What I am about to say is going to sound like the most obvious piece of advice given in the history of giving advice. Sometimes though, it’s the most obvious pieces of advice that we need reminding of, maybe the most easy to forget, but often the most useful.
I have emerged from a recent PhD slump, and am glad to say I feel reinvigorated, re-motivated and pretty excited by my research again. I put this down to two things:
- Talking to fellow academics about my research, and
- Reading other PhD theses.
See, obvious when I say it, hey? But I had completely forgotten how important these two things are when you’re studying for your PhD.
The PhD process can be a very isolating experience – I live about an hours drive away from campus, which isn’t a lot, but I have to factor in the school run and part-time work and therefore I rarely get on to campus – even less so now teaching has finished for the year. So I very rarely have any contact with the people in my department.
Conversations with your supervisor can be at times, unequally balanced in terms of the power dynamic, and often I find myself listening, nodding, agreeing – but not asking any questions, and not answering any either.
I am lucky enough to have had two really useful invaluable conversations recently – one with an academic friend and ex-colleague and one with a very close friend who has recently made it (very successfully) through the PhD process. These conversations meant that I was answering questions about my research, the what’s, where’s, why’s and sometimes “so what’s”. It meant that I was thinking critically about my work, was able to ‘bounce’ ideas off somebody who knows me, who knows how I work and is not afraid to be honest with me (I think!). It meant I was moving beyond the descriptive stage – the stage where somebody outside of academia asks what your PhD is about and you mumble a sentence that doesn’t really encompass what your research is about, but it’ll do.
At first, both of these conversations threw me into some kind of “I can’t do this” panic – I doubted the stage I was at, doubted my research and doubted my capabilities. However, since having these conversations, my motivation has rocketed and because of this, my work output has increased and improved and I have a much, much clearer idea of where my research is going.
Talking allows your thoughts to move from an isolated space into a conversational space, and eventually, into a much clearer textual space.
So what about reading? Whilst doing your PhD, you spend most of your ‘spare’ time reading and I have this awful problem where I spent my (procrastination) time searching for and downloading ALL the journal articles that I probably won’t ever have time to read. Yesterday however, I thought I would browse some sociology theses in the Uni archives as I thought, it may help me in the writing up process. How right I was, really right, more right than I ever imagined. It was really inspiring.
The thesis could be from your department – not necessarily a completely related topic, but the structure and possibly the theoretical framework may mirror your own work; it could be from a different department/discipline but have a similar focus, and therefore maybe the literature might be something you can relate to, or it could be written by somebody who writes in a similar style to you, or has used similar research methods and methodology.
Often with so many other texts to digest, reading other theses may be pushed aside for more ‘important’ reading, but it really is as important as any other texts in your pile.
During reading the thesis yesterday, I was not only enthralled and excited by the research subject, but it also triggered a lot of reflexive thought, which I was able to scribble down to be used in my methodology chapter. I also found the bibliography really helpful, and the overall structure of the work – I could finally see how my own work would look. Again, with the PhD process being so isolated, it’s imperative to utilize this outside inspiration.
So, two very obvious pieces of advice, but two tasks most likely to be pushed to the bottom of a very extensive PhD priority list.
Prioritize them! Especially if like me, you need a helping hand out of what seems like a very steep slump.