(Some) things I learnt from doing a PhD

One of the things that is hard about being post-PhD and not an academic is finding ways to find value from having done a PhD. PhDs are tough things to take on, and there is an expectation, often cultured through the process, that you will pursue an academic path when you are finished.

But given the current climate, chances of securing a permanent academic post are slim, and ad-hoc or fixed-term work seem to characterise lots of experiences. PhDs who might have hoped to secure any academic work are forced to look elsewhere, either for professional posts within the academy or outside it entirely. So what is the point of doing a PhD? They are stressful, can cause or contribute to mental health issues, they can incur debt or reduced income while finishing…. It is easy to think they are not worth the time or stress or monetary commitment.

But, as someone who finished a while ago now, I have had time to recover and reflect on the process. I wanted to write about my own learnings from having done a PhD. It is hard to think that four (or so) years of your life were wasted simply because you did not end up an academic. And as I pursue an understanding of success outside work, coming to find value in something that failed is hugely important to me. So what did I learn?

Firstly, my PhD taught me to write. I had dabbled in writing before doing a PhD, but never with any real seriousness. The PhD is, if nothing else, a masterclass in writing a lot. If you are lucky, a PhD is also a masterclass in writing well. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who is an excellent writer and a believer that academic writing should be readable! She taught me about writing for the reader, to write accessibly, and to avoid lengthy sentences. She helped me turn my thesis into a book. I now write for my living (for a research group) and for pleasure – both here and elsewhere. I have learnt to love the craft, and continue to write all the time. This includes having a journal practice, short stories on instagram, notes and lists, pitching articles and all the other forms of writing I do daily.

My PhD taught me about resilience. Undertaking something of the magnitude of a PhD is no mean feat. It is a process which knocks you down again and again. Whenever anyone claims it was my intelligence that earned me my PhD I quickly tell them my resilience and grit played a far greater part in actually finishing than did my smarts. Being able to keep going, the sheer determination and force of will I needed to actually finally submit (and then survive a viva) showed me quite how much I was able to take on. It taught me that a core part of my being is able to keep on going, and moving forward, that is super important to know.

My PhD taught me about sharing my work. I have never been a confident writer and I am always nervous about sharing new work. Even here! This also applies to making cake. I have always been nervous about making cakes for people because what if they don’t like it? What if they have a weird allergy that they didn’t even know about? What if I make someone sick? (This is what it is like in my head all the time btw.) Anyway, PhDs require sharing work, ideas, thoughts. First this happens with your supervisor, then with other PhDs, then at conferences, and finally in journal articles (which have to get through peer review, another learning process.) Gradually you become more comfortable with sharing ideas and instincts, and this has translated, for me, into the confidence to write more, write differently, and ultimately try things that I might otherwise have shied away from.

Finally, a PhD is a journey into the unknown, much like my photograph today of the gateway to an mysterious world. You can make all the plans you want but things go awry, and you have to learn to be flexible. That might be the most important thing I learnt: being able to roll with the punches, adapt to any changes, and keep going.

So those are my thoughts on doing a PhD. I think it is important, in learning about success outside of work, to acknowledge some of the hard things you do, and to find ways to appreciate them, even if they do not work out quite the way your envisioned…

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