About a PhD: is it a bad romance?


I’ve been trying to keep up with the ongoing Twitter, Facebook, newspaper, discussion forum, coffee room discussion around doing a PhD, its implications for our individual and collective mental health and the job prospects (for example: Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia)

These discussions are not new but in the last couple of weeks have been taken up with renewed vigour and introspection from individuals inside and outside the University. The honesty with which people are writing about this relationship makes for emotional reading and it is a discussion we must have.

But – how do we process all of these feelings? What will be the result for the PhD and the prospective/current/former PhD student? Will it alter how we go about our work in academia and how we perceive those who leave? Is doing a PhD a bad romance?

I spent the first 3 years of my PhD watching colleagues prepare and submit their theses. I don’t think I can identify one of us who completed our PhD and was unscathed by the process – good or bad. Doing a PhD changes you. I’m not suggesting for a second that a PhD is unique in this regard. Everything we do alters us or others in some way.

I called this post ‘About a PhD’ – inspired by Hornby’s book ‘About a Boy’ – because doing a PhD is like being in love.

Will had never wanted to fall in love. When it had happened to friends, it had always struck him as a peculiarly unpleasant-seeming experience, what with all the loss of sleep and weight, and the unhappiness when it was unreciprocated, and the suspect, dippy happiness when it was working out.
Nick Hornby

We live, work, socialise, feel, travel with our PhD from 3 years to anything up to 8 years (perhaps more). As one friend said to me, some marriages don’t last that long. We pour ourselves into the research. We oscillate between love and hate as we craft its chapters. We present it to the world as part of us. Towards the end of my PhD I carried it around in a folder just in case. Just in case I’d work on it or it might be lost.

In the February prior to submitting my thesis in the September (at the end of the 4th year) – my flat caught on fire. My husband and I, my neighbours, we were safe. But our flat was wrecked. In the moment that I watched the fire brigade working on my flat with their oxygen masks on – I completely forgot about my thesis. I didn’t beg the firemen to rescue my computer, papers, data… (I wasn’t hoping it would be destroyed either). I saw how my love was bigger than my PhD, yes, I was lost in it for quite some time – but on that day I knew that being safe was more important.

I can’t say that this experience has led me to any long-lasting clarity over academic life. I love the work. I work in the evenings and at weekends (but not all of them). Of course, I’ve moaned about it – we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Who doesn’t like a good gossip? Just this weekend, I posted on Facebook:

My PhD has upset me and made me cry. I’ve thought I was losing my mind over it. It has also given me some of the best experiences of my life – flying over the Grand Canyon, going on the TV, moving to Cornwall. It’s cost me money and friends. Conference fees, counselling, working weekends and cancelling meeting up with friends because at that time ‘the work’ is more important. My PhD (the experience and the text) has given me my career and finally a longed for sense of satisfaction in my worklife.

I mentioned in a previous post on thinking sideways about PhDs that I am giving a talk to a room full of geography postgrads in April. The discussions I mentioned at the outset are making me nervous. Some of it will be scary to newbies and well-trodden ground to the more experienced – but so far my message about a PhD will be: doing a PhD changes you, you will share with your doctorate some of the best and worst experiences of your life, you will know yourself better in so many ways as a result, but you won’t always remember to listen to yourself – your mind, heart and body – you will fall head over heels, you’ll go doe-eyed, you might spend some time in self destruction mode, love hurts.

But is doing a PhD a bad romance? I’ll leave the final thought for now with bell hooks (2000):

Time and time again when I talk to individuals about approaching love with will and intentionality, I hear the fear expressed that this will bring an end to romance. This is simply not so. Approaching romantic love from a foundation of care, knowledge, and respect actually intensifies romance.

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