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Finding your doctorate challenging? You aren’t alone but it will be OK!

Written by Dr Katryna Kalawsky

Undertaking a doctorate is a unique experience for each and every doctoral researcher; no one else is doing the same project and everyone has different academic and personal circumstances. Although I don’t want to appear hypocritical because my last blog post ‘What do people enjoy most about their doctoral experience?’ focused on the importance of taking stock and considering the many positive aspects of a doctorate, I believe its crucial that potential/actual doctoral challenges are acknowledged. I don’t mean in a doom and gloom/’mood hoover’ kinda way (goodness, if we did that no one would want to even contemplate doing a doctorate!) but I mean in a pragmatic way that includes signposting to relevant advice and support. .

Since commencing my doctorate, I always had a strong interest in doctoral wellbeing; something founded by my experiences as a doctoral researcher and the experiences of some of my friends who also undertook a doctorate. Even after graduating my interest in doctoral wellbeing never diminished but instead heightened when I became a researcher developer. This is because researchers often confide in me and share their work ups and downs – many things shared I can relate to even though its nearly 10 years since I passed my viva! (wow, it felt odd writing that!).

Now some of you reading this blog post may already know what I’ve done so far to investigate and try to enhance doctoral wellbeing (i.e. the Doctoral Wellbeing Survey and spearheading Loughborough’s Institutional Doctoral Wellbeing Action Plan) so I won’t elaborate on that now (feel free to get in touch if you’d like to know more though!). But one thing that I’ve realised is that sharing potential/actual challenges can offer some degree of comfort/reassurance to those currently undertaking their doctorates. That is, they don’t feel alone in their experiences, it’s not just them! This is especially important in light of Covid-19 as some challenges may be exacerbated.

So will all that said, during the Doctoral Wellbeing Week Twitter Chat, I and several colleagues at Loughborough University answered the following two questions:

A: “Reflecting on your experiences, what was the most challenging aspect of your doctorate and why?”

B: “How did you overcome this challenge / what would you differently to deal with this challenge if you could go back in time?”

Our answers are shown below – I hope you find them helpful!

Dr Janine Coates:

A: “Feeling like a fraud. I worried someone would realise I wasn’t good enough and ask me to leave.

B: “It took a while to realise I was good enough… better… I was the expert in my own area and needed to own that. My supervisor helped a lot with that!”

Dr John Harrison:

A: “Motivation for 3 years. There were peaks and troughs, esp halfway through. Data collected but felt I hadn’t found anything worthwhile after 2 years . Also I got a paper rejection saying my writing was “tortured and verbose” … true but painful”

B: “Did not put-off writing: kept going and it all started to come together. Support of supervisor. Do differently? Not beat myself up as much. All days are productive. Hindsight tells you what feels a bad day is actually a good research day – necessary step towards the solution.

Dr Manuel Alonso:

A: Being honest, just the size of it. It’s a daunting prospect at the outset, and at Easter of the 2nd year I thought there’d be no way I could retain enough energy to get it done. But my supervisor was brilliant at just getting me to produce small pieces of writing regularly.”

B: My supervisor was brilliant at helping break it down – he made me produce my first bit of writing after 8 weeks! From then on it was just a case of chipping away at it. What would I do differently – have a healthier writing schedule and not end up writing into the night!

Professor Elizabeth Peel:

A: “I found lots of aspects challenging. I didn’t do a Masters so the UG to PGR jump was harder than it might have been. I was fortunate to have ESRC funding but the money did run out.  The ‘final push’ working at Edinburgh University as a Research Fellow also challenging.”

B: “In terms of the ‘final push’ I paired back life to everything bar the thesis and work. Neither ‘healthy’ or ‘sustainable’, but it enabled me to get the job done. I say to my students now the thesis needs to be ‘good enough’.”

Dr Ash Casey:

A: “Holding down a full-time job and doing a PhD in the gaps between things. I always said if I got travel sick I would’ve taken twice as long as some of my PhD was written the bus to school fixtures. One year I took a trip skiing to Italy and working on the bus there and back.”

B: “I learnt to work in 5 minutes slots. I didn’t finish sentences if I was writing and I left notes for myself about what I was thinking. I took absolutely every opportunity I got to work. I never turned up to a meeting/appointment without something to do just in case the person was late. If a meeting finished early I’d stay in the room and work (I still do that and often get a little bit extra done uninterrupted) – to me it’s like getting time for free!.”

Dr Ksenia Chmutina:

A: “Two things: 1) Managing my supervisors. I didn’t really know what PhD was about & how to do it – so I didn’t know what their – and my – expectations were. 2) Knowing when I have enough data – I spent 6 months in China collecting data in 4 different cities, but I could’ve probably spent 6 years. Luckily my visa ran out and I had to come back!”

B: “I should’ve talked to my supervisors (or other academics) more. I now realise how many academics are actually willing to help & to guide – but you’ve got to ask for that guidance! Don’t be afraid to ask for help & to have honest chats with your supervisors!”

Dr Sophie Crouchman:

A: “Going from having a lot of supervision as an undergraduate to bring much more independent threw me initially. I also suffered some pretty major mental health problems, but luckily with support from my supervisor & GP I was able to continue my doctorate.”

B: “My GP was really supportive in managing my condition with the help of medication, which I took for 2 years. My supervisor was also really helpful & my partner at the time (who’s still my partner!) was a source of great strength to me.”

Dr Ksenija Kuzmina:

A: “Writing. It was both challenging and fulfilling at the same time, it still is! Having trained as designer, I prefer to communicate visually. So it took me some time to develop my writing practice, not without tears!”

B: “I wrote a lot. It was a sense making exercise, for me & for my supervisors who had to grasp & contribute to my thinking & development of my ideas. I would have loved to be able to go on an academic writing retreat with my fellow PhD colleagues!

Dr Katryna Kalawsky:

A: “Commuting! Each week I used A LOT of public transport (bus>train>tram>bus>bus>tram>train>bus) to visit the hospital where I was undertaking my data collection. I would often travel approx. 3hrs/day which was tiring – especially after a full day at the hospital (at times these visits were emotionally difficult) and needing to spend evenings analysing data and writing up!”

B: “As a non-driver I didn’t overcome this challenge. But the purpose of my study and seeing the ladies who took part in my study always spurred me on! Sometimes during research, you need to take a step back and remind yourself of the outcomes of your work.”

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Just remember no matter where you are in your doctoral journey you are never alone. If you are finding things difficult (for whatever reason) please reach out for support. For advice and guidance, visit Student Services and take a peek at the Doctoral College webpages and handbook.

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Please feel free to share your thoughts and advice to our doctoral researchers on this topic via the blog comments box or via TwitterAfter all, one of the many aspects of ‘kindness’ (the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020) is about taking time out for others.

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