Reflections: what does it feel to “do a PhD”?

Passing my virtual viva in May, 2021

I thought it would be useful to, both for myself and any potential readers, to reflect on what it feels to do a PhD. For brief background, I am a fresh PhD graduate, having defended my work in May 2021 at University of Essex, Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies. My thesis (PhD by publications) was titled “Knowledge generation processes and the role of the case study method in the field of psychotherapy”. My work is interdisciplinary, positioned at the intersection of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, clinical practice, philosophy of science and epistemology (you can read more about my work here).

               PhD journey is a somewhat insular, odd experience. People outside academia seem to be impressed by the title of this qualification; people inside academia generally see it as a pre-requisite for a tenure position (and, as such, having a PhD becomes a requirement rather than an achievement); and most people (both in and outside academia) seem to not know much about what is really involved in acquiring a PhD. I, for one, cannot give an exact response of what this experience entails besides some broad formulae that seem applicable to most institutions and students. And yet, there is something beyond the academic component in the construction of a PhD, which I experienced and felt during my journey.

               A PhD research degree is inherently individual, unique – it depends on the host institution (and even the host country – for example, in the UK, PhD viva or defence only consists of the PhD candidate, internal and external examiners, with no other attendees, whereas countries like Germany and Switzerland encourage the attendance of just about anyone who might be interested in seeing the PhD candidate sweat in front of an expert panel, including family members), the host department (with its own set of micro-politics and research circumstances), the student (the topic, the format, the method… all of that has to be decided usually in the first year, even though that seems to be highly unfeasible and incredibly stressful, coupled with the balancing of personal life, finances and future ambitions), and the supervisor(s) (in academia, they seem to “break” or “make” the student).

               Regardless, it does seem that there is a unifying experience – phenomenon or culture even, perhaps – of “doing a PhD” or “becoming a PhD“. With the culmination of social media and digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, the PhD culture, ripe in its ambition, stress, misery, procrastination, and continuous pressure, has come to a full bloom. Meme groups like “High impact PhD memes” and “High impact memes for PhD fiends” (not to be confused) on Facebook have amassed 239,000 and 65,000 users, respectively. In these groups, PhD students and graduates from all over the world post images depicting aspects of PhD life and experiences that are typically humorous in nature, but also highly satirical, and, at times, cheerfully self-deprecating:

These and similar memes point to a common experience (or even, symptom – although this might be my psychoanalytic background speaking) of the PhD journey, namely, impostor syndrome. Simply put, impostor syndrome refers to a feeling and/or belief that one is not as competent as they are perceived. Skills, talents and accomplishments are internalised as false or fraudulent, and there is a persistent fear of being exposed as a pretend-academic. Although impostor syndrome is considered to occur in normal human interactions, in the past few years it has become almost exclusively associated with academia and, in particular, PhD research. In fact, the reported experience of impostor syndrome has become so common that not feeling like an impostor during one’s PhD became an odd phenomenon in itself (this is something akin to a meta-impostor-syndrome, a monstrosity otherwise known as not feeling worthy to feel like an impostor, i.e., really being the impostor).

Impostor syndrome

This long-winded introduction does serve a purpose and role in my own PhD journey. Before I started my PhD, I did my BA in Philosophy and Literature (which was really more of a random pick on UCAS than anything – although I knew I wanted to study something between psychology and philosophy), and my MA in Psychoanalytic Studies. Both felt like exploratory life journeys: I came from a different country (Lithuania) and had to re-learn how to arrange my sentences without sounding like a Thesaurus (actual feedback from a Teaching Assistant in my BA) real fast, and I also had to jump across several disciplines to get from philosophy to psychoanalysis (both sides, depending on whom you converse with or read, either love or hate one another). Beyond the academic aspects of these two degrees, though, I also made and lost friends, met my now-fiancée, juggled some pretty tricky financial situations (I had a part-time job as an office assistant during my MA, which made me very fond of the US version of The Office in later years), and lived in at least 5 houses/flats (some of them featuring more charming-I-will-try-to-bankrupt-you letting agencies than others). Academia was important, but not necessarily the most focal part of my life.

               Starting a PhD immediately felt different, well before I even embarked on a PhD. I had to first apply internally, within my department, and then apply for a scholarship, without which I would have not been able to do a PhD. I remember sitting at a Christmas party with colleagues from work and reading a heart-wrenching email about my unsuitability for the only then available scholarship for PhD students in my department. I was told that, as an EU citizen, I was not able to apply for this funding. I choked down incoming tears and started intensely thinking about how I can manage remaining in some worthwhile academic position and earn a living, while appearing somewhat cheerful at the Christmas get-together. Fast forward to another Christmas gathering, this time with some academic colleagues and students from other courses, and having a conversation with one particular, then also MA, student, who expressed that, “Without a PhD, you’re not an academic. You’re just a student.” This struck me as an odd and patronising statement, one upon which I reflected on several occasions during my research journey.

               Some days later, the scholarship people (who are almost as mysterious as the PhD journey in itself) got back to me to say that their earlier communications were, in fact, erroneous, and that I could, indeed, apply for a scholarship. This, of course, meant that I had less time than originally planned, so I embarked on a very healthy only-writing-for-my-PhD-and-doing-nothing-else two-week journey. I had about dozen people from several departments poking around my application and tweaking it. Finally, I have sent my application, held my breath and tried to do as well as I could for the remainder of my MA, only to hear some months later that I did not get it. I remember seeing the email, forwarding it to my supervisors (“thank you for all the support, unfortunately…”), shutting the laptop and curling into a ball. Only to receive the same email 20 minutes later to discover that I did, in fact, get the scholarship and will, indeed, be a PhD student for the next three years. My happiness was, of course, twisted with thoughts like, ‘Is this just a system error?’ and ‘I’m lucky but what if I don’t actually deserve this?’

               This pattern has remained representative of my (as well as some of my colleagues’) PhD journey: intense highs and lows, moments of great achievement and great sadness, feeling on top of schedule and feeling stretched across a million tasks. You are never fully ‘actualised’ as a PhD student; you are always in waiting for your supervisory committee to make a decision on your progress; for a paper to be accepted (or, let’s face it, usually, rejected or, on a better day, accepted with major-major revisions); and, ultimately, for your signature to turn from a “candidate” to a “PhD”. Thus, PhD is a transitional identity, one that marks your life as ‘academic-centred’. But, despite having a clear beginning, it often has a murky ending – what with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting research involving any human participants (and, let’s face it, any kind of research is difficult at times of sickness, death, poverty, and social isolation – the pandemic has only intensified this), and the PhD viva/defence decisions not always being quite straightforward (I have had colleagues in the UK who had minor-major revisions or major-minor revisions. Yes, both at the same time.). So, when do we end being PhD students, not only technically but psychologically, especially considering the earlier discourse of impostor syndrome and not feeling worthy of being here in the first place?

               I have passed my PhD defence in Psychoanalytic Studies earlier this May (2021) with no corrections, which has been a shocking but absolutely heart-warming result. I did not expect, after 3.5 years of effectively basing my life on addressing corrections, that this would be possible. I do still find it difficult to move past my transitional PhD identity, and not just because of all the challenges experienced, but also due to all the positive events that my PhD has brought me. Given the feedback on my Twitter post, I will summarise some of these positive (albeit challenging to navigate) PhD aspects in a list, in hopes that it might help a prospective PhD researcher:

  • PhD Supervisors. I mentioned this PhD element as “making” or “breaking” a PhD student. My supervisors have been very involved and supportive of my research endeavours. Most importantly, my supervisors challenged me and raised important questions about the future of my work beyond the PhD – it made me consider my PhD as a beginning rather than an end-goal. I would recommend having more than one supervisor, especially if your work is interdisciplinary (this is also excellent for future research contributions). It is also important to ensure that your prospective supervisor will, in fact, have time to supervise you (unfortunately, we are all short on time in academia – and you will need to have a significant amount of support and guidance in your PhD). Equally, make sure your PhD supervisor(s) is someone who you can talk to in a transparent manner about wider circumstances that might impact your PhD: your finances, personal life, mental health experiences are not separate from your PhD – they are part of your research journey.
  • Research outputs. Although this aspect may vary across disciplines and fields, speaking from a psy-science (encompassing broader fields of psychology but also psychotherapy and psychoanalysis specifically) perspective, research outputs (presentations, conferences, workshops, published research articles) are essential. Though it may seem stressful to do a PhD and publish at the same time, publishing from (or even beyond) your PhD will give you a leg to stand on during your PhD defence: your work has already been peer-reviewed and read by experts, and you have managed to get through them. This means you will manage to get through your PhD defence, too! Not to mention, a higher amount of publications will give you a great advantage in post-PhD job hunting.
  • Rejection may not (should not!) be the final response. This pertains to publications, scholarships and jobs. I recall that one of my (now published) solo-publications was rejected by the same journal four times in a row, but (and this is crucial) with an encouragement to resubmit. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience a breakdown at some point of the four-saga-revisions, but it felt amazing to have my paper published and improved on the basis of useful feedback. Similarly, during the pandemic and at the end of my PhD, I began scouting for jobs relatively early and experienced a high amount of rejections post-interviews. This is an incredibly common experience in academia (given the intensity of the job marked and the high amount of qualified applicants); however, I think that rejection is something that is still not discussed as explicitly as it should be (one breath-taking exception is Dr Siri Leknes’ Annotated CV, which includes transparent reflections of some of the unspoken challenges in high-ranking lectureship and postdoc positions). This contributes to further academic insularity and impostor syndrome, based on unrealistic expectations of “X found a tenure job while still doing a PhD, but I keep getting rejected – what is wrong with me?”. The reality is that X likely applied, and was rejected, few times in a row from a variety of institutions before landing this job. The key is perseverance but also honesty with yourself: if you feel sad, burned out, and anxious, it’s normal to feel like this after an important job rejection and to take some time to process this experience.
  • Burnout. A dreaded experience but likely inevitable, given that, as PhD students, we take on almost every opportunity to teach or collaborate on research projects. For a large portion of my full-time PhD, I had two or three part-time jobs on the side. I did, at some points, work evenings, but I made it my point to never work nights, and still managed to spend the majority of evenings throughout the week with my partner. (In fact, my PhD journey is also a great gaming journey –I probably escaped to video games just as much as I did when I was a teenager!) It’s important to develop this kind of frame in order to keep the work/life balance; otherwise, academia simmers through every corner of your life (not a great experience). There is no magic trick for this: scheduling in advance, spending time organising work (I promise that’s not the same as procrastinating), and having a to do list (I use an app called ToDoist) helps. There is, though, an alarming trend amongst academics and PhD researchers that, in order to be successful, one has to work unreasonably late hours (I have even heard that, in order to pass a PhD, one has to ‘spend a night in the PhD office’). In my view, this is not conducive to a healthy work pattern, and is, actually, not a realistic portrayal of productive work. PhD is great because it has flexible work hours – you do not have to come into the office at 9am and leave at 7pm to do work. Manage your expectations and plan ahead (and try not to compare your work pattern with others’ – everyone has a different work rhythm).
  • A holding environment. I cannot stress how significant this aspect is during a PhD. It’s important to have a good support system, but equally, this will be different for each PhD candidate. I was lucky to have two very supportive families, a caring and loving partner (who has also experienced the joys and troubles of doing a PhD, which helps enormously), and the most adorable cat that we adopted just the beginning of my PhD journey, Zuko. Your support system will be even more important if your department is somewhat isolated or if you do not have a strong collegial environment at the host institution. A PhD in general can feel quite solitary: we work on niche subjects, often publish with collaborators in similar networks, and, as mentioned previously, tend to repress the difficulties of an academic lifestyle. I would wholeheartedly recommend talking to people, telling them about your research, explaining why it makes you passionate. You’d be surprised how many would genuinely find this facet of life interesting and worthwhile, even if, at times, we don’t think so about our own work (or again, find it fraudulent, lurking in imposturous shadows).

I’m aware that these are only a few aspects of the PhD journey, and there are many more complex socio-economic dimensions that can change one’s PhD experience quite drastically. I hope, however, that my (admittedly, likely erratic) reflections contribute to a more transparent and realistic dialogue about “doing a PhD” and “being a PhD student”, and combatting impostor feelings and burnout.

For all my fellow PhD students: onwards! You will get through this beautifully.

If you have any particular queries or responses (or just want to connect), please feel free to leave a comment below or email me at g.kaluzeviciute@derby.ac.uk.

This article has been peer-reviewed and accepted by Zuko on 30/05/2021

One response to “Reflections: what does it feel to “do a PhD”?”

  1. […] little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my PhD journey and processing its final moments. Since then, I did a post-doc at […]

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