I was chatting recently to a group of PhD scholars who are about midway through their journey. They are all studying part-time, juggling this with full-time jobs, family commitments and other responsibilities. All agreed that the PhD is a difficult process which requires an enormous amount of time and energy.
But I noticed that they could be roughly categorised into two groups. Those in the first group spoke of their PhDs only in negative terms and viewed them as a constant burden that offered little gratification along the way. Their PhD was a boulder they were bound to endlessly push up a steep hill without ever being able to stop and contemplate the view.
The second group expressed pride in their work. They had a strong sense of being part of something important and contributing to something meaningful. They spoke enthusiastically about what the PhD had already offered them in terms of self-development and improved skills.
Some of these scholars probably moved between the two groups depending on how they were progressing at the time. But I wondered whether there might be a way to spend more time in the second, happier group - after all, four or more years of satisfying and challenging engagement sounds great but the idea of spending all that time feeling grim and despondent is perfectly horrible.
I decided to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out what might lead people to the second group and way of thinking. To do so, I collected reflections on the PhD journey from 28 doctoral scholars. Each discussed their own ways of working, their views of their own doctorates and their experiences of getting stuck and then unstuck again.
None of the findings are earth shattering, but there’s some good advice within their responses about how to do a doctorate and actually enjoy it.
1. Make sure you’re doing it for yourself
There are lots of reasons to do a doctorate: the status, the improved employment opportunities, as a requirement for a position or promotion, to advance a field of study, to answer an important question and to make new knowledge.
All those who said they’d really enjoyed their PhDs had a strong sense of the doctorate as being part of developing their own identity. They were deeply invested in their growing capacity to contribute meaningfully in their disciplinary community.
There was also a sense from these scholars that the doctorate was their own space. It was the place in their lives where they could make the decisions, be creative and for which they could legitimately fence off time from other responsibilities for their own growth. They framed the PhD as something they did for themselves.
2. The magic of momentum
Nobody can sustain an enormous PhD workload relentlessly over the duration of the degree. This was especially true for these scholars who squeezed the doctorate into the gaps between work meetings and after getting families fed.
But those who enjoyed the PhD all referred to working on the doctorate almost every day. Sometimes the only input that was possible on a given day was an hour spent reading through an article or 20 minutes writing a brief reflection note in a research journal.
The regularity of input, more than the quantity and quality, seems to be key.
Those who bemoaned their PhD as a constant liability admitted that weeks often went by without them working on it. Rather than enjoying the respite from the doctorate, all this time was spent feeling guilty - and when they finally did get to it, it took hours or even days to get back into what they had been thinking and writing about.
3. Celebrate small successes
Some scholars spoke of sharing the completion of a chapter with their PhD colleagues through a WhatsApp message. Others stuck a list of milestones to the fridge and their family made celebratory dinners whenever one was met.
The notion of deadlines was closely linked to the idea of regular successes. The PhD is a massive project with no clear deadlines along the way, which is why some are able to put off working on it for days and weeks at a time.
Many of the same scholars who trumpeted their small successes set very clear deadlines for themselves and shared these with supervisors, relatives or academic colleagues. Some also used external deadlines like seminar and conference presentations as a way of forcing themselves to engage with a particular aspect of their study by a certain date.
4. Be kind to yourself
Some scholars seem to be able to keep looking ahead instead of beating themselves up about poor progress or less than positive feedback from a supervisor.
They constantly expect better of themselves and then put in the hours needed to attain these goals. Rather than berating themselves for what they haven’t managed to do, they happily share what they have achieved and what they are working on.
5. Find a community
One thing was very clear: even though it’s an individual piece of work, the doctorate doesn't have to be a lonely endeavour. Those who seemed to be most enthusiastic about their doctorates had found fellow travellers and developed ways to regularly engage with them.
Sometimes these were virtual friendships online with others researching in the same area. Sometimes people met other scholars over coffee and cake to share readings and support each other. It seems that sharing the process increases the chances of enjoyment - and since you’re giving years of your life to this enormous academic project, it seems important that you should enjoy large parts of it.