The Toddler’s Guide to Doing a PhD

This post was written by Jonathan Downie, a PhD student, conference interpreter, public speaker and translator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits LifeinLINCS the unofficial blog of the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University. He is married with two children. His newest blog Rock Your Talk aims to help people keep on improving in their public speaking.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.33.13 PMThe last time I posted, I mentioned in passing that I am the proud dad of a toddler (and, by the time this goes out, a new baby too!). As any parent will tell you, you learn as much from your children as they learn from you.

It just so happens that in the past few months my son has taught me a lot about doing a PhD.

He is exploring the world and learning to walk. I just wish I had learned it all sooner! Here is my shortlist of essential PhD skills you can learn from toddlers.

Learn from everyone and everything

When was the last time you paused on your way somewhere to stroke a wall, explore the feeling of a hedge or touch a tree? For my son, the answer is, almost every time you leave the house. At the moment, no walk to the supermarket is complete without a stop somewhere on route to look at or touch something interesting.

It was a while into my PhD before I realised that this kind of wide-ranging curiosity is a good practice for researchers too. Kristin Luker, in her book, “Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences”, suggests that, when you are doing your literature review, it helps to allow yourself to wander a bit. She calls this “following your id”.

Her point is that if we are going to do cutting edge, boundary-pushing, interdisciplinary research, we can’t be too restricted on where and what we learn. The more we restrict ourselves to one sub-field, one set of journals or one approach; the less scope we give ourselves for accidentally brilliant discoveries.

Get used to falling

I am yet to meet a parent who could honestly say that their child learned to walk without occasional (or not so occasional) falls. Falls also come with bruises, shock and, in the case of my son recently, a cut tongue. The strange thing is that, the more a toddler falls, the more they learn to fall properly. They go from falling any old way to purposefully making sure they fall on the most padded part of their anatomy: the bottom.

Eventually, after enough impacts, they learn to walk.

The link to doing a PhD is obvious. On your way to becoming a fully-fledged, hooded academic, you will occasionally (or more than occasionally) make mistakes, have lousy ideas or just plain mess up. Good for you! Messing up or falling intelligently is an incredibly effective way of learning.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s the only way.

So how do you fall intelligently?

In my experience, the first and hardest step is to never take falls personally. One lousy idea doesn’t make you a bad researcher and one failed experiment doesn’t make your PhD a write-off. The more you see the odd fall as a natural part of learning, the easier they are to accept. Once you accept falls, you can look back and examine what you can learn from them. Looking for recurring patterns in your failures doesn’t just give you useful info for your PhD; it might even be the basis for a paper.

Cry for help when you need it

If there is one sound parents get used to hearing, it is crying. My son is actually a very contented little boy but even he occasionally gets frustrated with a toy he can’t get to, a brick that won’t balance or some other little issue. His immediate response is to call over his mummy or daddy for help, often with a kind of whiny cry.

The problem is, when we grow up we mistakenly become more reticent to ask for help. We get proud and start to try to become “self-made people”. Worse still, we can feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness.

If you are doing a PhD, that kind of attitude can be crippling. Read any PhD forum and you will find countless stories of students who have spent months trying to fix a research design, understand a theory or apply a method but are no further forward than when they started.

It should never happen. Almost all of my “light bulb” moments, when I have really seen sudden, massive progress in my PhD, have come when I have asked someone for help. Sure, the answers haven’t always been comfortable but they have always meant some kind of progress.

Celebrate your successes

As I was writing this, I asked my son “where are the lights?” He instantly pointed right above his head to the ceiling lights. Of course, his mummy and I congratulated him for getting it right and then, to everyone’s delight, he gave himself a big clap. When was the last time you let yourself celebrate what you have achieved? Sometimes even grown-ups need to give themselves a clap.

Enjoy the journey

By far the greatest thing my son has taught me is that you can find something to laugh at and someone to smile at every day. Even on my worst PhD day, when the data looks nasty and the theories make no sense, I try to mirror his attitude. After all, why spend several years of your life looking like a depressed bloodhound? Someday the whole PhD process will be over. Until then, I want to make sure I enjoy the ride.

Thanks Jonathan – I hope fatherhood the second time around is treating you well! What have you learned from somewhere else – or someone else – which has helped you with your PhD journey?

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30 thoughts on “The Toddler’s Guide to Doing a PhD

  1. Jonathan, the connections you’ve made between your toddler’s way of experiencing life and a useful attitude to hold onto while doing a PhD have made some thinking available to me that wasn’t available before. I may have been recruited into taking this PhD stuff a bit too seriously. No more! Thank you so much.

  2. Jonathan, thank you so much for this sharing. Like Zoe, I take this journey too seriously and it’s really ‘hurt’ when you ‘fall’ and sometimes it takes a while to stand back! I really love the way you describe on ‘get use of falling’. Your article really inspired me this morning. Thanks Jonathan.

  3. Thanks so much Jonathan, I’ll be holding on to your idea of ‘falling intelligently’! I think that toddlers also show us that there are many ways of looking at things, and of putting things together – also good for we researchers to remember. Good luck with your new little person : )

  4. Hey Jonathan..I really liked your article, but I was hoping you would also have some advice on how to move forward on your Phd when you have a toddler..i find myself often getting derailed because my 22 months old is sick, or when I couldn’t find a daycare, and I am amazed you are having a second baby. I can’t rely on outside help for financial reasons either…how do you do it? Maybe you can write an article on this ..that would be very helpful. I would love to have a second child but right now I’m thinking better to finish my PhD (which feels like a second child already) and then think about it…

  5. For years the PhD knocked me around. Then I realised something that was in front of my face forever. I noticed the sun came up and went down. It rained and the wind blew. There were disturbances and there was peace. The world continued. The leaves shook and the water in the bay churned. Then it stopped. My PhD seemed to mirror the natural processes around me but my responses didn’t. So I learned to change my responses. I failed? Ok. Have another go. I succeeded? Good. Don’t expect that to continue because nothing ever stays the same. Things come and go. The single constant was my new approach: be persistent, persevere, detach, do the work, enjoy the moment/day, and appreciate incremental gains. It worked. I got there in a state of peace. Tired and content.

  6. Hi Jonathan… inspired by your post which was timely. Awareness that in every moment there is magic all around us when we take the time to pause, look and respond. I am not doing a PhD yet! however your posts help me through my Uni studies when I haven’t clue ‘what to do next’.
    Congrats on your new addition to your family.
    Janice

  7. This is lovely :) Crying for help is great advice – it’s so easy when you’re starting out to feel like asking for help is a sign you’re not good enough – and there’s always the desire to be possessive of your work and data. It’s good to learn (and never too late to do so!) that asking for help often leads to the lightbulb moments that you describe – and can pave the way to collaboration too. After all – no-one can be good at everything, and that’s what friends are for!

  8. Hi Jonathan – great post! Although I’ve just finished my PhD, our son was born right in the middle of it and much of what you write about here certainly rings true. A big, hearty smile crossed my face remembering those trips to the supermarket and I thought your connection to the deliberate act of exploring new things was fantastic. It can be so hard to remember to do! Great stuff.

    • Loved this post. I, too am looking forward to any tips on managing to complete a PhD with children. I had twins one year into my PhD and am really struggling!

  9. Thanks for this – I too am a PhD mum and having daily struggles between writing my thesis (off-campus) and loving my family. I’d love to hear more about how mums finished their research – any advice would be much appreciated!

  10. Yes me too-if anyone has advice because I often feel that I would rather spend time with my daughter who is 22 months-it is not only that she needs me but also that i feel i ned her! It is hard and tiring but also very rewarding in a weird way. Plus i feel that it is not anymore only about me but about someone else’s needs and being there for them which makes time management hard. So I often struggle with that and had I had a chance to do this differently I would have not started a PhD with a toddler on my hands or decided to have a child after finishing it. This is not to discourage anyone but in my particular case I feel it makes more sense if children were older or before having them.

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