Above is the most accurate visual representation of a PhD I’ve come across. Though I think I’ve cleared the ditch filled with water, I think there are still a fair few curveballs to be sent my way- but hopefully some ladders to help me back up.
Something that many of the participants in my study- women doctoral students- have said is that they expected the PhD to be hard, but not in the ways that it has been. They anticipated that it would be intellectually challenging, but not that issues such as financial concerns and problematic relationships with supervisors would present such bumps in the road on the way to achieving a doctorate.
Studying for a PhD has been described as a ‘high risk strategy’ (Brailsford, 2010) because of the significant investment of time, money and energy by individuals for an outcome which is not guaranteed. Stories of drawn-out PhDs which have taken more than four years to submit, and those who have an unexpectedly difficult viva without the result they were hoping for, are commonplace- and I am conscious that before too long that could well be me.
As I begin my final year of the PhD, I can’t help starting to feel daunted by the reality of needing to get the thesis done. The clock has always been ticking, but it is only as I realise that I have (just under) a year left that I have become very aware of its presence.
Other than doing practical things like saving for the inevitable ‘falling off a cliff’ sensation I’ll experience when my funding stops in 12 months, there isn’t a lot else to be done. I’m looking at jobs, working out what skills I have that would be useful to draw on when applying for these kinds of jobs , and what other skills I still need to acquire. Beyond this, what I need to do is focus on writing and not get too distracted by thinking about the future- easier said than done, though, when you are faced with the possibility of having no income when October 2017 comes around.
In terms of my thesis itself, though, things are going well. After a difficult few months earlier this year, I have managed to write a decent amount, particularly over the summer before my teaching responsibilities came back around. After deciding to rein back my data collection things felt more manageable, and though I resisted doing this at first, it was one of the best decisions I made. I’m also still very interested in my topic- something I know others struggle with during the final year, and I have been able to develop a timeline for completion which plans out my progress on a chapter by chapter basis. The current plan is to have a draft thesis written by the end of May- which I’m sure I will look back on with scorn and derision- but my intentions are good!
Interestingly, Phillips and Pugh (2015: 97) who wrote a guide called ‘How to get a PhD’ describe moving through the doctorate as ‘the progressive reduction of uncertainty’. The diagram below shows their interpretation of the different stages. In some ways, I can see what they mean. The best thing about final year so far is the feeling of knowing what I’m doing and how the thesis will probably look- an unfamiliar but fortifying feeling. I know what I want to write and the aspects of my data that I want to focus on, and that’s great. In other ways though, I think their claim is problematic. The PhD is not just about getting a thesis written.
Starting the PhD, I had such a sense of certainty. This is probably because the six months before I started had been characterised by stress and upheaval, as I was eventually made redundant as the result of a restructure in the organisation I worked for. Before that, I had spent the years after I graduated from my undergraduate degree wondering what on earth I was going to do as a career. When I began the PhD I felt that I had finally found something that I wanted to commit the rest of my life to doing.
I had three, seemingly long, years to explore a subject that I was interested in, and the freedom to go about doing the research in the ways that I thought were best. I had opportunities to go to conferences, to meet like-minded people, to organise events and develop my teaching skills. I was also fortunate enough to have guaranteed funding for that period of time.
As I approach the end of the PhD, I am starting to feel less and less certain about the future. For now, I have a purpose, and goal to work towards- the completion of my thesis. I have the identity of being a PhD student, and an Associate Lecturer. What will I be after my PhD? I have no idea. The benefits of having peers and colleagues around me every day, students to teach and opportunities to present my work at conferences, are unlikely to be available to me in the same way after I complete my PhD. There’s no way of knowing. All I can do is follow one part of Phillips and Pugh’s advice laid out in their guide for doctoral students, and treat the PhD as a ‘job to be finished’ (Phillips and Pugh, 2015: 90), so that I can move on and deal with whatever comes next.