How to not be defeated by your PhD.

In an Australian humanities department, a three-year PhD is a high-level enemy. It’s the final boss at the end of your education; everything you had spent years preparing for. For me, the initial excitement I felt towards my project and having three long years to do nothing but write about stuff I cared about quickly gave way to the realization of the enormity of the task. The slow progress can make one feel as if trapped in place and the lack of oversight can be heavy with the weight of responsibility. Naturally, you figure out ways of adapting, acting, surviving.

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Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Recently a colleague approached me asking how I deal with being overwhelmed, since they were starting to feel the pressure, and for some misguided reason they thought I had my shit together. The six things I share below are what I’d shared with them. I wrote my advice up in the hope that there is something to be learned here for everyone.

Before I get to it, I just want to make one thing clear. I don’t want to give you advice that is obvious. Even if some of this is going to be obvious to some. It wasn’t to me at least. I’m not going to tell you to focus on your writing. The PhD is a written work — so you need to be writing, this is known. If you’re having a hard time with writing, I hope you know to look for resources that can help you get over writers’ block. Here, I’m focusing on some of the less evident things that you might find are hard to maintain in the pressures of the academic life.

  1. There needs to be something to give you meaning outside of work. The PhD is just that — work. Unlike your standard office job, however, it constantly threatens to take over your entire life. There is always going to be another paper to read, another paper to write, another conference to apply for, another opportunity to reach for. The temptation then is to work without rest, to take advantage of everything. This is, of course impossible, and trying can lead to burning out or worse, dropping your program (though of course, there are many good reasons to drop out of a PhD). The issue with the PhD taking over your whole life, is that sometimes it will not be going super well, and then, without anything else, it seems as if it’s your life that’s not going well. Work shouldn’t be everything.
  2. Don’t compare yourself against others. In my program there is a good variety in the kinds of projects one might work on. I’m a historian of philosophy, there are several cognitive scientists, epistemologists, political theorists, and others. Every graduate student has not only a different project, but an altogether different kind of project. Some lend themselves to publishing a lot in a short time span, others take a long time to publish a little. Some students write a lot quickly and edit, others write slowly but edit less. Some students come from the kind of background that lends itself to success in academia seemingly without trying too hard, others don’t. All of these differences mean that it’s really impossible to compare your progress to anyone else’s, and while we’re in a “publish-or-perish” culture where success is equal to publishing productivity, at this stage in your career what matters if getting the skills that a PhD gives. Since everyone works on something different and starts from a different point, comparisons are useless.
  3. Take advantage of the university. It’s no secret that the modern university is an abusive institution to everyone it touches. It is, however, a place that offers unique kinds of opportunities. I’m not saying to align your goals with the university’s — that’s a good way to become a villain. Rather, try to find the ways in which you can get the university to align with your goals. Find out about the kinds of funding opportunities you have — maybe you have a pool of money set aside by default for your research, or maybe you need to apply for it. Sometimes, things that aren’t quite in line with your goals crop up that can serve to support your goals. For instance, my university organized a writing workshop at its satellite campus overseas, which came with some extra funding. I didn’t really want to go to the workshop, but the extra funding permitted me to go to two conferences in Europe that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to speak at.
  4. Keep to-do lists obsessively. I have a theory, that every single productivity guru is just a snake oil salesman who had come up with a creative spin on ol’ reliable — the to do list. Use an app to keep track of things, or a pen and some paper, or a combination of both — it doesn’t matter. It does however matter to keep track of what needs to be done, because there is a lot to be done. To me, keeping a good to do list forces me to break up every bit of work that has to go through my hands. I prioritize according to deadlines or size of task. Being on top of things is also helpful for keeping the anxiety about progress away. From day to day it might not look like much but looking back over what’s been accomplished always feels good.
  5. Keep a diary of your progress. Given that day to day progress is slow, it’s useful to keep track of what you do. I don’t mean this necessarily in the sense the ‘Quantified Life’ obsessives might. You don’t need to keep track of every word you write, but it is helpful to reflect on your progress once a week. It doesn’t need to take more than 10 minutes. But just assessing what you have done can give you the sense of progress that otherwise becomes daunting. And, it can help you figure out when you need to change something in how you approach what you’re doing. I like to do my self-assessment in a notebook, so I’m never tempted to write it up as a blog post or something of that sort. Instead, it’s just a quiet ten minutes at the end of each week that helps me figure out where I stand.
  6. There is more than one kind of writing. A mentor once told me that the advice she got when she started her PhD was that “if you’re not writing, you’re not working.” I’m inclined to think this is right — with one reservation: there are more than one kind of writing. Ultimately, all writing leads to finished work — sure. But we need to count things like taking notes, outlining, free-form-thinking, or summarizing as writing. They self-evidently are, but often, when we think of our productivity we don’t recognize them. Even when to write a chapter draft, it is necessary to produce an outline (for me at least), or to have notes on the papers we’d read, these kinds of writing tend to be forgotten about, or dismissed as unimportant.

These things work for me — they don’t need to work for you. They might though.

Is a philosopher from Australia. He writes on the history of philosophy, especially that of the early modern period. Find him on Twitter @callmesipo

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