Unsolicited Advice for New PhD Students

If you’re reading this, you probably know that mental illness is a common problem in academia. Thankfully, it’s becoming more acceptable for scholars to talk about this openly, and to acknowledge its power as a barrier to academic success. This is a big step, and I hope this trend continues.

But I’ve always felt that suggested solutions fall short of addressing the root causes. Go to therapy. Take days off. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Don’t be a perfectionist.

This isn’t advice isn’t bad so much as incomplete. There are reasons we don’t take enough time off and create impossibly high standards for ourselves–reasons that (I think) often arise from a combination of the way academia works and our own neuroses about who we’re supposed to be.

You can’t just erase all that by getting enough sleep.

What we need is a substantial shift in how we think about our academic work: how we should be doing work, how we should be coping with challenges, and the steps that should lead to academic success. If we’re going to stop working too hard and being perfectionists and overachievers, then we need to decide that it’s okay to alter our expectations of ourselves. We can’t just hear, “you should really take a day off”–we need to actually believe that taking time off is a good thing, so we don’t feel guilty and inferior when we do it.

We need to limit the power of the “shoulds”–both real and imaginary–so that we don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t match those expectations.

I’m not sure how to achieve this sort of shift, but I think being openly kind and understanding to ourselves and one another might be a good start. Try saying you’re glad you took that day off, because you really needed it. Tell a colleague it’s ok that they’re struggling to get that paper done; you had a similar problem, so you get it. When your whole department laughs at the fact that someone’s in their 9th year of graduate school, consider not joining in. Acknowledge out loud that it’s ok to be human and to neglect some of the “shoulds” if that’s what we need. (Kudos to the participants in #withaPhD chats on Twitter  for being pretty great at this!)

I hope that new PhD students might do this from the beginning. Those of you just starting out have the opportunity to help shape the culture of your graduate cohort. I hope you’ll choose to be kind to yourselves and one another–to help make that normal. It’s not just the decent thing to do; it might help you avoid the mental health issues that plague so many academics.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer incoming PhDs some advice (yes, we’re finally at the advice part!) that offers no “shoulds” or “musts”:

  1. Doing a PhD is hard.
    This should be obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you’re struggling to write a paper that your professor won’t drown in red ink. It’s not hard because you’re just not cut out for this; it’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard. Isn’t that why you’re in grad school to begin with?
  2. It’s hard for everyone.
    Yes, everyone. Even your annoying classmate who claims he’s never had trouble finishing a book in one day and already seems to have a solid grasp of the historiography. He might not admit it, but he’s struggling too. The others might just need a bit of coaxing: if you tell your fellow students that you’re having a tough time with something, they’ll probably reveal they’ve had similar experiences. And, yes, even the scholars you admire have trouble sometimes. That’s probably how they got where they are.
  3. It will be hard for you too, and that’s ok.
    You will likely struggle to produce that first chapter draft, or to write a decent book review, or to figure out how grant proposals work. Possibly all of the above. Sucking at these things won’t be fun, especially since there’s a reasonably good chance that you’ve never struggled with anything academic in your life. But you’ll learn more from sucking at something than you’ll ever learn from being perfect. Deal with the challenge in whatever way is best for you, but know that it’s entirely normal to find grad school really, really, spectacularly difficult. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it means you’re a human being.

Blog vs. Perfectionism

I’m a PhD student writing a dissertation. I more or less write for a living. I like (love?) writing, but I already do far too much of it–enough that I’m sometimes convinced that I hate it.

So… why a blog, then? Why write even more?

In short: I think I need it.

I discovered last year while interning part-time as a grant writer that non-academic writing is good for me, and good for my dissertation. The internship gave me the opportunity to practice writing regularly, and to practice writing in a very different way than I was used to. I was writing to a new (to me) kind of audience about a subject in which I had no expertise.

Maybe most importantly, people–coworkers, foundation boards, people with the power to decide where a whole lot of money went–were reading my work regularly. Mere weeks or even days after starting a proposal, I would send it off for its intended audience to read, judge, and accept or decline. After a brief period of editing and collaborating, my work was done. I could move on.

It turned out this was exactly what my writing needed–in part because it forced me to write so much so often, but also because it left no room for my perfectionist tendencies. I couldn’t spend hours looking for the perfect citation to fill in the gap in my knowledge. I couldn’t spend weeks wondering if I should address the indigenous clergy in a more in-depth way. I couldn’t rewrite the same topic sentence 20 times, only to delete the whole paragraph a few weeks later. I couldn’t spend months wondering what my argument was, worrying about what others might think about it, or fretting that maybe I wasn’t putting enough work into it.

In other words, there just wasn’t time for all the problems that had been plaguing my dissertation process. There wasn’t time to be perfect and, as it turned out, there wasn’t even a need. Proposals I wrote in a just few days generally received some form of approval from my team. Sometimes, these proposals won tens of thousands of dollars. Why be perfect when good enough gets you what you need?

The solid deadlines played a role, but what helped me the most was the frequent proof that others didn’t hate what I wrote. When writings I hadn’t agonized over for months on end reached the eyes of others, the world didn’t explode. Mostly, good things happened: I got helpful feedback from team members and, sometimes, good news from funders. My writing was just ok, and that was entirely fine.

Now my internship is over, and I’m back to full-time academia. So, I’m turning to blogging as my non-dissertation writing outlet. The stakes are a lot lower than for grant proposals, and there won’t be any deadlines. But I’m hoping that blogging will serve as a frequent reminder that I actually like writing, and that sharing my work isn’t so bad. Maybe it will prove to me that that first draft of a dissertation chapter doesn’t need to be amazing–it just needs to be done.

I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll write about. I expect there will be some dissertation tidbits, some stuff about the writing process, some rants about terrible articles found online, and some tangents about knitting. Whatever I feel like, probably.

I hope I can start some productive conversations with whatever I write, but if not, that’s ok. All I really need is a place to practice.