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Welcome to The Gradgrind: Positivity and the PhD


H. Koppdelaney ( Used under a CC License

So here you are, living the dream: maybe funded, part funded or not at all, but either way managing somehow to do a PhD. What a privilege! Organising your time exactly as you please, exploring an intellectual field that fascinates you, surrounded by like-minded people and having your horizons broadened every day.

So why is it so depressing?

There are good reasons. Doing a PhD is just plain difficult, which is why it’s such a highly respected thing to do. It’s especially difficult when you have no idea how to actually do one, and you’re expected to get going without much advice or help. After all, the PhD is your project and you have to take responsibility for it - that is why it’s so wonderful and at the same time so terrifying.

More than that, there are reasons to be negative about doing a PhD right now. In the UK as well as many other countries, university funding is being cut, the structure and nature of academia is in flux, and there are lots of people with PhDs but not enough academic jobs. If you want one, it seems that you have to be a superhuman research machine, publishing journal articles and book chapters, giving conference papers and organising conferences, teaching undergrads, having a blog and online presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn,… and somehow doing the PhD at the same time. Once the PhD is over, you have to continue all those (mostly unpaid) activities while slaving over job applications, and somehow paying the rent. Times are tough.

But there is no need to despair.

Wynand Strydom ( CC BY 2.0 license

Wynand Strydom ( Used under a CC License

After all, you chose this path and you don’t have to do it, as people are fond of saying whenever we complain. This is only helpful, though, when seen in the right light. The way I think about it is that the PhD is not a single path, and you do have quite a lot of control over where it leads. The bits you can’t control might well lead to opportunities you hadn’t known existed. And whilst doing the PhD and all the extra stuff that feels so stressful at the time, you will have built up a seriously impressive set of skills and experiences that you can turn to whatever use you like - in my case, proofreading has turned out to be just one incredibly useful skill I picked up during the PhD. Academia is not the only way - but if it is the only thing you want, then you can probably find a way. Still, it might not be the way you expected and it’s worth keeping an open mind to that.

Here at The Gradgrind we will be exploring positive and creative ways to make the most of the PhD and what comes after it. We’ll share advice and experiences of all the things mentioned above, and anything else that might lighten the load. If you have a question or a topic you’d like us to cover, or an idea for a post that you’d like to write, please email me at Linda[at]thegradgrind[dot]com. We’d love to hear your story.

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