PhD diary: The romance versus the reality of a PhD

Doing a PhD isn't just about lounging around, reading books and discussing intelligent ideas. Charlie Pullen sheds light on some of the harsher realities of research work

December 19 2017
PhD Diary: the romance vs the reality of the PhD

One of the pleasures of doing a PhD is that from time to time you can clock off early, abandon the library and do something else without anyone’s permission. For me, that mostly involves heading to the cinema.

My most recent trip was to see the superb Call Me by Your Name, the story of an intense but tender relationship that develops between two young men over a single summer in the early 1980s.

It begins with the beautiful and serious 17-year-old Elio welcoming an American PhD student to his house in rural Italy. That PhD student, Oliver, has come to live with Elio’s family, as he interns with his father, an archaeology scholar. During the long, lazy weeks, mostly spent lounging around and reading classics, Elio and Oliver eventually embark on a summer romance before saying an emotional goodbye.

Call Me by Your Name reminded me of the fantasies I had as a teenager about being a student. Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, when I was Elio’s age all I wanted was to live like these characters: in an artistic, intellectual world, flopping around country houses with books, playing the piano and saying clever things at the dinner table.

Now I am in my twenties, I no longer believe in this romantic ideal of the scholarly life. The reality of doing a PhD is not one of living in a care-free bubble, protected from the problems and troubles that everyone else has in their jobs. It is in fact a demanding way of spending your time. 

Last month I wrote about the bad days that we PhD students often experience. Learning to accept these frustrating and dispiriting times as an inevitable part of the research process is a crucial step in going beyond the fantasy of student life that can seem so appealing, particularly when you’re young.

More of Charlie's blogs

PhD diary: Preparing for a PhD
PhD diary: Where do I begin?
PhD diary: Having a bad day

Doing research is rarely the stuff of the sun lounger or the dinner table. It is hard and draining and that’s probably a good thing. What would we do when we want to properly relax on holiday or over dinner – more research? No, thank you.

There are other things about the PhD life that need addressing too. These are things that prospective researchers should probably be aware of.

As I settle in to this new life, I am struck by how many days go by when I don’t speak to anyone. My friends and old colleagues will know me as someone who doesn’t stop talking, but now that I spend most days in silent libraries, I’ve started to realise how common it is for me to get home without saying more than a “thank you” here and there to a bus driver or stranger holding open a door. Doing a PhD, especially in a subject like mine (English), is not for those who can’t spend lots of time by themselves.

Then there are the feelings of anxiety that come with being in charge of your own learning – that you’re not doing enough or good enough work, guilt that you gave yourself the afternoon off and irritation that you can’t switch off. Without traditionally demarcated working hours, it’s hard to separate your research life from everything else.

As well as this, PhD students must juggle more and more duties and different kinds of work. Balancing everything from training classes, evening lectures, weekend conferences, networking receptions, teaching and other forms of paid work, can leave PhD candidates stretched well beyond what is comfortable and manageable.

For many of us, money worries are ever-present, as are job concerns, especially for those of us who want to become academics. You constantly hear tales of early career researchers dropping out of academia, of the scramble for the odd lectureship that comes up (hundreds of applications per vacancy), of the insecure employment contracts. You can easily lose any illusion of there being a pot of gold at the end of the PhD rainbow.

But I don’t regret doing a PhD. I love it as much as I thought I would when I first had the idea as a teenager. I’m still thrilled that I can spend most of my days reading, thinking and writing about interesting and challenging ideas. I meet many brilliant students and staff who form communities that motivate and support each other in many ways.  

I’m also glad that we have at least some kind of funding system in the UK that helps students with their research without having to take on too much paid work. While many students are left struggling without financial support, especially in the arts and humanities, the existence of scholarships suggests that we still believe that academic research is valuable and important.

I think that it’s essential to be aware of and talk about the reality of doing a PhD, embracing the pleasures and confronting the challenges in equal measure. By addressing the difficulties, we might have more chances to continue making things better. But if we want the dream life, I’d recommend heading to the cinema – I’ll probably be there.    

Read more: What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

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