A colleague is commencing her doctorate next week and while enjoying a gin, or two, at The Tipsy Bull the other week, we were talking about the first year, nerves etc. It got me thinking about my PhD Path, which is now, at time of writing, exactly 14 years and 1 month long.
A few years ago, The Thesis Whisperer tweeted from a conference about a presentation on PhD completion times and I remember thinking, “Ooh! 40-something percent take 10 years!” I had just reached the ten-year mark and wryly proclaimed myself ‘above average’.
My PhD Path has not been easy and I made it this way thanks to a couple of rash decisions early on. So I share some tips with you in the hope that if you find yourself about to make your own rash decision, a bell will clang and remind you, “Stop! Remember, remember; The Plodding Historian!”
6 January 2006: I came to my PhD by default. It was something I had been toying with since completing my Honours Dissertation back in 2001. However, following my BA.Hons, I took off to London for a few years instead. Then I made a rash decision and came back to Australia. (Clanging bell)
I ended up with lots of lovely casual jobs at my old alma mater, including research assisting for a Dr, now Prof, who said, “Why not come work with me and do a PhD?”
So I applied to do a PhD with, as she is now known, the Long-Suffering Supervisor.
I wasn’t 100% onboard with this as I was so homesick and yearn-y for London Lisa. (Clanging bell)
My PhD application was approved. And bonus, I was awarded a scholarship as well. And I had the pleasure of being part of my supervisor’s big project on poverty, charity and the poor in France, so research trips abroad for us! No, I didn’t speak French, but I’ve learned enough over the years to read sixteenth-century records pretty well.*
After a year involving lots of paperwork (be warned!), research to write my lit review and prepare a proposal for presentation at the Postgrad Roundtable (that experience will require a post all of its own!), I had a research plan and a big list of beautiful primary sources to gather during a three-month trip to Paris. The trip included two weeks in London over Christmas. (Clanging bell)
Before I continue: My tips…
1. Be 110% sure you want and are ready to PhD.
2. Treat your PhD like a job – Don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself in terms of daily commitment. Approach your PhD as a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 job. If you do more than this, brilliant! But with a 9 to 5 routine; you can’t go wrong. Especially if you are fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship, so you don’t have to work to live / keep yourself in chocolate and gin / pay the mortgage/rent.
3. On that: If you are fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship; don’t give it up!
Defer it, don’t ditch it!
4. The Black Dog: Being a PhDian can trigger one’s melancholic traits. Things I found useful:
- Register with the university’s counselling services, or go see your GP about a counselling plan;
- Lunching at the Uni Club with fellow PhDians for de-briefs and CFDing;**
- Sundays are ALWAYS ‘Me Time’. Read for pleasure. Do outdoor exercise-y things (if you are one of those strange people who like that kind of thing). Do something social with lovely people. Remember: You are allowed a day off!
- You are not useless, hopeless, alone! You are awesome and your fellow PhDians will tell you so. You may not want to talk or work, but if you can get yourself out of your PJs to the library or a café to sit in companionable silence with a fellow PhDian and/or a lovely friend, it does help. (Thank you, Ariel!)
5. Tips 1 to 4 and my lack of adherence to them all led to my doing what I will advise you not to here in tip #5.
Don’t have a breakdown / tanty, give up your scholarship and run away to England!
After seeing everyone again during my research trip at the end of 2006 and with the promise of a job back in London, I returned home, contemplated, prevaricated, then lost the plot and… (see above).
Always heed Dr Johnson: “The true culprit is the mind which can never run away from itself.”
A couple of years later, the Global Financial Crisis hit and things were really bad in the UK. It was my catalyst to return to Oz and resume the PhD.
Alas, I had ditched the scholarship, rather than deferred it. (Clanging bell) So I have spent the past 11 years working on my thesis sporadically due to having to work to pay the bills. Those initial rash decisions made my PhD Path more difficult than it need be.
I have plodded with bouts of productivity and achievement. I presented at conferences and seminars (nerve-wracking, but such fun!) and published four papers in edited collections. I particularly love my, what I call, #rampagingnuns paper. And I have kept going through all my lovely primary sources, completed several research trips for myself and my supervisor. I had a job that required a lot of research and development of public tours and education programs on modern Australian history, leaving me no time to head back to sixteenth-century Paris. So I haven’t been idle. Just…
I was listening to an episode of Just a Minute a few years ago (it was an obsession during my Lost Years) and Kenneth Williams has a tanty: “I’ve got no flow!”
That’s what has happened; Life, the universe and everythingǂ interrupted my flow. Besides:
Now, 14 years and 1 month along the PhD Path, L.U.Eǂ converges favourably for 2020 to be my Thesis Completion year. Finally! I will be underemployed from 20 March, but financially okay, so I can focus and ‘get my flow on!’ and FINISH the #blastedthesis / #MagnificentOctopus. In the words of Misters Sellar and Yeatman; this is a “good thing”.
Best history book EVER!
Also, I think my long path to being Dr The Plodding Historian has been for a reason. Two years ago, during a Study Buddy session with The Nephew #2 at the National Library of Australia, I came across a line in a primary source that had found its way to the Internet Archive (great resource!) and proves the argument I was formulating. (There was Celebratory Cake!) This was not the first useful discovery I have had thanks to my plodding beyond the recommended PhD in 3-4 years.
So to all of you out there starting your doctorates this year – Remember:
- You are awesome!
- You are not alone!
- Don’t do as The Plodding Historian did!
- Don’t forget ‘Me Time’!
- Cake, chocolate and gin! (Insert with your preferred #yummyinmytummy vices.)
- Get yourself a Study Buddy! (You can’t have my nephew tho’; he’s mine.)
- 9 to 5 it!
- And it takes as long as it takes!
Much productivity to you all!
* If you want to amuse yourself; stick some sixteenth-century French in Google translate. My nephew and I still have a giggle about the “chocolate éclairs tend to the sick in their beds”. Religieuse translates as nun and in the late sixteenth century, a new pastry was created for Catherine de Medici, which was named religieuse, and is now used more commonly for chocolate éclairs.
** Calming the F-word Down.
The Plodding Historian, aka Lisa Keane Elliott, Academic Published Papers:
‘Jean Martin, Governor of the Grand Bureau des Pauvres, on Charity and the Civic Duty of Governing Men in Paris, circa 1580’ – here.
‘Charitable ‘Intent’ in Late Sixteenth-Century France: The Nevers Foundation and Single Poor Catholic Girls’ – here.
‘In Pursuit of Charity: Nicolas Houel and his Maison de la Charité chrétienne in Late Sixteenth-Century Paris’ – here. Oh my gosh, I developed a big crush on the lovely Nicolas.
‘“Big belly, big mouth, fat pig!”: Tantrums and tumults in the sixteenth-century Hôtel-Dieu de Paris’ – here. Aka my #rampagingnuns paper.
Helpful posts that I have found useful and comforting from The Thesis Whisper blog: