politics of the hap

Why being a PhD student is actually kind of amazing.
June 19, 2013, 9:07 pm
Filed under: Academe, PhD chat | Tags:


Sometimes it would seem that doing a PhD is possibly the most terrible life decision you can make. And it is often from my fellow PhD students especially those coming to the end of their thesis, in the begrudged ‘writing up’ stage, that this sentiment emerges. As the newbie in my faculty (only 6 months in) my beaming smile at the outset of my studies was soon replaced for the cynical grouchiness of my colleagues. It seems it is in the nature of the PhD student to be persistently fed up with all that is offered to them. As a small mandatory requirement all students in my faculty are requested to be on campus for one day a week. Instead of realizing this to be the minimal demand it is – er we get to work from home in our pyjamas the other 6 days of the week?? – we moan as though it is the biggest affliction on our lives.

As someone who has worked in retail for many years struggling to get a funded studentship (applied 4 times, did one year self-funded whilst working and dropped out), when I finally got a fully-funded PhD place, I relished everyday I didn’t have to stand in a shop and smile at people and feel undervalued, and I also cherished having got to the age of 28 and yet again successfully avoiding the 9-5 office life which to me has always felt like a fate worse than retail. So to counteract the dreary cynicism we PhD students have I want to list and celebrate the many amazing aspects of being a PhD student. But first let’s face up to those con’s of doing a PhD:

1) It’s actually fucking hard. It’s hard to get a funded PhD place and it’s hard to sustain it and it’s hard to finish in three years.

2) You feel pointless 90% of the time. As a PhD student you are in some bizarre limbo, neither fully fledged academic but neither totally unworthy of attention. You are always fighting to get your voice heard.

3) Other people, namely non-academics, make you feel even more pointless. “So what do you actually do?” and “That’s sounds pretty easy” and “Is that all you’ve done?” and “So, what?” are all comments spoken by the sort of un-informed cretin who thinks that work means travelling to a place and travelling back everyday wearing formal wear and talking about figures and spreadsheets. Sometimes, in the work-life of a PhD student it takes three weeks to write two questions. It just does.

4) You are very poor all the time and subsequently continually hungry all the time.

5) Social life evaporates rapidly due to aforementioned poverty when everyone gets sick of your sponging. Not to mention the gulf that emerges because no-one understands nor cares why you cannot just hang out whenever they want: “But you don’t have a job?!”

6) Small matters of high probability of significant mental disturbance, poor dietary habits, hygiene becomes slack.

7) Admin BS. The life of a PhD student involves a considerable quota of admin BS. ‘Skills profile’, probationary assessments, quarterly reviews, meeting notes and so on and blah, the research councils and REF and their professionalization of academic work means even PhDers are not immune from the paperwork circus.

Ok so now on with the good stuff!

1. FREEDOM FROM THE BOSSES. You are your own boss. Aside from the aforementioned admin BS, a few hoops to jump through, but for the most part (95%) you structure your own agenda. After all it’s your research the university is funding and supporting, the other 5% is a small price to pay.

2. You don’t have to see people every day if you don’t want to. NO SMALL TALK EVER AGAIN.

3. You can work 9am-5pm, or 5pm-9am, or 9am-12pm and then again 6pm-8pm, you make time your own.

4. Never have to commute again. Or get squashed with all the suits on the tube. Aside from meeting supervisors every couple weeks and the odd faculty meeting and events (normally with free lunch 😉 ), you don’t have to go outside. Except for food which you can’t really afford anyway, a weekly trip for bread, vegetables and peanut butter and you’re sorted.

5. No I don’t feel like showering today, and that’s okay.

6. I was going to get dressed today, but nah.

7. Friend calls: whoops pressed ignore.

8. Friends calls again: ‘So I’m near your place, I can come over in 20 minutes?’ ‘Umm’ (a bowl of pasta is on my lap and I haven’t yet got round to putting on underwear, its 3pm), ‘Sure’.

9. Yeah I’m gonna take a break. WHENEVER I WANT.

10. It’s sunny outside, better take those books to the park. Working and sunbathing, loving life.

11. Just gonna have a cloud-staring break for half an hour.

12. I can listen to whatever music I want. At whatever volume. And sing along. And dance. Oh yeah.

13. Aside from those few that like to make you feel small and pointless, people think you’re really clever. “So what do you do?”, “Oh I’m just studying for a PhD”, “Oh wow I couldn’t do that!” (blushes) “Ahem well yeah I am kind of a genius…”

13. The limbo of being a PhD student is not just sometimes unnerving, it is also it’s beauty. You don’t have to be categorized. You’re creating something. You’re outside of that world of work with its set hours and scheduled lunch breaks and enforced uniforms. Initially this is unsettling. To go from working full-time in a retail setting: no time for anything, to be around people all the time, becoming brain dead, just a smiley robot – to days with only books for company, days where I had to organize my own time, days I would spend totally alone with little or no contact with friends or the outside world, was terrifying. I literally had anxiety attacks. But slowly new patterns form. Spending a lot of time alone is inevitable when undertaking a PhD. But this isn’t isolation. I realise I don’t feel lonely because I have the minds and thoughts of the writers and philosophers I am reading with me (spoken like a true book nerd). Also you sort of melt into the quiet. Living in bustling East London I am never too far from noise and people. But the quiet of an empty library or your desk becomes a special place – scary sometimes yes – but that is why we chose this path. Or at least it should be. If you do a PhD just for the status or career options (in the current academic climate a PhD won’t get you far anyway – especially not in terms of money – you should know this!) then you will come stuck pretty quick. I chose a PhD not for the prestige being a Dr might one day bring me, but because it gave me space and freedom, even if this was sometimes coupled with relative poverty and hunger. The space and freedom to unravel a question I had been pondering for many years. A question that was both personal and collective, part of me and yet so much bigger. The quiet is not scary then, its just life with all the trivialities emptied out. It’s space pure and simple, and it’s yours.

14) This time will never come again. What other opportunity will grant you this space and independence? I have heard many a senior academic reminisce on their PhD days, as if they would do anything to reclaim that intellectual and professional freedom again. But now they have too much to lose. The PhD is in many ways a bizarre relic, one of many academia loves to retain as part of its tradition. And though many revisions are added to the process, at heart I like to see it as a creative endeavour, an art form all of it’s own. Who know’s what will happen after? Everyone loves to ask “So what are you going to do with it?” because as we know degrees are just things we collect in the race to get up the ladder to career and wealth. But education is an end in itself. Perhaps I should have visions of ‘changing practice’ or saving lives or becoming some esteemed thinker. But I don’t. I’m just in this journey right now. And it’s actually kind of amazing.