PhD Crisis 2 – Prevention is better than cure.
Updated: Nov 17
Are you just starting a doctorate, or a long-term project? Three or four years is a long time in anyone’s life, and a PhD is a difficult thing. Even if you feel totally confident now, it is common to experience doubts or times feeling unmotivated. Don’t wait until you feel demotivated – it’s too late then. Take this action now!
Take a post-it note and write all the reasons you want to do a doctorate as well as get a doctorate. You are not going to share this with anyone. This is your motivation. It doesn’t matter if it morally good or not, sensible to others or not; it’s yours. Now put it somewhere safe.
Over the years I’ve heard all sorts of reasons. Wanting to do the research is an extremely sustaining motivator. I remember thinking that it didn’t matter if I got a PhD or not, just that I had been able to do the research. I had colleagues who were horrified by this. They needed the PhD to progress in their career. Your supervisors might be horrified by this! They need you to complete on time. But let’s not get drawn into that now, we were covering the types of motivations that people harbour for doing a PhD.
To do the research
To please parents
To get a better job in the end
To get an academic job
It was offered to them
They had nothing better to do
They want the title ‘Dr’
People with doctorates have more credibility in their field
Women with a doctorate are treated with respect normally reserved for men (with or without any kind of education)
They will earn more money
They want to beat their sibling
A doctorate from a particular institution or country offers more prestige than others
They have the time and money
It doesn’t matter whether you think any of these things is motivating to you or not, what matters is that you know what motivates you and you write that down now.
Over time motivations creep and change. That’s why it’s important to record them, and record them honestly. When a PhD crisis comes along (and there’s no telling who it will strike!) it can help to understand what has motivated you and whether that is still enough to motivate you.
Take of one the most noble and morally good motivators, wanting to do the research. Claire was taken on as a research assistant on a project that allowed her to pursue her research interest and was required to register for a PhD. She was thrilled. She’d get to work on her area of interest and get a PhD too. 18 months in and the project had headed away from the area that most interested her. The terms of the research grant meant that the overall project was more important than her area. Her supervisor was happy to let her continue on small elements of what interested her, but it wouldn’t be enough for a PhD. She would have to follow the direction of the research if she wanted a PhD. Initially she was relieved that she wouldn’t have to give up her interest completely. As the months went on she found herself irritated at being told to get on with the work that met the project brief, and frustrated that her own interests were being side-lined; she was so close to publishing a paper, why couldn’t her supervisors see that the paper would be great for her career? It was all getting too stressful. Did she need a PhD anyway?
If Claire had had a better understanding of why she was doing a PhD, she may have been able to make better decisions when they became apparent. Claire is only human and of course wanted to do the research that interested her AND get a PhD. As we say, she wanted her cake and to eat it.
Claire carried on as she was, trying to work on her interest and being badgered (she felt) to submit her thesis, and work on the papers for the project outputs. The funding for the project ended and Claire still didn’t have another job as she’d spent her time writing her thesis. She was extremely resentful and was worried about the quality of her thesis, as were her, supervisors. She spent an extremely tense couple of months waiting for her viva, submitting her paper for publication and applying for jobs. When she passed her viva with 3 months corrections she was extremely relieved, her supervisors thought she was lucky. The past 2 years had been awful, but she now had her PhD (although not quite in the topic she wanted to pursue still), a couple of papers, and a paper that thrilled her, likely to be published soon. She’d get a job soon for sure.
In an alternative version, Claire realised that the research that she was interested in was still much more important to her than a PhD. It was a very difficult decision to make but she decided to look for another job that allowed her to do what she loved. Her supervisors were dismayed when she handed in her notice, and some of her colleagues thought that she was mad for de-registering from a doctorate. 2 Years later and she’d gained some solid experience in the area she loved, had published a couple of joint papers with well-respected colleagues, and was just about to apply for a funded studentship with a Research Council.
There is no telling what life and your PhD will throw at you, but understanding what motivates you and what continues to motivate you is vital. Write it down, review it, use it when you make your decisions.
(You may be thinking that the scenario was unrealistic; it is not that her supervisors were unreasonable; they were not. Unfortunately, like so many Claire was naïve and didn’t really understand the nature of a doctorate; yes, she was and no she didn’t. But the culture of academia is also at fault. There are huge assumptions that new students understand the process, and they can't ask questions when they don't know what they don't know. The culture of academia is still one where we are expected to lay our lives on the alter of research, and if that is funded research as part of a wider project, then you may need to place the needs of the project above your own. Choose your PhD carefully, and don't just take up an offer because you are flattered, or because it is the only opportunity being offered right now. Check how much flexibility you will be given.
I recommend How to get a PhD, and A women’s guide to Doctoral study, as suitable starting points for any student, regardless of gender).