10 things I know now about completing a PhD [12 weeks to go]

I’ve just got home from a long (but fab) day on Paisley campus of UWS. Something I’ve not done since I stopped working there in July to finish the PhD. I feel compelled to blog – all the best blogs comes when just feel like it, especially after a long day and you are still going…

That’s 3 months gone of the 6 months writing up period I’ve given myself. I’m now entering the last 12 weeks of the PhD. I am sitting at 53k – with a wod of text I need to redraft and add from discussion documents by the end of October. I’m averaging at 12k-16k a month but I’m getting quicker as the words I’m redrafting start to form better sentences and the paragraphs start forming better structures.

Importantly, I know this stuff – I’ve been publishing in this area since the start and even though I’ve been working with a dataset collected in 2010, I’ve been working, writing, speaking and practicing the learning from the ethnography since (See London 2012, Glasgow 2014). When I restarted in April 2014, I was struggling to write without embedding my findings and conclusions into everything I was writing- now is the time to return to all those early retreat drafts and give them a home in the final thesis document.

So, I had the utter pleasure of catching and participating in a double-whammy of ‘how to finish your PhD whilst keeping your health and humour intact” & then “podcasts & doctoral education, the future of podcasting” workshop/podcast with Prof. Tara Brabazon (who was visiting the UK from Australia). Oh yeah!



Having followed Tara for a while on Twitter, listened to podcasts & vlogs and frequently returning to her refreshingly honest articles in the Times Higher Education about the truths of completing a PhD – especially during my ‘clinging on with my fingernails, I’m not getting thrown out over my dead body even though I don’t even know where I am going quite yet’ feels – something I will indulge in more in terms of sharing once I’ve finished, we got shit to prove first.

One of the opening questions from the sessions was “What advice would you give a PhD student at the start of their journey knowing what you know now?”

Well, I was driving home and I realise that I can now speak with some authority here.  So knowing what I know now, here are my 10 bits-of-sort-of-advice that I would give a PhD student, knowing what I know now.

1) Give yourself credit

Rather than focus on the stuff you do at the beginning to prevent mistakes, which is great for the first year PhD student wanting to make a mark and attack PhD head on, but an absolute PTSD* attack for somebody that kept going back with regret about the things I didn’t do, that I should have done instead as well as being a restarter having dropped out once already, you feel a little like damaged goods. Your only advice is “don’t do what I do!”

But when you start seeing progress, you start seeing the hard work that often is chipping away at the smallest of sections and patience with your impatience of trying to make sense of your own ‘ word garbage’ – one day you start to realise that happiness comes seeing things finally go well – there is very few short term gratification opportunities in a PhD.


And with that comes confidence and authority, and I absolutely assure you that for brief moments you stop feeling like you aren’t enough or it isn’t good enough and instead begin to actually believe in yourself.

For me, this was when I realised that a corner has been turned, I had to make that commitment to focus on it alone (despite challenging financial circumstances that come with stopping work – explaining your phd topic to the DWP is a LOL btw). I have completely shut down commitments in my diary (bar a few sessions with my lovely clients) for writing, I have a goal date in mind and there is no way my friends and family will let me drag this shit out any longer.  When I made that decision, I cried all weekend, I had to make myself vulnerable, I lost some of my financial autonomy, I’ve been eating porridge and omelettes for 3 months. But it is getting done and it is getting done from all the work I’ve done up until that point.

2) Identity crisis, wtf even am I?

I definitely had an identity crisis. I needed a job to pay the bills. I needed an academic job to stay connected to academia, I wanted to do creative things. I wanted to do the political things.  When I got the lecturer job, I had an identity but I wasn’t a PhD student. When I was a PhD student, I felt I was seen as cheaper labour than somebody without ‘student’ in their title. I’m a women, I dress young, I don’t own grown up shoes. I’ve taught for 8.5 years and I had male colleagues MULTIPLE TIMES ask me where my teacher was when I was in front a class of students. I do loads of different jobs. I have a social media profile and have done for years. My point?

The identity crisis is normal – but sometimes it takes over. And when I stopped my PhD in 2012, it broke me in two. It was everything I was and wasn’t at the same time – and when I didn’t have the ‘I’m doing a PhD’ to hang on, I felt like I was nothing.

This leads to my next point…

3) Are you selling yourself short?

When I felt like nothing, I had lost all my academic self esteem, I sold myself so short that I couldn’t tell you if something was a good or bad decision when it came to my career. I felt like a failure, but I was still paddling- and even though I kept going, there were times I just didn’t feel anything.

This meant in some occasions I sold myself desperately short – I would play down contributions, play down what I was doing, embarrassed that I was pursuing an education at this level. I played a role, something that would stop people asking, make people think less of me. I believe now this was out of fear of failing, again, when I was already feeling low.

I spoke about this in more details for my vlog contribution for #upfrontglobal.

4) Email – if only I had an office to be out of…screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-21-00-40



Controlling your email is a more practical tip. I have out of offices on all my email addresses at the moment.

That was tough to do – I’m sure notifications were designed for me to salivate at. I used to pride my entire career on being some sort of god-damn 360 24-7 new media warrior (just read this JISC article from 2012 to get a measure of my martyrdom)

Now, I am totally loving the barriers, clients and regular contacts (who know my situation) respect the boundaries and actually, I am returning emails within 24 hours most days – but with everything those who matter don’t mind, those who mind don’t matter. I’ve only had a few people who have decided to pursue me for responses outside of my request. Yes, I know I am on social media, no I am not checking email today – my computer and mobile experience is not a homogenous lump of datafunk where I only address the stuff at the top of the pile. Also, go away.

And you know what? I’ve found that the quality of interactions have been better, the opportunities are more fruitful and I’ve felt less stressed organising and planning projects to delivery. Managing email practice is going to stick with me beyond the PhD.

5) Set expectations from others and for yourself

Similarly, laying out what you can and can’t do is something you might need to set out every so often – even for yourself.

It can be quite tempting to announce in an epic facebook post (again, I speak from experience here) that you are going off the grid for 12 weeks and you aren’t going to be online and you aren’t going to hang out with people and you aren’t going to drink (if that’s your thing) and you aren’t going to see anyone and you are going to be anti-social, bye. PLEASE DON’T CONTACT ME.

That’s fine if you can manage it – and it’s how you work well, but I’ve found that when I’ve set myself up in such a public way, I’ve almost given myself the short term gratification effect of announcing it – therefore I don’t need to follow through with it. Also, I love chatting shite all day long on what’s app almost as much as I love working alone in my batcave. Two days later, Wednesday night drunk basic dog filter on snapchat after several rounds of karaoke, leaving a bag of journal articles in the pub, badgering all my friends to come out and see me because I’ve been good all week so its worth it.

It happens to as all (just me then?). But there are things you can do to prevent a chaos explosion…

Yes, you do need to focus. I am very much aware of how much work I need to do over the next few weeks – but take it on a day by day basis. It’s ok to see a friend over a glass of wine, go play a game of pool, have a bloody laugh with internet nonsense, make a meal, catch a film or play, wander about and look at things – these things will happen without making a massive deal. The main thing is to realistically set your expectations so that you can realistically achieve them without exploding.

Think how hard you can explode when you hand that thesis in (😏) – my friends are already requesting a 4am license for my PhD hand-in party, perhaps it goes all weekend for the post-viva event. Importantly, my supervisors remind me, do you want to miss out getting a PhD because you chose to do something else instead?

6) Bullshit work/presentism

Therefore, a subsequent aim of my “Out of Office” barriers and expectation setting is that I’ve cut down on my ‘bullshit’ work practice by 100%. Bullshit work, for me, is when you do tasks that kinda feel like PhD but don’t contribute positively to the PhD. You can finish the day feeling like you’ve done a full day’s work, when realistically, you’ve just signed yourself up for delivering a series of 6 workshops for free in return for some exposure. Mate, I’ve been the worse for this over the past few years (I love meeting new people and trying out things for size), you can be scrabbling for identity, scrabbling to make sense of what you want to do and at the same time, signing yourself up for self induced academia workfare… (plus you can do this when you are done, it not going anywhere!)

7) Do not work for free

I’ve been a member of UCU since 2011. I have one unmovable piece of advice for a PhD student – DO NOT WORK FOR FREE. The sooner you learn this, the sooner you will be able to proceed to level 2. It is popular these days, including at my own institution now (boo!), to ask PhD students to teach as part of their doctoral programme.

Honey, unless they are issuing you a separate contract with hours dictated, your bursary is your bursary, it is tax free, it should not be used to subside department teaching spend – got it? If you have been asked to take part in mandatory teaching, email – you don’t need to be a member, but as a PhD student, it is super cheap and you are eligible from the beginning.

Importantly, this takes you away from your research – it is vital to get teaching experience, sure, but your PhD should be your priority.

8) Manage your day & work out when your best action is

Since July, I’ve been trying out a whole bunch of ways to manage my day – I’m not used to just having days where I can work on one thing solidly. I’m very much a project-focused worker, work until project is done – so a massive gig like a PhD needs way more managing that just going at it until it is finished.

I’ve tried combos of getting up at 4.45am (like today, had no choice), gym, write, lunch, write, meeting. I’ve tried retreat model – which works as a kick start intervention, but not every day is able to be the same. I’ve tried writing little bits here and there with borrowed time on transport and between sessions. They all sort of work, but there is no big winner here.

I got a fitbit 6 weeks ago – which has been enlightening, especially when it comes to when I am tired, how much sleep I need, when is a good time to exercise, how much I’ve moved in the day. The fitbit helps me work out if I need a wee nap mid-afternoon (my fitbit is all about my sleeping man), especially if I worked out in the morning.

Being in tune with my body and what it needs has helped me plan my days. I stopped scheduling meetings and skype calls in the morning, morning is definitely the best time to write (for me!) Why waste a morning in a meeting?

I get super tired 2.30pm onwards, I get sluggish and look at dank memes for hours. If I exercise then, instead of the morning, I get a boost later & less time wasted (doggo memes and snapchat stories only allowed when on a treadmill – the 2016 things you need to do to make sure you get the cardio in, man).

Sometimes I like to work a little extra from 8pm til 11pm, the mid-week internet is interesting at that time and I get little blasts of concentration after tea. I do a lot of film editing in the evening as my freelance work, it is chilled and in line with no watching telly, only making telly.

My point is, work with yourself, rather than against it. Yes, keeping a 9-5pm schedule is aspirational (is it f*&k btw), but listening to yourself when you are feeling good (and utilize it) and have a wee sleep/walk/feed when you are not, all ok. Momentum over all the days is more important and counts for more than forcing yourself through pain of stuff and end up associating writing with bad experiences. Nah.

9) Counteract Comparison & Shame with Self Care

When you get near the end, you are going to meet a lot of other people near the end. Comparison is natural when it comes to PhDs- you are sorta got stuff in common with people because you have the act of PhD registration in common, but actually, in some cases, that’s all you have in common.

Comparison was destroying me – I was watching people who started after me, sail past and graduate whilst I’m still sitting in the round table talking about what my research might be because I still wasn’t sure what I did.

I was listening intensively to those who have completed, trying to establish the best strategy to complete as quickly as possible.

I felt shame because I wasn’t sitting up with other PhD students at retreat (who were at the tail end of the final draft) because I was mentally exhausted from the day of writing and I couldn’t do anymore without feeling sick.

The shame and comparison was too much – and it wasn’t motivating me, it was crippling me with fear. It was becoming another issue of distraction.

Your PhD is your PhD, the strength to complete will come from you and you alone. Everyone else is supporting cast. Your chapter 2 is another person’s chapter 8. Be motivated by other people’s experiences, cheer them on, pull each other up, but look after yourself.

10) There is a point you have to stop listening to all the advice

Ah, the irony of writing a post entitled “10 things I know now about finishing a PhD” – this advice is only advice, it isn’t a blueprint, it isn’t a surefire bet, but it is the stuff that came to me knowing what I know now.

The biggest shift change for me was when I needed to stop listening to all the advice, stop reading about how to finish a PhD, stop comparing myself to others, and instead, went in on myself to focus on just me and my wider game plan.

Every day, I write my daily pages in, the closest I get to meditation, where I write down what is in my head before I get into the ‘proper’ writing. In those daily pages, over the months, I watch my mindset transform. I write to myself what I am going to do to achieve my goals, what I am going to get there, what have I achieve, what have I learned, what I am going to have for tea. It’s all there- it is part of a wider strategy for just general wellness. I go to the gym 5 times a week, I walk 10k+ steps a day, I know exactly what affects the quality of my writing because I am more in tune with myself than I’ve ever been through this entire process. The narrative about the PhD has changed from the reasons why I struggle to complete to I will complete, and this how I am going to do it.

Finally, finally (3000 words later, ha!) I am starting to think about the stuff I am going to do after the PhD- there are already diary commitments in there, I have some work contracts that run until Easter, the path is already being laid – but I’m thinking less about work now, and more about all that headspace that I’ll need to get used to as I move out of quite a long and significant chapter in my life.

I’ve done a lot of the post-doc stuff already, in some ways, I’ve been described as a ‘post-doc without a PhD’ before – so the PhD is the amazing cherry on the cake I’ve worked hard for. What I mean is, actually, what new and exciting things will I do next that will compliment all this other stuff I’ve been slogging away at for the last few years. How will I utilise ‘feeling better’ and being well to do stuff- how can I make sure I don’t lose what I’ve learnt in systems that are designed to compete. Importantly though, what will I blog about if I ain’t be blogging about getting this PhD done and gone?

Anyway, that’s what I think about that. Cheerio.

* I don’t use that term lightly, I was signed off from the PHD for 14 months, taking medication and up until Jan-Feb last year I was still having anxiety/panic attacks when I opened my PhD. The document was wrapped up in a lot of trauma from burn out that I had to work through and it was very painful to untangle the PhD from the emotion I hadn’t addressed. I can write this now looking back and be thankful I’m in a better place with the work and support I have now.

1 Comment

  • Tara Brabazon October 20, 2016 at 2:18 am

    Jen – you are an extraordinary human being. Every now and again, I meet a person who is – clearly – going to transform the planet. That is you. Every hope. Every speed. Every joy. Every success. From your really big fan – Tara Brabazon.


Leave a Reply