The ups and downs of PhD research

Since completing her PhD 5 years ago, Nilam Ashra-McGrath has been running workshops on The Ups and Downs of PhD Research. She begins the workshop by sharing her PhD journey using a timeline, and has finally put some of this into a Prezi format. In this guest post, she explains some of her thinking and offers some advice based on hindsight

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 4.57.11 PMHindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s been 5 years since I finished my PhD, and when I finished, I remember thinking that there was so much I wish someone had told me about what it’s really like to do a PhD. Yes, there are lots of books of the ‘how to write a thesis’ variety. But what about the emotional journey? What about the changes in your health, your social life, and your relationships with those closest to you? And what about all the mistakes you make while trying to figure things out?
I made many, many mistakes. Some were stupid, others colossal, most were avoidable, but I had no one to tell me what to expect, so how could I have known?
I started designing The Ups and Downs of PhD Research because I just wanted to pass on some advice, and it’s since developed into a workshop that I think offers a safe space for students to voice concerns about how they are coping with their PhD, and also get advice from each other on the big and small stuff that keeps them awake at night. The starting point for my workshop is my own PhD journey, which I talk through using a timeline. I have put some of this on Prezi, and below are my thoughts based on certain points of my journey:
During my PhD journey, generally speaking, there were more highs than lows, but the lows seemed to last a lot longer. For example, the months spent transcribing my interviews and analysing my diary entries turned me into a she-devil. I’d never done anything like that before, so hours and hours of sitting in one position numbed my mind and body. For those of you who are thinking of transcribing: you have been warned.
Analysing my transcripts and diary entries was both a high and a low. I got a real buzz when research participants starting doing what I’d asked them. ‘My god,’ I thought, ‘they’re actually doing it.’ It’s quite a powerful feeling being able to control a tiny bit of someone’s daily ritual like that, but the flip side is that looking at all the data can be nerve-wracking, and I was initially paralysed with indecision about how to proceed with analysing it, or where and how to begin writing it up. I could have spent a decade coding on NVIVO, and it was only when an NVIVO-savvy friend looked at the screen and said, in a gentle voice so as not to wake the demon within, ‘there’s quite a lot of branches there…you might want to think about the bigger themes,’ that I realised how myopic my thinking had become.
I had no idea what I was looking for in the data. Not really, not if I’m honest. I could see themes bubbling to the surface, but I had no idea how to connect them. It was only reading that made the process of analysing a bit easier, particularly finding Metaphors We Live By in a charity shop, and then reading Opening Pandora’s Box cover to cover, and knowing that I had just read something that gave me permission to write about my data in a way that was right for me. I had spent the previous months trying to stuff my data into a template that my supervisor was pressing me to use, and I was really struggling to make it work, but this particular stretch of reading formed my ‘lightbulb’ moment and it only happened 6 months before I was due to submit.
At the risk of sounding like a line from The Bridges of Madison County, maybe everything I had read up until then was to prepare me for what these two books had to offer; if I had read these books in my first year I would have dismissed them. Your lightbulb moment will come to you too, but reading is the key, and reading outside your discipline will help you flex your brain cells and make new connections between your data sets.
My first year was defined by what I had to produce for my sponsor and I was not prepared for being ignored by them. When an organisation asks you to run a pilot study, you kind of assume that what you’re doing is important, and although it remains important to you, organisational politics and staff reshuffles mean that, at some point, you slide way down on their list of priorities. So don’t take it personally when you hear nothing from them, just complete what they ask and move on. Unless you want a job with them once you’ve finished your PhD, in which case, throw yourself at their feet (in a dignified way, of course).
My most frequent highs were from being immersed in the research process. When things were going well, it was addictive. I was devouring books and taking in ideas quickly, I was making connections between my emerging data and the theories I was reading, and, crucially, I was enjoying it. There is nothing like the feeling you get when you’re in command of your data and your research process. Obviously, it doesn’t come close to life affirming moments like births and marriages, but on the rare occasion when things are going well for a few days or weeks, you feel like a proper, bona fide researcher, and that’s important for your self-esteem.
The distractions were many; sponsors in my first year, teaching in my second year, and worrying about my future in my final year. I wish I hadn’t taken on so much teaching in my second year; the only person who really benefited from this was my supervisor. And I wish I hadn’t blindly followed other students down the ‘must apply for postdoc’ path in my third year. When you’re working exclusively amongst doctoral students, some of whom are so obviously being groomed to become mini versions of their supervisors, it’s easy to forget that there’s another world out there, away from academia, full of opportunities to use what you have learned during your doctoral training. Don’t forget that another life is possible, and it’s really important that you at least map out some options that will make you happy in the long term.
The continual stress, sustained over years, will take its toll on your body and mind. I was a spritely 33 year-old when I began studying and, 3 years later, I think I had the body of someone 20 years my senior. It was (mostly) environmental factors that impacted on my health, and it improved when my environmental stresses were reduced: long hours sitting down, staring at a computer screen without blinking, eating at my desk, lack of exercise, not enough fresh air, not enough time off. You all know what I’m talking about. When you begin thinking about life after a PhD, ask yourself if you can continue working like this. If it’s not for you, then some of the options you mapped out for yourself become more important than others.
As I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and what I’ve presented on Prezi is merely a snapshot of the major highs and lows. There was much more drama over the 3 years, but that’s for another blog post. The journey can be a bumpy ride; more of a rollercoaster than a smooth, upward learning curve. Like-minded students will help you make sense of what is happening. I hope you can take something from my experience, and I hope it doesn’t put anyone off signing up for a PhD. I still think (even with the ups and downs) that it was an important part of my personal journey, and that it has given me ‘that extra something’ that clients (and my new employer) look for in my particular field. I’m glad I did it.
Thanks so much for your story Nilam! I’m sure many of you can relate. Which bits resonated with you the most?
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48 thoughts on “The ups and downs of PhD research

  1. Colleen says:

    Reading outside your discipline! So good to see this said in B&W. How do we expect ourselves to make new conceptual connections if we follow the same path as everyone else? Lovely post.

  2. Gina says:

    Great post- SO much that resonates with my PhD experience. I’ll submit soon, so its not quite over, but the trials of transcribing, departments and people shifting and changing over time and too many favours for senior colleagues are all too familiar. Luckily so too are the occasional moments of pride when I realise I’ve actually done a pretty good job (with some bits at least!).

  3. Charis Wilson says:

    Who were the authors for Opening Pandora’s Box? I find one in Amazon by Addis with the subtitle: Phrases borrowed by the classics, which was published in 2011. The other one has the subtitle: a sociological analysis of scientist’s discourse by Gilbert & Mulkay published in 1984.

  4. M-H says:

    Thanks Nilam. Very few people reflect as usefully as this in public. I think my favourite point is that things happen when they happen, and you have to be open to them at the right time. Doing a PhD isn’t a linear process; progress is made by leaps and bounds, and not always in the direction you expect.

  5. Fidelma Breen says:

    I completely concur. I was a physical wreck after completing a masters thesis. I had back problems from sitting with a poor posture night after night – chiro visits, painkillers and eventually, a spinal injection fixed that. I am going to weightwatchers – need to lose the 7 kilos I put on through poor sleeping and eating habits. It’s so important to look after yourself and remember that that 20 minute workout each day won’t mean you don’t complete on time. If anything, exercise being energizing, you’re probably going to be more productive! I’ll be keeping your post and my own learned lessons in mind throughout my phd journey – hopefully I’ll be recognisable at the end of it!
    Good to know that others read outside their discipline too!

  6. Marie says:

    Wow! This is just what is happenign to me. Having so much data and not knowing what to make out of it. And I have had those powerful moments too, when I feel am in charge.. just wondering how to keep those? How to make them come back?

  7. Nilam Ashra-McGrath says:

    Hello everyone, it is I, Nilam, author of said post! Thank you all so much for your kind comments here and on Prezi and all your emails too. I have tried to answer as many as I can but wondered if it’s worth a follow-up post on ‘adjusting to civilian life’ and ‘coping with monotony’. I’ve also had many questions on writing tips, so in an act of shameless self-promotion I have suggested that people download my ‘reading, writing and presenting tips’. Here is the link (scroll down):
    Happy reading everyone! So glad to be part of this community, it’s a brilliant site!

    • Marie. says:

      Hi Nilam!
      Today I was just dreaming I passed without corrections haha but think won’t be possible, since I have a short time to finish and I am still terrified to write a specific chapter. I’ve seen your writing tips, and would like to ask you, have you felt fear of writing? how have you dealt with it? For example, did you make any pictures in your head, had any mantras, put inspirational quotes or listen to music? Thanks lots.

      • Nilam Ashra-McGrath says:

        Hello Marie, I really hope your dreams come true and you pass with no corrections! About the writing…not felt fear as such, but my mind ALWAYS goes blank (and I’m a seasoned writer and editor of 20 years) before I begin writing something new. I use mindmaps to help me work through the topics I need to include, then I write about each one in no particular order. I have NEVER started writing a document with the introduction, I always start with the ‘meat’ of a document, eg the findings, or the argument I am trying to present. I do have an inspirational quote accredited (incorrectly I believe) to Goethe stuck above my computer, along with other writing techniques that I often refer to. I’ll collate all this in one document and leave on my website asap. Hope that helps, and aim to make your dreams come true Marie. Best wishes, Nilam

  8. Bob says:

    This is excellent. Finally a human face to it all!

    You know, I’d pay a monthly fee just to subscribe to an online community where all these struggles can be talked about in a guided way. There are lots of free PhD forums, but they’re largely free for alls and there’s a lot of sifting through that has to be done to get good advice.

    Nilam (I just emailed you) if you could put your workshop online and have a platform which people can use after going through the workshop, I think that’ll not only be a potential money maker, but will also benefit PhD candidates as they go through different seasons of study, under different PhD systems, in different “real world” conditions. Ideally, universities should do this. In your first year, have the workshop, then have follow up groups that follows the progress of the cohort. I think LSE has something like this – they have a first, second and third year course for their PhD students, each addressing the specific challenges you might face at those stages. Of course everyone’s PhD journey is different and you may not be in “sync” but I think there are definitely definable stages (not necessarily by year) in the PhD journey.

    It’ll also benefit those who, for personality or geographic reasons, cannot plug themselves into a support group in person.

    • Nilam Ashra-McGrath says:

      Thank you Bob for your post and your email. I love the idea of putting the course online, but a full-time job prevents me from this at the moment! Maybe I’ll put the material online as free resources over the coming months. I love the idea that there are ‘seasons of study’ and that would be a good way to organise the material, so thanks for that contribution. Will keep you posted when new material is on my website to download. Best wishes, Nilam

      • mickeyonacoustic says:

        Greetings, Nilam.

        Thank you SO much for this blog post, your Prezi, and in general the way that you reach out to those who are journeying. 🙂 I’d seen your Prezi before, but reading this blog post just now really helped me to do a deep, deep exhale.

        And, I was thinking about how you might go online if that became an aim. You may already know of the following options or something better, but here is a format that works pretty well for what it intends, in my opinion: Of course, in this format, the presenter interacts with participants in real time. That might not be what you are looking to do precisely. However, it might give you some ideas. I found that link at this web page: I feel his static material ( helps and functions a course pretty much. 🙂

        Again, thank you for your sharing. Many blessings!

  9. teriinthought says:

    Thank you for a helpful and supportive comment on PhD as process not as soley the product of three years. Certainly I agree with you on the health issues, something I have experienced greatly in the last two years. But, I haven’t quit, I’m still going. With 6 months left, you may have nudged me a little bit closer to getting there!

  10. says:

    Hi, don’t know if it is possible, however could you give some resources on, “after PhD-what.” I know it depends on individual preferences, however as I am nearing my completion in social work , the fact of employment opportunities is an aspect that I cannot seem not to think. Any resources could certainly help. Thanks,

  11. Steve Cohen says:

    What a wonderful Prezi presentation! Thankyou for sharing and being so frank, honest and open. I am about to start my Phd in January. I am by and large very positive and excited. I am glad to read your post and presentation which has grounded me and tempered my somewhat exuberant positivity.
    Steve Cohen
    (Edith Cowan University)
    Perth Australia

  12. Rachel Strickman says:

    This may seem a little silly… but I have found that one powerful way of combatting the physical stresses of research, which you so rightly highlight, is to CHANGE YOUR WORKING SPACE. There is really no reason you HAVE to sit down all day. A few milkcrates and a big peice of laminate will change any desktop into a standing desk, which does wonders for your back, knees, other joints and general sense of wellbeing. When you aren’t crammed into a chair, you can move around, change position, stretch easily, etc… maybe even do a little office yoga or some other light exercise. Yes, you may have to rearrange your computers and piles of books to get the standing desk set up, but once you get good at it (all books in other milkcrates; pens and pencils in an easily moveable container; papers in binders instead of piles) it only takes five minutes; and isn’t that worth it to increase your productivity?

  13. Carolina says:

    I can relate to this 100% I was three and a half years in to the phd and had given my supervisors a full draft of the whole thing, but I knew it wasn’t ‘right’ and ready for submission. I was stuck and couldnt keep going anymore. I decided to take a holiday, a 4 week holiday overseas and away from everything phd related, I read books that had nothing to do with my thesis, I ate food and ACTUALLY TASTED it for the first time in months. it felt amazing to move my body by walking all day. and you know what, when I came badk, it was a little hard to get in to the groove of writing again, but a few weeks later I had my lightbulb moment. and since then I’ve produced a ready-to-submit thesis. I can’t stress enough how importasnt it is to be a well-rounded person, I like that this post has really jhighlighted this!

  14. Wes says:

    The problem with great advice at the start of a PhD is that the struggle and self-realization (and occasional epiphanies) that one encounters is actually what makes a PhD student a Dr! The old expression “you can’t put an old head on young shoulders” comes to mind. It took me a few years as a supervisor to realize what this expression actually meant. Learning to mimic is something that comes naturally to good students but gaining insight comes much harder and can’t be forced. The best thing that a PhD student can be given by a supervisor is encouragement and a mirror every now and then. I am 100% for the ‘read avidly’ advice though – I keep telling my students to do this and most seem to take the advice.

  15. Jayne says:

    I’m encouraged,I now know its doable. Being a PhD student in Kenyan University is a nightmare. Talks like this is what keeps student on the race. Thank you

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