PhD Lessons: Coming back in from the desert…


Like many other PhD students, I am experiencing some trepidation as I embark on the new academic year – and what is (should be? ought to be? see, I told you there was trepidation) my last year: The year of the big write up. I need to reflect on lessons learnt and lessons ignored after a tough few months. I have allowed myself to hide, certainties desiccating aridly, and it has been a mistake. So what should I have done … and could advise others to do… differently?

I must accept that there was a fairy-tale charm to my first year of study. I adopted the philosophy of saying ‘Yes!’ to everything. I found myself lecturing on ethnography to MDes students, tutored final year BA and MDes dissertation students, attended many (usually free – thanks, Twitter) PhD events across the UK, was selected for workshops with NatCen and AHRC, presented papers in Northampton, Birmingham, London, Glasgow and facilitated workshops for Arts4Health events, conferences and other university projects. My own research data was full and exciting, with ballooning participation and generous, detailed and moving responses from those involved. From this and my reading on method and subject matter I had a journal article and book chapter accepted for publication.

‘Too much!’ I hear you say?

‘No!’ I chirruped. ‘It’s all fine!’

It wasn’t fine.

Lesson 1: Embrace the opportunities, but remember self-care comes first

I started my second year pretty exhausted.  This time last year I was preparing for the ‘confirmation’ of PhD – a checkpoint of ability to proceed which entails a detailed research report and lengthy presentation to assessors and peers.  I also packed up the house we had lived in since 1998 and moved 400 miles north.  Either side of this I presented at two conferences.  Friends expressed concern about how I was managing, but somehow I didn’t pay attention.

Lesson 2: Choose where and when you want to present: Who do you want to see your work? Who would you like to network with?

Over the following months, I didn’t write anything ‘new’.  I had no idea of the hours involved in revising, tweaking, editing and proofing material for publication.  Most of my time was spent revisiting  text rather than creating it.

I also took on more teaching. As a self-funded mature student, I felt the pressure to create a strong CV for whatever comes next and -more pragmatically – earn my fees.  I continued to tutor BA and MDes students.  I taught and assessed two full modules for first year BAs, teaching to the limit of my allocation of hours as an associate lecturer.  A little too late, I realised that I had made this my job: As an ex-teacher, I slipped habitually into preparation, resourcing and providing additional formative feedback and ‘forgot’ I was supposed to be working on something else.

Lesson 3: Take rest: Work needs to be effective, not outwardly ‘busy’.  Don’t get suckered in by all those #amwriting posts… #amthinking and #amrecharging are pretty important

I had reached a tipping point where gaining (albeit valuable) experiences in academia needed to be less of a priority than ensuring I was in a good position to achieve the goal of submitting a thesis.

Lesson 4: Finishing the PhD is the priority

Suddenly it was spring.  I determined to spend more time at home (since the house move, I had committed to so much teaching that it was Christmas before I spent a full week in our new flat).  Full of excitement at kickstarting a new phase, I skipped merrily into Edinburgh for a day conference and instantly flung myself down the stairs at the railway station.


It turns out that breaking bones – radius, scaphoid ICYMBI – when you are knocking 50 is a bit rubbish.  A succession of splints, casts and physio (still ongoing) means I had to juggle pain management with attempting to think clearly.  I couldn’t drive and allowed myself to drift into that hermit-like existence I mentioned earlier. I didn’t speak to anyone outside my home. A friend died. Things got pretty bleak.



Lesson 5: Don’t isolate yourself.  Spend time with and talk to other friends, students, supervisors and informal sounding boards.  Loneliness is the enemy of the PhD student*                      

*I totally knew this and would happily counsel others…. realising a little late I wasn’t looking after this myself.  Don’t make the same mistake


Several things helped me on the path back out of the desert.  One was a brilliant summer school at GSofA in the Highlands.  Seeing more than a few people at a time, not to mention being away from home and husband for a week, plus driving for the first time in three months was a big deal. However, the summer school (and its setting on the beautiful Moray coast) revitalised me: It was a timely reminder that working creatively in research within communities was where I wanted to be.  I still didn’t write, but I did start to do some proper thinking.



Today I am travelling into university after what feels like an age .  I am meeting PhD friends and want to talk through some of this.  I will also be speaking to my SUPER supervisor and have committed to being honest about how the summer has been, rather than pretending it has been dandy during this arid patch.

These words are the most I have written for months, but I have determined that they are the start of a new phase where I will

  • remember self-care
  • think about where I network
  • rest
  • spend time with others
  • finish the thesis