The Rollercoaster Ride of a PhD
The other day, I was sitting in a café with a community partner. They were giving feedback on a research protocol and had lots of questions – clarifying meanings of words, suggesting additions. I was explaining a concept when someone at the next table laughed and interjected “this is giving me PhD flashbacks!”. I laughed - when did I become the person explaining what epistemology is? As an undergraduate in my research methods modules all those long words went completely over my head. Am I suddenly on the “other side” of it all? Since then, I’ve found myself reflecting on the highs and lows over the past 5 (and a bit) years.
I have realised that I really love learning. I had been working full time while doing my BA and loved the process of applying my learning to my practice, but there were gaps in my knowledge that I just didn’t have the time to pursue. I felt endlessly curious and like there was just something missing. I went straight from my BA to PhD and I immediately knew I’d done the right thing. The luxury of having all this information and knowledge around me – I wished I could just soak it all up like a sponge. I had so much to learn, but that was OK and exactly what I wanted.
When the first lockdown hit, I had just submitted my application for ethical approval for my ideal study. I had all these grand ambitions and I was super excited. Then lockdowns. I couldn’t go into care homes to conduct research as I’d planned, but we didn’t know how long the lockdowns would last. We were taking it day by day but eventually I had to abandon it - I was 18 months into my 36-month PhD and having to almost start over.
The world outside of the PhD was crazy and my mental health really suffered in this period. I constantly felt like I had no idea what was going on or what I was doing, which is not overly helpful when you constantly need to defend and explain your decisions. The ground was constantly shifting beneath my feet and I felt like I couldn’t keep up.
I loved my viva. I had about a 4-month gap after submitting my thesis. This gave me time to have a bit of a break from the thesis before going back to it, in this time I rediscovered my passion in my research. My viva was an opportunity to talk to people who were interested in what I’d been doing for the last 4.5 years. I’ve always been a talker, and this felt like being in my element. My thesis is this static, heavy lump while my viva was fluid and flexible – I found that I could really show my enthusiasm in ways I couldn’t do in my thesis.
A High and a Low: Corrections
I came out of my viva with moderate corrections. I had a significant amount of work to do for my thesis to be up to standard. For a while, I felt absolutely mortified by this. I was so embarrassed, I didn’t want to tell my friends or family. Everyone kept saying “but you’ve passed!” but for me, I hadn’t. I felt ashamed and for a time I couldn’t bring myself to start working on my corrections.
I think I needed that time to just digest it all. One day I opened my laptop and to my surprise, I enjoyed it. I had locked my thesis away in my brain as this awful thing I found really emotionally difficult, but it wasn’t like that at all. My feedback from my examiners was immensely supportive and helpful. I could see the changes that were needed and I felt excited about doing them. I felt excited and enthusiastic and like I’d actually achieved something. By the time I submitted them, I almost wanted to do another viva…!
The other side…
Well, I’m not quite there yet, and I still don’t really know how I feel about it! As I write this, I am waiting for my corrections to be accepted. There’s always the chance they won’t be, and the imposter syndrome will keep telling me that’s the case until I know for sure. I’m not sure this is “the other side” of a PhD, but I’m definitely in a much different place to where I was when I started this journey. It’s difficult to see the progress you make while you are doing it, but moments like the one I had in the café make you realise just how much you have learned – those moments are definitely highs.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.