Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Can you actually enjoy a PhD? Notes from someone who did (Merryn Sherwood)

Photo by 301+ Kim | unsplash.com
The PhD roller coaster - it’s a much-used analogy to describe the ups and downs of graduate research life.

As a just-finished candidate, I have happily realised my ride at the doctorate carnival was actually a ferris-wheel. There were a few places where I couldn’t see ahead clearly, or it momentarily stalled but, overall, it was pleasant and even enjoyable.

On reflection, the key to avoiding those terrifying climbs and drops was a simple mind-trick: I changed how I thought about the PhD.

When anyone asked me why I was completing a doctorate, my response became:

“I’d like to be a journalism lecturer, I need a PhD to get there.”

This re-positioning of the PhD from something steeped in awe and fear to something perfunctory, a 'trade certificate' to practice in academia perhaps, helped in multiple ways.

It allowed me to realise that the thesis was just the start of my academic career and it was unlikely to be the only academic text I will ever write.

Of course, I needed to add something new, relevant and interesting to my field; but I didn’t have to completely redefine it.

With this firmly in mind, I could let go of some of my perfectionist problems. I sent off drafts that I could have fiddled with for months, but that turned out to be very adequate. I’m still thinking about parts of my thesis I could've tweaked, but the examiners were even happy with it. Most importantly, it’s done.

Imagining the PhD dissertation as a checkbox to tick also allowed me the freedom to pursue other items on the scholarly list.

An academic career is about much more than research, so I treated my candidature as a place to gain more teaching experience. I also did some research assistance work, and continued to work in industry in small bursts. I did a lot over the three and a half years that wasn’t my PhD, but I felt very little guilt at any stage because I knew that future employers were likely to want more than just 'writing a thesis' on my resume. Plus all these bits added significantly to my income, which lessened financial pressure.

Finally, thinking about the PhD in this way helped me actually prepare for academic work. As my primary supervisor said when he approved my taking on yet another tutorial or book chapter during my candidature, it’s not like it gets any easier after graduation. It doesn’t.

I’ve been in my job as a journalism lecturer for about eight months now, and I love it, but it’s a constant balancing act of teaching, research, administration and industry engagement. By keeping the actual thesis as just one part of an academic traineeship, I felt prepared for the onslaught.

There were ultimately many factors that added up to make my candidature enjoyable.

I had a brilliant supervisory team, a supportive partner, a PhD scholarship and the support of La Trobe’s excellent graduate research community (#suaw got a shout-out in my PhD acknowledgements). As a media scholar, I also wasn’t beholden to the outcome of scientific experiments (which can add an obvious layer of difficulty).

I’m aware that parts of this experience are hard to replicate for everyone and, for some, the ups and downs of the roller coaster are simply unavoidable. I also know that not everyone wants to gain an academic job, post-PhD, so this approach might not be for you.

But, for me, thinking about the PhD as an 'academic trade certificate' helped me gain perspective on the process, avoid guilt about other work and prepare for academic life. Mostly, it helped me avoid the emotional trauma that the roller coaster can sometimes inflict.

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Merryn Sherwood, making
the final submission
of her revised PhD!
Merryn Sherwood is a journalism lecturer at La Trobe University, and coordinator of the sports journalism major.

As a former newspaper journalist and sports event specialist, she has worked at Summer, Winter and Youth Olympic Games, a Rugby World Cup, the Australian Open, and in communications for the International Triathlon Union.

Her PhD explored the roles of communications and media relations staff within Australian sports organisations, and how these roles influence the production of sports news. 

She is, obviously, a certified sports nut. 

Merryn tweets from @mes_sherwood.




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