Healthy relationships, a social life and a PhD… is it possible to keep all three?
Taking on the challenge of a PhD can seem overwhelming, but with the support of your friends, families, colleagues, supervisors and institutions, you might just make it through the 3-4 year haul. I would like to say that years of doing undergraduate and postgraduate modules, as well as completing two research dissertations, has prepared me for PhD life – this is not the case. Ultimately, there is nothing more important than achieving a sustainable work-life balance, although this can often be harder than it would first appear. I started my PhD in History in January 2015 – although it seems like only a few short months, I’m nearly halfway through the expected time frame for completion. Yet within this small window I have learned valuable lessons on how to survive a PhD and continue to be a fully functional human being.
1. Starting your PhD
It is crucial at this point not to become overwhelmed by the scope and breadth of the research you have chosen to undertake. A PhD is big business and it will require a lot of attention to minute details and, often within a History PhD, many hours of pondering theoretical arguments. Setting goals and milestones for your whole PhD will be something that is often required by your institution at the start – once written down and handed in, panic often ensues. It is important to underscore the important milestones, e.g. production of a preliminary introduction, draft of first chapter, archive trips, etc.
To be honest, my advice would simply be to take one step at a time. Don’t get bogged down with thinking about what will happen in year two when you’re at the beginning of year one – this will only lead to a feeling of disillusionment, self-deprecation and, again, panic. It is common for your timeline of completion to shift as the months pass, but the main thing to remember is this: it’s okay. Changing schedules and timelines is not something to fear – it shows the evolution and progress of your work and your adaptability to the shifts in your PhD thesis. Embrace it.
Applications – so many applications, it is unavoidable. Although I was aware at the beginning of my PhD that a certain amount of administrative paperwork would be required, nothing prepared me for the onslaught of application forms, task forms, and all other kinds of paper trails. However, they are a necessary evil. If, like me, you happen to be an unfunded PhD student, partial funding application forms become a weekly task to afford lengthy archive trips, to improve much needed language skills and to attend various conferences.
Initially, when confronted with all these application forms my immediate thoughts were, there is no hope, why would anyone pick me? Well, in the dog-eat-dog world of funding applications I can give no better advice than to embrace your own awesomeness, single out your defining characteristics that would contribute to your chosen field and put pen to paper (or, as the case may be, fingertips to keyboard). I find this excruciatingly difficult – I’d say it’s a very British trait that we don’t ‘big ourselves up’ to impress people but would rather be a nation of wallflowers, hoping to be picked as the best without ever openly displaying our capabilities. In the world of PhD funding application forms this will not be a plus, but an enormous hindrance.“Embrace your own awesomeness.”
I am by no means saying you should tell everyone that you are simply ‘awesome’ and that is why they should choose to fund you; I am merely saying that it really will pay to highlight your skills and show how well you can apply them.
3. Social life
Ah yes, a social life – something often forgotten and left in a dusty corner for three or more years whilst your PhD takes over your very soul. If that sentence describes your experience of undertaking a PhD, you’re doing it wrong.
Admittedly the PhD is a time-consuming business and, if like me, you work from home, it can often encompass all hours of the day. I recently had the misfortune of losing a fellow PhD student as they succumbed to the depths of PhD solitude and slowly lost the ability to continue until they had to stop the PhD altogether. Solitude will not produce a brilliant PhD, it will produce a broken person. It may seem like simple and obvious advice, but I feel it needs to be addressed – make plans with your friends, families, partners, your multiple (in my case) cats, and stick to them. Within the first six months of my PhD, I found I had become highly anti-social and irritable; I was constantly suffering from ‘email anxiety’ (a term used by a fellow PhD student that I found highly comical, until I started my PhD) and blocking out all social activities that did not benefit the PhD or progression in my field. This was completely wrong; I was becoming that broken person.“Solitude will not produce a brilliant PhD, it will produce a broken person.”
Luckily, this is easily remedied: simply go out the house and have a coffee with a friend, meet friends for lunch, make contact with your family (and hope they don’t ask what you’re doing with your life) or maybe take a day trip to a nearby town. This was, without a doubt, the hardest concept for me to wrap my anxiety-ridden brain around in the beginning – please, I implore you, take my advice and socialise. You will not regret it.
At the beginning of my PhD I had been with my partner for six and a half years – for someone in their mid-twenties, that’s a long time. We have a mortgage, an actual clowder of cats and two reptiles. Keeping on top of all of this, whilst doing your PhD, and maintaining a healthy and loving relationship with a partner can seem impossible. However, it can be done. Similar to the advice given above about maintaining a social life, it’s all about balance. Sure, there have been times where a deadline was fast approaching and any/all plans had to be chucked out of the proverbial window, but it’s important to remember that this can sometimes happen and hopefully your partner will understand. Just make sure you make time for them, something I neglected to do in my little bubble of anxiety within the first six months.
One extremely hard-learned lesson from my personal experience is separating work and social time. Whilst working from home, there have often been recurring feelings of guilt while watching a movie with my partner at 11pm – a perfectly normal pastime by most standards. I cannot honestly say these feelings of guilt have totally subsided;, as my work is in my home, I constantly feel pressure to be at my desk working rather than relaxing. The answer is to create a routine. I have found that since making myself start work at 9am and finish around 5pm, a significant amount of ‘guilt’ about relaxing has disappeared. Planning is key.
5. Taking on extra work
At the beginning of my second year I agreed to take on some first year undergraduate seminar teaching, marking, office hours and a supervisory role in a reading room. For unfunded PhD students, job opportunities such as these are brilliant, and the university will not intentionally over-burden you with work if they want you to complete your PhD without having a mental breakdown.“Taking on opportunities to present your work will do nothing but benefit you.”
However, even if you are a funded PhD student, taking on teaching is highly recommended – especially if this is your proposed future career path. I have only taught since the beginning of the year, yet I feel the experience I have gained already is highly beneficial to my own research work. Fear of presenting, be it at conferences or in front of a class, is one of the most common PhD student fears, and I am by no means a confident person. At my last conference paper presentation my hands were shaking, I felt nauseated and I spoke at the speed of light. Taking on opportunities that put you into this situation will do nothing but benefit you. I cannot recommend it highly enough – be proactive and ask your supervisors for teaching opportunities and seek out conferences applicable to your field. It will only serve to improve your status within your academic community and enhance your skills. Plus it looks great on your CV!
To sum up, taking on a PhD is no doubt one of the most daunting tasks you will experience, make sure you have conducted the necessary research about the field you want to enter into, be sure to make time for your friends, family and, most importantly, yourself. There are always people willing and able to support you – you’ve got this.
Samantha Knapton (@LgmSam) is a PhD research student of twentieth-century European history at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University and is co-supervised by Prof Tim Kirk and Dr Felix Schulz. Her thesis is on the transition of Poles in the Ruhr area of Germany from forced labourers to homeless foreigners between 1945 and 1951. Her other research interests include twentieth-century German history, the history of fascism and the history of foreign/forced labour. She is the recipient of the German History Society/German Academic Exchange Services Grant to study the German language in Germany.
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