“I’m writing a book no one will read” and other reasons the PhD can get you down

This post is by Inez Von Weitershausen, a PhD student at the London School of Economics who blogs on people, thoughts, experiences, feelings on the Epiphany blog.

Inez first came to my attention when she wrote an interesting article in the Guardian about PhD survival strategies, so I was happy when she sent me this article on why we say the PhD gets us down – I think you’ll find it thought provoking.

The other day I received an email from a stranger. A final year PhD student wrote to my to thank me for the piece on PhD “survival strategies” that I wrote recently for the Guardian and to which many others contributed.

I have to admit that this kind of feedback, as well as the comments the piece received online, the tweets and facebook shares, made me feel good. After all, they suggest that what I do (other than writing my thesis) is actually relevant for some people. It is precisely this feeling of doing something meaningful which we, as PhD students but also as “full-blown” academics often don’t have.

How many times have I heard my peers respond to the question what do you do for a living with a disheartened: “I write a book. A book no one will ever buy or read.  Apart from my parents – if I’m lucky.” With this attitude it is of course little surprising that PhD students are less than excited to work on their research – and even start to resent it.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 11.58.22 amIt is not surprising that we then don’t produce the outputs that are expected from us until we don’t have much of a choice because a deadline is approaching. Most PhD students hence refer to themselves as procrastinators – or failures. Often, they then begin to focus on other things – for somehow everything seems to be more interesting, exciting and “doable” than the thesis.

The only problem with this strategy: it is counter-productive given the time-constraints PhD students face nowadays.

So I have been thinking why writing a PhD seems to be such a difficult task to many of us, assuming that we are in fact intellectually able to complete the task we chose for ourselves – and for which we were deemed capable by our departments and supervisors.

While the individual reasons are manifold and will diverge from PhD student to PhD student, there are three causes that have repeatedly been suggested to me by my peers and which would like to critically examine here:

Writing is just not fun.

While some might argue that sitting for hours alone in front of a computer– whether it is at home, in the library or the local Starbucks –  is not the most exciting activity  in the world, I would like to challenge this argument. After all, there is something “fulfilling” in turning a white page into a piece of paper that captures one’s thoughts, ideas and ability to create a structure.  My email friend from this morning –  let’s call him John –  confirmed this perception when he admitted that in his free time he likes to write fiction.

Even though I acknowledge that academic writing is not the same as writing a novel, a poem, a short story or a blog, there is a sufficient number of similarities between them to conclude that John – and others – actually don’t have a problem with writing as such.

After all, due to the availability of wireless internet, online resources and portable computers we can now choose our writing environment and no one has us to sit alone in a cold, windy and dark room anymore. Rather, we can choose the place and environment which we find most stimulating.  We can join writing groups or make arrangements with our peers for “group library sessions” (and breaks). So, I dare to argue that most of the time it is not the writing activity itself that makes the PhD such a difficult undertaking.

My supervisor does not support me.

A second argument often brought forward by PhD students is that they do not get sufficient support from their supervisors. John, too, suggested that the reason for why felt miserable (“I spent three years in a place where I haven’t had fun”) was because he was poorly supervised. He told me about the lack of support from a “mentor” who barely deserved this title and who, rather than sharing his knowledge and experience, pointed out that he was not a baby-sitter. When John asked him for advice, he was sent a link to a website called “let me google that for you”.

Against such experiences, it is little surprising that John – and so many other PhD students – feel like they are caught in a personal fight rather than an enriching experience. Yet, the truth is that difficult relationships can be found in most work places and incompetent bosses are not exclusive to academia. One might argue that the relationship between a supervisor and the PhD student is – or should be – particularly close and that potentially negative consequences of a dysfunctional relationship are more harmful for an intellectual project that depends to a large degree on exchange and creativity. Yet, I do believe that in most cases a sufficiently motivated and thought-through project will not be destroyed by poor supervision.

I cannot focus.

Finally, a third reason that I came across many times when talking to PhD students about what holds them back, is a lack of focus. The cademic environment is one of constant stimulation where one is surrounded by a world of knowledge, inspiration and ideas. But this should not come as an obstacle to PhD students who have proven that they can in fact focus – and commit to an area – much more than others. After all, we decided to “stick” to our respective subjects much longer than all our peers who left university after their bachelor or master degrees.

Hence, I am convinced that it is only normal that after years of university-experience we become interested in what else is “out there” and the activities of our friends outside the ivory tower. I would even argue that as “good academics” we should not beat ourselves up for being interested in the findings, methods and ideas of our peers.

The inconvenient truth

It seems to me that it is a lack of sincere motivation for our own research that seems to be the problem to many of us.

I don’t know why we are not as fully committed to our projects as we should or could be, in particular as  we often choose the topic ourselves. (At this point, I would appreciate any insights into what holds people back from completing tasks in general.)  But I know that it is much easier to blame others for our “PhD-blues” than ourselves and I am convinced that what has to change first and foremost is our attitude towards our own research.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to let our supervisors and universities “off the hook”.

They do have a responsibility to guide us and provide us with the basics for a productive environment. We need sufficient workspace, financial assistance, writing support, career development services and – probably more than anything – an open ear from our supervisors.

But it is equally important that we realize that even if we do not get the constructive feedback we deserve and which has long been identified as an essential quality of successful leaders in the business world, we can turn our PhD into a success story.

What we need is “simply” other channels to receive positive recognition. The latter may come from realizing that we are a good friend, supportive partner, successful teacher or a good fictional writer. Or we may get our little “success story” from positive feedback on a small blog piece.

Whichever activity we identify as our personal success, we should “celebrate” it and take it as an opportunity to be proud of ourselves. As a consequence, we will generate a positive attitude towards ourselves which in turn triggers our creativity and helps us remember that writing a thesis is only something we do – and does not define who we are.

Bracing words Inez! What do you think?

Related Posts

PhD “survival strategies” (the Guardian)

“Troubles Talk” (An academic paper I wrote on Whingeing)

Whingeing Wednesdays and bitch buddies

How to stop those unhealthy thoughts

33 thoughts on ““I’m writing a book no one will read” and other reasons the PhD can get you down

  1. “remember that writing a thesis is only something we do – and does not define who we are.” This last line is SO helpful. It is easy to get consumed and totally identify with BEING a PhD candidate. It’s an imperfect process clearly and thank you for all the insight and reflective wisdom you share here, to help us readers through a very labyrinthine process.

  2. I wonder if self-determination theory could help explain Inez’s ‘inconvenient truth’ – that PhD students end up lacking sincere motivation for their own areas of research. Self-determination theory claims that when we do something we enjoy, we feel in control of that process which adds to our intrinsic motivation. When our sense of control is lessened (by extrinsic rewards and/or outwardly imposed deadlines) our intrinsic motivation for the task, which we previously enjoyed so much, decreases sharply.

    I imagine most of us pursue a PhD because we genuinely want to learn new things, have inquiring minds, and are curious about our particular area of interest – I know it’s not everyone, I realise some people feel they have to do a PhD for their work etc. But for those who do start off with intrinsic motivation towards the task, I wonder if it is that perceived lack of control that gets us down? If we took back control – I don’t know how, maybe through better project management? I don’t have answers, only questions here – would that help?

    If anyone is interested in reading more about self-determination theory, this website is quite useful and has a list of publications on the topic: http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/domains/organizations-and-work-domain/

    I’d genuinely like to know people’s thoughts on this – would taking back a feeling of control help, or is that too simplistic?

    • If you think about it, being able to choose a topic, research question or even the methodology/method employed merely gives us the illusion of being in control because whether we pass or fail the PhD is in someone else’s hands, especially since the examination can be a subjective process. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of candidates who were told their thesis was awful by supervisor but still passed with minor corrections, and vice-versa. Perhaps insecurity (and the feeling of never being in control) is very much part of the PhD experience.

      That aside, seeing the PhD as a project, and acquiring the practical skills to do manage it well, will go a long way to increasing one’s perception of control. But those skills aren’t easy to learn, especially if you don’t know what exactly you need to know. I certainly had never done anything at a comparable scale before. Although I had worked at a university before I began my candidacy, I’d never worked on a project that spanned 3-4 years. Nor had I written an academic piece longer than 12, 000 words (my M.Sc dissertation). While I was motivated by the “why” of the thesis, the fear of the “how-exactly-am-I-gonna-do-this” was far more powerful, certainly diminished my sense of control and did indeed get me down. In fact, it wasn’t until I read a bunch of “how-to” PhD books after I mucked around for a year and a half that I regained a sense of control because I now knew what the smaller tasks were, and what I needed to think about in order to complete them. I also learnt that the PhD is not your magnum opus, not a Nobel Prize, and is merely a tool of assessment. To a degree, you just need to check the necessary boxes 🙂 I suppose mine’s an extreme experience because I’m doing my PhD part-time so it’s easy to let PhD work slide, especially when it’s intimidating and work is such a convenient excuse to do deal with it.

      To be honest I don’t think it’d be a bad idea for the first year of PhD study to be highly structured with weekly tasks laid out. I certainly would have benefited from that, and would have felt more confident and in control with such a system in place. Sort of like having training wheels when learning to cycle.

      However, some, perhaps many, think that’s the antithesis of the pinnacle of higher education, where PhD students should know how to figure this all out themselves. And many have. Or mucking around is a right of passage and a necessary baptism of fire because research isn’t easy. But it shouldn’t be that painful, right?

    • Hi Jodie, I think you are right about taking control. I am really enjoying my doctorate work, but that’s because I found the right university and the right department and a great supervisor. I also started with outlining what I wanted to research and how I wanted to do it, if I didn’t find a good match, well then it wasn’t for them or me. So perhaps investing time in finding a good match will make it all a bit more enjoyable and productive.
      Good luck!

  3. I think the problem for most people is the uncertainty of outcomes (will it be good enough? Will I find a job after?)

    It is *amazing* how much more quickly PhDs are completed when (a) committee members have signed off on the proposal, (b) there is a pending job offer with a start date. Free advice: propose as early as possible. Sure, you won’t ever write exactly what you propose, but you will know if you do the work you say you will do, you will get your PhD. Then keep your committee informed of major changes, so there are no last-minute surprises on either side. Second bit of free advice: if you cannot have a job lined up and waiting, instead set up a vacation a few months after you expect to defend. That gives you a firm deadline as well as something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be expensive — many of the most memorable vacations are not — but it does need to be hard to change the reservations. Hiking before a change of seasonal weather would be a great pick.

    The point of the thesis is to transform the writer, not the readers. If you are your own and only audience it can still be a brilliant success by lining you up for the next things you do, which may not even be in the same field. The skills you learn are the crucial value here. Think of it as an apprenticeship. You are learning to build a thing. The first time, you do ok with a lot of help. The next time, you do better with less help. In the end, you are a master craftsman with a lifetime of small improvements to continue to learn.

  4. This is so very true – and it’s not ‘just’ about receiving positive recognition in other areas of your life, sometimes a bit of positive feedback acknowledging that you are in the depths of a ‘process’ is enough too.
    Case in point – today I freaked out about how much work I had to do (AKA I’ve had this task hanging over me for months and I keep procrastinating / diverting / not getting it done.) I got anxious about commitments to a long trip at the weekend, and texted my partner to say I really didn’t want to go. I expected an argument, because I know he really wants me to be there. Instead he just texted back saying, “no worries, Doctor-to-be”…
    Somehow that little bit of recognition was enough to shift my whole attitude to my writing today. And it makes me think, perhaps when the going gets tough we need to step back and self-congratulate instead of criticise. e.g. “Hey look, I’m doing this thing and right now it’s difficult… Look at me, doing this really hard thing!” It’s so easy to be your own critic, and much harder to be your own champion.

  5. First, who says no-one will ever read it? By using twitter and mentioning my thesis at every opportunity, in nine months my thesis abstract has been viewed 1291 times and my thesis has been downloaded from the University website 488 times. It has already been cited once in a new edition of a well-respected book. Second, it is hard to keep positive, especially if you’re not getting the feedback you need for your efforts. But I really like Inez’s last paragraph, We choose to do a PhD, and although there are things about the experience that may be less than ideal, we have the choice to stop or continue at any point. Why choose to continue if it’s making you miserable? And if you do choose to continue, why not also choose to enjoy the process?

  6. oh this is so funny and true, I’ve done many a meditation on ‘why am I doing this’ and ultimately its for the experience, mastery over procrastination and the challenge of it all. My thesis is on climate change, so utterly depressing, and won’t stop any climate from changing, so apart from living in cave we must also advocate what we research, mustn’t we?

  7. I’m bored when I start to think that I might be going in the wrong direction…and it takes a lot of will to keep writing.
    Many directions are possible -and valid -in my work.

    I think boredom is about wanting to do something easier and more fun than what you feel you should be doing and writing is difficult because I want to get it right

  8. I really enjoyed this post. I think the reasons stated hit the nail on the head. Writing a 100 thousand word book which no one will read is not the best motivation.

    Having a supervisor who doesn’t mind occasionally taking up the role of being your mentor is also important. I have been really lucky with mine – very supportive and open minded. Having the right support network is quite essential. It has the power to make your time either enjoyable or really unbearable. I think that people often forget that the PhD is a journey in itself. Academics aside, you get the opportunity to rediscover yourself and learn more about yourself.

    It is also important to take time out to remember to congratulate ourselves on actually getting this far. I can only speak from personal experience, but it hasn’t been an easy ride to get to where I am now -:)

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  13. Interesting piece, thanks Inez. For me, I found that whenever I was able explain my PhD to a ‘normal’ person, the feedback I got was almost always “That’s (really) cool!”. And that is usually enough to keep me motivated for the next few days of work 🙂

    Because if you think about it, what we do as postgrads (whether Masters, doctorates or other higher degrees) IS really cool. I mean there are not many jobs where you can say that you’re doing something no one has ever done before (and I do think postgrad study is a job). So, I think we need to take a step back every now and again to be able to see that again for ourselves.

    On the point of being able to explain my work to a ‘normal’ person, I’ve found things like the 3-minute-thesis competition (http://www.uq.edu.au/grad-school/three-minute-thesis), FameLab (http://www.britishcouncil.org.au/programmes/science/famelab/what-famelab) or the like, very useful and I would encourage others to try it out.

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