.
- Discover something specific to write about. It doesn’t have to be there at first. It doesn’t even have to be there halfway through. It might not (probably won’t) arrive until you’ve got the data and are halfway through analysing it. I didn’t write about libraries, I wrote about young people’s (1) experiences (2) of the architecture (3) of large (4), modern (5), central public libraries (6) in the UK (7). That’s pretty specific, but it took the data to tell me what I really had.
- Plan the writing. Even though I like writing I needed a detailed plan of all the sections and their word counts, complete with progress bars (see below).
- This was used in the final year, when I had to actually turn everything into a thesis. I already had a load of writing, but 80,000 is heck of a lot, so I had about 50,000 to go. I knew editing would take a long time (seriously – the version I handed in was draft #7. It took me six months just to edit and another month to proofread). Working backwards from when I wanted to finish meant to knew I had eight months to write those 50,000. That’s where the following table came in:
- This does several jobs. “Date” shows the current day. Every day I had to be writing. “Word target” shows the amount of writing I’d need to have by that point in order to hit 80,000 by my self-imposed deadline. “Word count” shows what I’ve actually got. This comes from the first table. “Daily total” shows how much I’ve written on any given day. Negative figures are when I’ve cut stuff out. “Difference” shows me how ahead or behind target I am. When I’m ahead the cell goes green. If I’m behind it’s red. “10 day avg” is how much I’ve averaged over the previous ten days. The idea is to sustain high output. Again, the cell goes green if the average is higher than what I need to finish on time. “Needed to finish” shows how many words I’d have to write each day in order to finish on time. Believe it or not, this is a lifesaver. If you stop when it begins to hurt, you probably won’t be writing enough.
- Finally, we have a graph generated from the above table. I like visual things, and this graph shows me two important bits of information. I did my “writing up” from Jan to Sept 2015, shown here.
- The blue line is what I needed to hit to reach 80,000 words at my self-imposed deadline (remember: finished is better than perfect). There’s a kink in it because on the 17th June I had my last internal review and decided to reward myself with a longer deadline. Setting impossible targets is fine if in missing them you still end up better off than you would otherwise have been.
- The other one is not a line, it’s a scar, a wound on my soul, a slow, agonising ascent in which days of sustained effort could be wiped out in an instant by realising that something I’d written two years earlier was no longer usable and would have to be cut. As you can see though, sometimes, bits got pasted back in again too.