This article was published in the May 2017 Newcastle University Postgraduate Student Association newsletter, and on their website.
Welcome to the University of Newcastle
So you’ve decided to enrol in a PhD. Go you!
What an excellent life choice. Think of all the mysteries you will unravel! The contributions to the vast sea of human knowledge! What an honour. Nay – a privilege.
If you ever become uncertain about whether this decision was right for you, remind yourself of how proud your parents looked when you told them you were going to be a Doctor.
Now let’s craft ourselves a thesis proposal.
To the literature!
Why did no one tell you about the literature.
There’s. Just. So. Much. What if you miss something in your Confirmation document? What if one of your examiners wrote a seminal paper but you didn’t include it? When did the vast sea of human knowledge become so bloody BIG?
Everyone keeps telling you Confirmation isn’t a big deal, that it’s super easy and you’ll be ‘totally fine.’ This advice serves only to accentuate your complete lack of ‘totally fine-ness’, and instead lead you to question most of your decisions and capabilities.
But you can’t quit now – remember how proud your parents looked when you told them you were going to be a Doctor?
Ah, what a fool you were before. Of course everything would be totally fine. Next time someone reassures you of your own competence, you should probably just trust them.
Now you’ve had a panel of experts review your work and give you useful feedback, nothing can stop you.
You have a way forward now! You have a plan! Look – numbered lists and bullet-points! Your thesis is totally achievable. Just one step at a time.
OK so you’re six months behind where you thought you’d be. Your numbered lists and bullet-points were probably a bit too optimistic anyway.
But you still got this. You’re only halfway through! No need to panic yet.
Slightly Over Halfway
Very Much Over Halfway
Sometimes your experiments work and you think things might be OK.
Then you remember the numbered lists and bullet-points. The relics of a simpler time. Oh what happy days they were. Oh what foolish days.
Everything seemed so possible back before you started trying to actually achieve things.
The Hellscape continues.
Your supervisor reminds you that your numbered lists and bullet-points were not actually handed down to you by a deity, nor does anyone’s life depend on them.
This genuinely never occurred to you before and you burn them.
Your helpful and supportive research team (whom you had conveniently forgotten about, what with being trapped in a Pit of Despair) help you construct a new plan, which you dutifully draw up (in pencil).
A Random Flurry of Productivity
You move forward with your work with only an occasional sense of pending doom.
Your colleagues rally around you and motivation happens.
Things Get Done.
The rollercoaster of emotions you’ve experienced over the last three to four years repeats itself, only on a daily basis.
Some days you manage a few sentences, some days entire paragraphs. Other days are Pyjama Days – but that’s OK.
You dream in Thesis.
Your supervisor gives you useful and constructive feedback, which you do your best to translate into changes which require the minimal amount of actual effort on your part.
You return the revisions to your supervisor.
Your supervisor gives you the same useful and constructive feedback, and you realise you cannot weasel your way out of a thesis.
Your colleagues’ support wears thin as you spend several days shouting abuse at the printer, snapping at anyone who dares offer you advice.
Several forests are destroyed.
You haul your life’s work across campus to a building you’ve never heard of before and you will never have a reason to visit ever again.
You deposit the sum of the last four years’ blood, sweat and tears onto the desk of a tired looking receptionist and for your efforts you are presented with: A Photo Frame.
If you ever had any doubts about your ability to complete a doctorate, now is the time to revisit them. Continuously. Really dig in there, go on.
By this point, you’ve moved on to a new job or set of responsibilities with its own host of challenges, anxieties and doubts.
Your new colleagues like to reassure you of your competency but there’s no way you can trust them.
You’re aware that the completion of your doctorate is probably meant to feel like a big deal, but you’re just too busy panicking about whatever it is you’re doing (or not doing) with your life now to care.
It’s been six months since you handed in your thesis, but tradition requires that you now have to don a floppy hat and walk across a stage in front of a large audience.
98% of this audience don’t care that you finished your PhD and they actually sort of resent that your thesis title is so long, and indeed that you even exist at all. Their bottoms have gone numb and they just want to be with their family, but instead they’re watching you waft awkwardly across the stage in a stupid hat.
When you leave the hall, you catch your parents’ eye and the tiniest part of you stirs with pride.
Life goes on, but now you are: A Doctor.