This is your brain on PhD

Steven Franklin lays bare the questions and doubts that go through his mind as he sits down to work on his thesis

June 12, 2017
Brain, logic, thinking
Source: iStock

When you start a PhD, the first words you hear are: “It’s going to be hard.” As someone just starting out on an academic journey, your natural response “Pah! I’ll prove them all wrong, I’m the exception, not the rule.” But there's a reason they say these things – it’s because a PhD is difficult and sometime torturous too.

Thinking logically about the process, it shouldn’t be difficult at all. You have four years (eight if you’re doing it part-time), and so by my poor maths, it works out at roughly 65 words a day. Easy! We can all do that. I mean I’ve written more here already! Sadly, it’s not that simple – what a pity. That logic doesn’t factor in any time for conceptualising your idea into something achievable, the research, the manipulation of that research into argumentative prose and then the inevitable rewrites.

Still, let’s be generous and say 200 words a day for less than two years and your project will be complete. In fact, you’d have almost written two.

Of course, there are other pressures that every PhD student must deal with. There’s an expectation for us to take some baby steps into the world of academia. We must present our work at seminars and conferences. Get used to our work being criticised and come back stronger from that. After all, no piece of work is ever the finished article. No one, to my knowledge, is yet to write the last word on any piece of history – although there are plenty of academics who’d be disturbed by the thought of their word not being the last.

Conferences are another way to introduce yourself to the academic world. Make a name for yourself. Socialise in the correct circles. These are the people that might one day examine you, become colleagues or write you a reference. We need to make the most of these exchanges. At the end of the day our future depends on it.

Then, if you’re like me, you don’t have funding, and so you must work to make ends meet. Mummy and daddy might be able to support you, but this 28-year-old would prefer some form of independence. I may be a student but I refuse to be seen as the stereotype. I work, undoubtedly more than I should, and I do my work well. One finds that if you work hard and do it to a high enough standard more doors open. People see your use. Before you know it you have an invite to the department Christmas meal. Not a bad achievement given you were employed on a short-term basis to help with some admin.

Factoring in those things, I’m now needing to write in the region of 400 words a day. Thinking about it, maybe a little less. It’s still achievable. Isn’t it? Well of course it is.

But our list does not end there. If you’d like to get anywhere in academia it’s desirable that you've taught. Published an article or two prior to thesis submission. Write a few academic book reviews. These, sadly, suck time. Time we, perhaps just I, do not have.

Let's also pause for a moment to reflect on the poker game that you play with your PhD peers. It’s an unspoken truth, but academia is essentially a game of “my fish is bigger than yours”. It’s not necessarily about quality of produced work. It’s all about quantity. The more you have, the better you are. What “have” can be anything, too. Scholarly works, academic prizes, research scholarships and media contributions are all ways of physically displaying that you’re on your way to greatness.

PhD students play the game as well as anybody else. Why blame them? The very nature of the profession dictates that you must sell yourself at every possible moment and be opportunistic, too. Don't get me wrong. I love my PhD peers but there are times when the game gets tiresome.

So, where am I left now? Ah yes, 500 words a day over 200 days and the job’s done!

But the truth is, I don’t think I'm clever enough to do it. After all, everyone who has a PhD is clever – it’s a sign of immense intelligence, isn’t it? Academically speaking, I’ve never been the best. Haven’t tried the hardest. It’s easier to take when you get poor marks knowing you haven’t really tried – easier to shrug the whole thing off.

I have ideas. I have a great PhD project, too. I’d go as far to say that it’s one of the most imaginative and intellectually challenging out of all my peers – but show me a student that doesn’t think or feel the same. Am I the correct person to do this, then? Will I do it justice? The pressure is on! It becomes rather self-fulfilling, this type of mindset.

Unlike this free-wheeling prose or stilted stream of consciousness (I’ll let you be the judge), sitting down to write my PhD is hard. Sometimes paralysing. The big, empty white screen looms. The cursor blinks with depressing regularity. It’s writing time. Why aren’t you writing? I'm not writing because I’ve been told my writing isn’t good enough. “Steven, it needs to be better, more engaging and passionate. The reader doesn’t need to feel like the process of reading your work is an insult to the English language.”

Maybe I’ve exaggerated there, but you get the idea. I’m too focused on sounding academic. Thinking where the correct place to insert that comma is. Remembering not to split the infinitive. Attempting to sound engaging, passionate and intelligent. Now I’m just overthinking things!

But the truth is, unlike this insight into the deeper workings of my mind, you do need to sound academic, adhere to academic styles and structures. Is the power of the prose I exhibit now simply constrained by the above? Should I be less like everyone else and more like me? Perhaps the question is how can I harness the confidence and readability of my writing currently?

This wasn’t really written with any agenda. I just got my iPad out and started typing. This entire splurge of words has been constructed on the train. My thoughts and typing flow being momentarily suspended as I had to change trains. I wonder if anyone could tell. At no point have I paused to think “crap, where does the comma go?” Or even think “I've failed to incorporate a semicolon or colon, isn’t my command of the English language poor?" Just a collection of sentences, with the occasional paragraph break and full stop. It may be simple. People may not like it. But this is how I write best.

As I wrote this I thought, would the people I aspire to write like be able to write like this? Be honest about the process and honest with themselves? For many, the very action would be sickening. Thoughts, laid bare on a page – an uncomfortable proposition for many, I’d imagine.

Despite what some have said, I am a writer. I can be engaging and more than capable of replicating what people deem as good prose. Maybe the very act of needing to see the success of my prose through the opinions of others is symptomatic of the issue itself. I'll sit down with my supervisor and talk this through – I’ll even let him read it. I'm sure he’d be able to assist in redirecting this creativity into something positive.

Tomorrow I’ll write about why I am doing a PhD. I imagine it will be an enlightening read. It will be entertaining. At the end of the day, history is fun. That's why we subject ourselves to this.

Steven Franklin is a visiting tutor in the history department and a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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