I am in the fourth year of my doctoral studies. It's euphemistically called your 'writing-up' year. Of course, in my discipline you're expected to finish completely within three years - consequently, the fourth year is unfunded and mostly unsupported by your institution. Although a lot of people stray over their three year allowance, it's seen as a bit of an academic faux pas. It gets worse if you take longer than that of course. If you take more than four years you become spoken of in hushed tones in darkened corridors as a warning to others.
I like to think of it not so much as a writing-up year, but a period of existing on very little income, caught between needing a job before you run out of rent money and finishing a thesis you despise. And yes, I do despise it. I love my subject, and I love the gubbins that a PhD entails - the teaching, the outreach, the learning and the kind of day-to-day intellectual interaction you get exposed to... but the PhD itself? I'm not so keen on that and I don't think I have been for a long, long time.
It's safe to say that my experience of undertaking a PhD has not been ideal. Just before my it kicked off, the long term relationship I was in failed epically and miserably, I quickly moved into a horrible shared house and soon after I became ill. It was a like building a castle upon a bowl of jelly - so think of this as full disclosure - it was probably never destined to work out well for me.
My initial supervisor was an eminent professor and a genuinely lovely person, but unfortunately, not the kind of supervisor I needed at the time. Turns out that 'hands-off' is not the mode of supervision someone like me needed - but I wasn't really in a state to let anyone know that. So, I wandered aimlessly for a long time in the vast fields of academia, producing work of variable quality, hoping it would eventually click and I would manage to produce something of consequence.
The saddest thing is that no-one noticed. I accidentally bluffed my way through every upgrade, every progress report and presentation I had to give. I have no idea how, but not a single person for two years noticed. I take full responsibility for that of course. If you don't throw your hands up whilst you drown, it's not always possible for passers-by to see you as you slip 'neath the waves.
In the last year, things started to change. I have a different supervisor, a better home life and my progress over the past year has been phenomenal compared to my first two - but I'm still running just to keep up. It's not fulfilling and it does not make me happy. Every word I write still feels like a struggle (ironically, it's a bit like pulling teeth), but since I am two chapters away from being able to hand in, I've decided to keep on at it. At least until summer. It's a precarious decision, but I've always been a 'regret something you did, rather than something you didn't do' kind of girl, so here goes. I have a few more months to get it together and hand the bloody thing in. Wish me luck!
In an attempt to do something other than whine on the internet though, I thought I might present a few words of advice for people undertaking a PhD, just in case anything I have learnt might help. So, here goes:
- Money. If you want to do a PhD, please, please, make sure you have enough funding or other income to allow you to do it without worrying about rent and bills and how to afford shoes. I had very minimal scholarship funding, which I was very grateful for - but I thought it would get me through if I was careful with it. It didn't.
- Support. You might be a devil-may-care rogue of a person, a lone wolf who only needs themselves - but if, like me, you are not, I suggest not doing a PhD without a good support network of family, friends and colleagues around you. Lonely nights and a lack of human conversation do not a happy worker make.
- Seeking help. If you find yourself struggling, talk to someone, anyone in your department. I wanted to hide my situation in case they got rid of me, but it did me no favours in the end. No-one actually expects you to be infallible.
- Be brave. If you do not have a supervisor that suits your working style or your nature (for want of a better word) and you feel like someone else might be better, change. I was told it was ' too political' to do such a thing - but fuck it. Change and find the support system you need. It's your PhD, not the PhD of some coffee room know-it-all.
- Failure. I wish I had recognised a long time ago that failure has a lot of different meanings. I realise now 'dropping out', what I saw as my ultimate failure, wouldn't have been so bad to do in the first couple of years. It's actually only a failure if you make it into one. Lots of people do just fine without a doctorate :)
Do what makes you the most happy.