Why the steep learning curve of a PhD is worth it and how to succeed

By Emma Davies, PhD student, University of Swansea. Emma is in receipt of Pharmacy Research UK funding for her PhD project and is part of the Research Capacity Building Collaboration (RCBC) Wales, Community of Scholars. Here she shares her personal exercise of undertaking PhD studies whilst still practicing part time.

I’m nearly a year and a half into a part-time PhD. I feel like I have achieved nothing in that time.

This sounds negative; it isn’t though. I’ve come to realise, its all part of the process. I have learned to accept this is how I will likely feel for a few years yet – give or take the occasional day where it suddenly all makes sense! I also realise that feeling like that doesn’t make it true.

Undertaking a PhD has been one of my career goals to since I was 21 and completing my first undergraduate degree. I had offers for research degrees after University but chose a different path; deciding that the lure of rat brain slices wasn’t sufficient to devote 3 years to.

Friends who moved straight into PhDs from undergraduate seemed to sail through them – a continuation of University, hanging out in the coffee shop, nights out at the Union. From a distance, it looked like ‘Uni without lectures’ – who wouldn’t want to do that?

Nineteen years on I started on the journey of my PhD. As you can imagine, my life had moved on. I have a potentially full-time job (that I do in part-time hours), two children, a husband, a mortgage, out-of-work commitments… and a dog.

The reality of doing a PhD as a ‘grown-up’ is entirely different to my expectations all those years ago.

Re-learning how to be a student

It’s a long time since I did any proper studying. A research degree is completely different to being an undergraduate or being on a taught course. The seeming lack of direction or having someone who knows what they’re doing has taken a bit of getting used to!

Sometimes, it feels easier to do nothing and the thought of the only deadline being five years away can give a false sense of security. Switching from work where I generally have a turn around time of 48 hours to my research, has at times led to an almost coma-like approach to writing.

The advantage of having time is that I still have the chance to change and start doing things properly. It’s taken me a year and five months to come to this conclusion – I’d suggest others come to terms with it a little faster!

Being disciplined

Studying for a PhD requires significant discipline – more so when you have other things pulling you in different directions. I have many times been told to attend meetings, do an extra clinic or answer emails on my research days. Two days a week, I’m not even contracted to my Health Board, but because I have always turned up and done it, the expectation remains.

I realise the discipline I require is in giving myself the time to do my research. I have finally recognised that I need to stop doing other things in order to make that time because hard as I’ve tried, I still haven’t managed to add hours into the day.

I haven’t worked it out yet. I’m not good at saying ‘no’ to things. I have a concern that if I say ‘no’, I won’t be asked again, they’ll find someone else, they’ll be better than me at whatever it is and then what will be the point of having a PhD if everyone has forgotten about me?

Learning not to say yes is a skill that I need to acquire.

Guilty feelings

Other scholars have written about the guilt of research. I’m no different. I’m a mother – guilt is part of that particular job description. I feel guilty I’ve chosen to do research on top of everything else. I feel guilty that I can’t change clinics as easily because I’ve ‘lost’ days to research. I feel guilty that I give up research days to attend a meeting or for teaching commitments. I feel guilty that my children will both be in senior school before this will be done. I feel guilty that my husband occasionally has to do the ironing when I know he hates it. I feel guilty that I didn’t do this earlier before I had everything else going on ………

Truth is, this will all be over sooner than I want to acknowledge. Also, it is absolutely okay to do things for your own satisfaction; to prove to yourself that you can.

Lack of direction or exciting journey ahead?

Rather like my research, I’m not entirely sure where this blog is going. I think I’m trying to reassure anyone new to this that all those feelings you have; elation, confusion, despair, fatigue, fear, excitement and so on are all perfectly normal. It’s normal to feel all of that in a single day sometimes! Those feelings might never leave you. Learning to acknowledge and work with them will help.

One of my supervisors reminds me frequently that studying for a post-graduate degree is a learning experience. “You’re not supposed to know what to do or you wouldn’t be doing it.” Enjoy the experience, don’t get bogged down by the hard times – it turns out everyone goes through them; its normal. Ask for help – scream out loud in the toilets – whatever gets you through the day. It will pass; it will get better.

Friends with benefits!

The very best thing about my PhD is the group of friends I have made. The RCBC Community of Scholars (CoS) is a very special thing indeed. I look forward to every CoS day and feel energized and productive afterwards. The range of scholars is the strength of the group. We come from different professions, different backgrounds, different interests and different understandings. We are drawn together by our interest in research borne from clinical practice.

The support of the other scholars is brilliant. The insight into each other’s experience is sufficient to make a difficult period fade into perspective. Realising the self-assured person across the table, who is almost ready to submit, had a similar nightmare themself, allows me to acknowledge there will be a positive outcome to my research. They’ve made it – I can too.

I feel sad that some of my community are completing their research and won’t be there anymore. Hopefully, one day perhaps someone will miss me being there too – which is a good thing because it should mean I’ve completed my PhD and am moving on to the next phase.

In the meantime, I will follow the lead of the guy in the picture below – I’ll keep peddling because that’s how you gain momentum. When you stop, you fall over.


See more about Emma’s Research funded by Pharmacy Research UK: http://pharmacyresearchuk.org/trends-in-opioid-prescribing-and-associated-resource-utilisation-in-wales-topas/

Read more about RCBC and what they offer: http://www.rcbcwales.org.uk/

Re-blogged with permission of the author