While obtaining a PhD may be a huge privilege and a significant milestone in your life, it is also just a large stepping stone that can be as painful and isolating as it is rewarding. There is life on the other side of it, and you might be best to step off early in a different direction. I respect people who choose not to finish their PhD as much as I respect those who finish one. If yours is costing you too much, you may be all the wiser for walking away (read this for some reassurances). If you can afford to keep on with it but find your attention drifting, you might consider going at it at a faster pace.
I found this pace because making something from my fieldwork felt like some kind of life purpose that I needed to see through. I was obsessed with my project, I used my insecurities in order to work harder and more independently, I felt that I owed it to my research participants, and I lost sight of how far I’d come until it was time to let it go — at which point I quickly created deadlines and looked to new project possibilities in order to rip the band aid off. Because I no longer knew who I was without it, which was equally terrifying.
One of my research participants with schizophrenia had warned me that rushing through his own PhD had coincided with his mental breakdown and diagnosis. So, I didn’t rush for the first 9 months after fieldwork. Until I was able to reason that it was okay to start rushing: I was not him; I had plenty of social support; and dragging it out any longer might be rather what breaks me. I – like every PhD student ever – had significant personal challenges along with my all-consuming research project to contend with. The rest of your life and the people in it can’t pause for you while you’re preoccupied with your PhD. The only way forward for me, it seemed, was to embrace the selfishness and chaos as necessary but temporary. The more chaos the better, maybe, because then you can’t afford to get too stuck on the details of it, and you simply don’t get time to grow bored. You can only keep moving. By the time another 9 months had passed, my thesis was with examiners.
While my top tips would be 1) to start analysing your data half-way through fieldwork (so you can further explore key themes and your interpretations while still in the field) and 2) to treat the thesis like a final draft as early as possible in order to prevent multiple drafts and self-/thesis- loathing, I have written the below tips beginning with the assumption that most people do end up with enough time to start loathing things.
Tip 1: Remind yourself of why you’re doing the PhD, then get over yourself and simplify the task
Much of this is, after all, supposed to be about becoming a Doctor of Philosophy (a lover of wisdom). If you don’t feel interested in what you’re doing anymore, you may rekindle your interest by recalling why you started this thing in the first place. What drew you in? What are you most grateful for in your experiences of fieldwork? Think of the moments that made you feel lucky to be alive and there. Think of the time shared with your participants. Think of how your life led you to pursue it. Then think of the justification you gave to your university for your project being valuable to society (and pop that ‘research gap’ into your thesis introduction).
A hard truth that needs to be accepted, though, is that no-one will ever care about your work the way that you do. Working with the passion for your project also means learning how to manage your fluctuating ego attached to it: ‘I’m doing such important work and I want people to take it as seriously as I do’, followed by ‘I have no clue what I’m doing; I can’t do this; how will I ever do my participants enough justice?’
But ego-anguish may be where doing a PhD in anthropology can come into its own. We have a more intimate and ethical responsibility to our research participants. I cared too much about mine to not finish something that I roped them into with me. But I could detach somewhat from worrying about my potential incompetence or contributions to instead focus on just writing something that reflected their experiences. Herein, I let go of my preferences for pretty prose. So long as I got their voices in and articulated my analysis soundly, that was what really mattered. In letting go of perfections, my ideas and writing also became simpler for others to read.
Another hard truth you might be yet to accept is that your simplest ideas are often the strongest. They also often occur early on, fresh from fieldwork, but we over-question them in fear of them being too obvious. The more complex ideas are perhaps better filed away for later, or tested out in a journal article first. What’s more, there will always be more you could have done with the ideas that do end up in your thesis.
Remember: The PhD is, at its core, a mere way of demonstrating your capacity for doing (and preferably loving doing) novel research. It is not about showing that you’re a genius because of what you’ve done with the content.
You need to remind yourself over and over of who is actually going to read this thing. In my case, included were my participants and advisors from different disciplines, which added pressure to please too many people. Aware of the difficulties with this prospect, my supervisor suggested that I write instead just for her and my partner, at least to begin with. In doing so, I was satiating the examiner expectations and at least some of the personal sensitivities that kept me invested.
Remember: No one reading it will know the entirety of your data, your analysis, all the theory, or have thought about it nearly as much as you have. What you need to demonstrate first and foremost is your ability to bring the bulk of it together in an erudite way that feels true to what you observed over and above pleasing any individual involved (including you and any quests for perfection).
In terms of how you go about managing your data and your write-ups, aim for a minimalist workbench. Try not to have more than three things open at once. File away things that you know deep down might not be relevant, or articles that you realistically won’t have time to read. You can always come back to them later. As well as having a digital file for each chapter, I moved the contents of each file to my desktop as I was working on them, such that the rest of the thesis wasn’t looming too much in the foreground. Alternating between reading and writing worked well so long as I was working towards a singular aspect of my thesis.
Tip 2: Push yourself but refuel regularly
We’ve all heard the analogy that doing a PhD is like running a marathon. You have to prepare, pace yourself and do what it takes in order to get to the finish line. Good marathon runners need lots of sustenance along the way and they don’t stop for longer than a quick refuel permits them to. They also give it all they have towards the end, despite their injuries. They’ve already scarified a lot in training, and they want to ensure that missing out on all the other things they could have otherwise done with their time was worthwhile.
By pushing yourself I mean building good habits that will get you in the zone and sustain you enough to keep going. First, skimping on sleep or meals or exercise is not helpful. If you can, find ways to prioritise sleep above all else. While not always attainable, throughout my PhD I meditated every day, exercised quite regularly and aimed for 8 hours sleep. In the final month of writing, I gave up alcohol to improve my chances of getting this.
When you’re tired, your work gets sloppier and your empathy levels also drop (no resources left), so you become harder to be around, exacerbating interpersonal problems, and PhD angst. If you are lucky enough to be able to control how much you sleep, consume and exercise, be deliberate with it so that the only pressure on yourself to be better is coming from you and not others.
Second, implement strategies to maximise your concentration and motivation while working. I preferred not to be at my office because I preferred to keep my social life separate from my work. I found I did my best work in the morning and could only focus in one place for a few hours at a time. I would mainly café hop and write from home. I did participate in ‘shut up and write sessions’ at my university that used the Pomodoro Technique (working in 25 min blocks), and I used this technique at other times when I got stuck.
I also relied on music. Classical or instrumental while reading and familiar lyrical albums while writing. The music kept me emotionally engaged and allowed me to block out my surrounds. This won’t work for everyone, but on the off chance you haven’t tried it yet I recommend listening to music that moves you so you can channel this emotional drive back into your thesis (I have talked about this on one of our podcast panels, too).
Be mindful of how useful strategies are at different points in time. Podcasts in between work were helpful for me but I had to stop listening to them (and instead just rely on music) for the last few months of writing in order to immerse myself in thesis-thinking instead. I also stopped keeping a close eye on the news (and Twitter). I missed a number of social gatherings. I only had one week off The Familiar Strange but that was probably the main non-thesis commitment I had for the last few weeks. Do what you can to charge all thoughts towards your thesis when you get to that last stretch.
Don’t wait until you finish your thesis to do things that help you think about life beyond it. Throughout my PhD, I binged a lot of television series, took up various temporary hobbies and socialised more than some might think would be wise. But I had to learn to be selective about it – only do what you want to and, when you can help it, hang out with people who make you feel good. Sometimes the socialising made me feel guilty, and I did put a cap on it in the last 6 months (no more than 3 nights out per week and less alcohol). I honestly don’t think I would have coped very well without letting myself go a bit after intensive thinking and writing sessions. Reward yourself along the way, and think of this as like those sugar gels marathon runners use (rather than having some big sweet prize for yourself at the end that might just make you feel sick).
I recommend writing blogs for The Familiar Strange, too! Especially earlier on. I cringe at some of my first blog posts, but they were cathartic to do at the time and important in helping me get over myself further, including fears about academic and public scrutiny.
A final thing I’ll say about pushing yourself and refuelling more is that, contrary to what I was told, imposter syndrome can be helpful. Although the self-doubt was at times crippling, being hard on myself, feeling that I had a lot more to prove than others did, and that there was every chance I wouldn’t finish, frightened me into finishing. My tendencies toward perfectionism and mostly sending my supervisor two chapters at a time – to up the chances of at least one chapter being okay – meant that I wrote everything like it had to be my best effort and thus only drafted each chapter about three times. I had already analysed and written much more than I needed to by the time thesis submission dates entered the conversation. I never felt like I’d done enough and even now I worry that I just had generous examiners. It’s possible.
But for the sake of getting the thesis done, doubting whether something is good means that you’ll likely work harder for approval and be ready quite literally before you know it. One disclaimer: the imposter syndrome can get problematic when you accept help from anyone who wants to help – you need to learn to choose your help carefully and trust your instincts if not your intellect yet.
Tip 3: Write with purpose and use your time rather than word count targets
I suspect thesis writing progression is a bit like sustainable weight loss. Calorie or step counting isn’t nearly as effective as getting in touch with how you feel in your body when you eat or exercise. But the latter takes more patience and attention to what is happening.
While aiming for a word count each day may work to a point, it’s not encouraging quality control nor passion for quality control that leads to more quality writing. By all means start writing something, anything, to get going, but there will come a point when you may feel more overwhelmed by all those words not yet in your actual thesis that are adding to the enormous pile of data yet to be selected from.
If you are going to do the word count thing at all, I would suggest doing so only to get the ball rolling after fieldwork. Do it with the methodology section and the descriptions of your field sites that don’t require your analysis and argument. At any writing stage, don’t stop writing if you’re on a roll and fortunate enough to have more time that day to write. You might not find that zone for another week or few.
And you need to have a general plan for what you’re writing. I’m not convinced that ‘just write anything and find your argument from there’ is that helpful. As soon as you have a clear thesis question and an argument (again these have to be as simple as possible), you can start to work out how many chapters you need to explain that argument, and then plan the sections/sub-arguments for each chapter. To get the argument, I found mind-mapping really helpful (via whiteboard or paper) and I also wrote lots of notes in my phone as I thought of things.
But the trick was to reconcile the ideas quickly so they didn’t overflow. They needed to be accessible such that I could transplant them into a template for writing/elaborating on. Keep in mind your central thesis statement but try to only throw your energies into one sub-argument at a time.
Aim for 2 weeks to 1 month per chapter and final draft type quality. Reference and footnote as you go. Edit as you go by re-reading the prior section you wrote. This also warms you up for the next section and keeps you on track with your arguments.
Tip 4: Don’t wait to start writing articles for publication, don’t be afraid to co-author or find time (and money) for conferences
Even if you don’t feel ready to publish, putting things in journal article form helps to refine ideas earlier. The first publication arising from my thesis data ended up being a backbone for my entire thesis. I started it halfway through fieldwork. You get great feedback from journal editors to improve your work – the published piece is substantially stronger having gone through the revisions process. I also felt more confident in my analysis and application of theories having tried them out as soon as possible with a distinguished journal from which I had been reading and citing many articles.
I co-authored two articles before writing one on my own, and I think it’s a shame that co-authoring isn’t more respected in anthropology. The process of working with others and using more than just your own brain helps to fill in more gaps. Dare to ask your supervisors if they would be interested in writing something with you (assuming they are on board with your ideas).
After the first year of my PhD, I aimed to present at two conferences per year and such masochism has paid off. I went to 11 conferences during my candidature and gave different papers at 9 of these. I’m still not confident with public speaking (doing podcast interviews and panels for TFS are often quite excruciating for me) but I always feel better afterwards. Several conference papers also became bases for my thesis chapters and/or journal articles. I also got to scope out the standards of my field and prepare myself for some inevitable disappointments about the realities of academia and the people I idolise (and this helps lower any unhelpful expectations around having a PhD). My first AAA was very daunting, but by the second I’d learned not to take myself or others quite so seriously.
Remember: Everyone is going through their things and people are mostly generous and mindful that you’re just an anxious student (especially if you’re not arrogant). Even if you feel very awkward, making an effort shows people that you want to be part of their community (and following up with them later will feel less silly).
I realise funding is a big issue for conferences. I used up my allocated funding by the end of fieldwork, but I was lucky to have savings, a teaching job on the side and supportive parents to help me out (and conferences as as birthday presents also became a thing). If you do have a way of finding funds, use them. Also go for as many funding opportunities as you can. I wish I had. I was so pleased to have received one scholarship that I did not raise the bar any higher. (I was also too preoccupied with (and exhausted by) applying for ethics clearances). But the one conference scholarship I did go for, I got. And consider applying for more longer term financial support for the added benefit of being ‘awarded’ something else.
Tip 5: Appreciate the necessary limits of PhD supervision
I realise that one of the main barriers to PhD students getting their thesis done efficiently is poor supervision. I once again got lucky here. But I also didn’t rely on my supervisor too much. We didn’t meet regularly – no more than five times post-fieldwork – but when we did it was for hours, and I always walked away with plans (she is a master of mind-mapping and transforming mind-maps into key concepts and writing schemes).
I was also able to be honest with her about what I was really struggling with. She’s seen me cry more than most of my friends. I didn’t expect her to be my good friend or my therapist, though, and that’s quite critical. I tried to keep in mind that I was one of many students; there was no reason for her to see my project or me as a priority. I never blamed my supervisor for anything, and I always felt that my PhD was my responsibility.
But I didn’t nail the student-supervisor relationship thing by any means. At times I behaved like a stubborn then needy child. I wanted to do everything on my own, but then emailed her in panics because self-imposed deadlines were approaching and I hadn’t wanted to bother her earlier – at the cost of then bothering her more later! If you can help it, don’t let yourself get into that situation. Your supervisor can only support you as far as you let them and as far as their job entails. If you want to get your PhD done more efficiently, and communicate more efficiently, you have to raise those bars yourself.
Now… go for it!
If you’re about to hit the runway, I wish you the best of luck! You CAN do it, in one way or another. You need to manage yourself thoughtfully, though, if you want to keep up the pace. I encourage you to leave comments and further tips below when you’ve got time for a breather.
[Image by Julia Brown]