Some thoughts about the PhD journey as i near the final battle.

by Anthony D. Cliffe

So I started writing a blog about my journey on the PhD, and I’ve had to take a step away from it because I realise it’s really hard, to sum up, the vast array of experiences that I’ve had in the just under 3 years on the PhD! So while I got lost in a very long-winded analogy of ships which will become far more clear in this blog, for now, I thought why not break it down into some of my ramblings, bare with me!

It’s a battle and a journey, hell you’re at war!

PhDs are fundamentally, I believe most would agree, is a journey. It’s a journey of knowledge, research and often a journey of self-discovery. The word ‘Journey’ conjures up a lot of thoughts and feelings, when I ever see Journey or someone describing that they’re ‘off on a Journey’ my mind wanders between the 80’s power Ballard group and some exciting far-flung adventure. In actual fact, a PhD is a war, a series of many battles. PhDs are a battle. You’re battling others, you’re battling a system, you’re battling approval from experts at the end of the day, but above all else, you’re battling yourself.

I often think of the PhD journey like a ship in World War II trying to get back to England across the North Atlantic. You have to somehow cross the Atlantic to home base while avoiding a crossing fraught with a line of research U-Boats, Heavy Cruiser politics, Frigate sized inefficiencies and Mine strewn sabotage.

The biggest threat amongst many is quite simply, yourself as a PhD student. No matter how many words I could write or how many times I could tell you what a PhD is like unless you live and breathe it, you’ll never understand. Friends and family always ask how the PhD is going, and I got my soundbite down to a few sentences. Enough to answer without much detail but enough to keep engaged because if you were to tell them of something great that’s happened like a small thing of finding a P value less than 0.05 or the horror of a rejected RD9R form, they’d switch off. It’s not their fault, it’s just a very different and complex world we have to live in. That avenue and soundboard of advice and a way to clear my head was now lost. It doesn’t help when friends and family joke and with good intentions that “you don’t have a real job!”… “When are you going to finish school?”… “Pfft, you just sit around in an office all day doing nothing”. I laugh, I agree, the topic changes, I move on. Banter. They don’t understand that it is a job, an actual job that I have. I have the equivalent of a £23k job, I get paid tax-free just under £1300 a month,  work different hours to a 9-5 but equally as long if not longer sometimes, 1 a.m., 4.am, maybe a weekend.

I sit around in my office all day completing cutting edge research that could one day change the face of geoscience fieldwork teaching, ambitious, of course, but the potential is there. PhDs literally is the accumulation of someone pushing the boundaries and is the creation of creating new knowledge. See, the thing that people don’t understand is the PhD you’re right, is not a job in the traditional sense because no job does it actually become a way of life. No job from day one puts you under so much pressure to succeed yet every minute someone is trying to make you fail, no other job has the rule of one mistake and you’re out and no other job after three years of hard work cumulates in a meeting with an expert to decide whether you get to earn your job title or you leave with nothing. No other job has that setup.

Because of this and the lack of understanding, friends and family only ever see the successes, the awards, the conferences in exotic places (of which I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to go and present in 3 different countries) or the paper published or finally at the end, that giant book of paper that is your written thesis. They only ever see, much like an iceberg those things, so it’s unsurprising that people have this view of PhD life as easy, sitting in an office or going to different countries to talk about your stuff. What in fact you don’t see, is the tears of frustration when your research doesn’t work (which is often. I haven’t failed I’ve just found 150 ways not to make a Polygonal 3D SfM model of a field site), you don’t see my outward projection of overconfidence cracking when you get yet another research paper saying you’re not good enough which only fuels your ever-present battle with imposter syndrome. You don’t see that I’ve just nearly threw up in the toilets a minute before my presentation due to nerves, despite my love of public speaking and my confident projection and lack of shaking hands. What you don’t see is behind the smile in that social situation I’m thinking about what needs to be done next or what I should be doing, hiding the feeling of guilt for ‘not working’ despite the already 60 hour week I’ve done in secret because you don’t see the thought at 1 a.m. in the morning that spurs me on to open the laptop up and work in the wee hours of the night.

I say this as one of the good ones who have or at least had bar occasions and certainly the last few months of the PhD in the write-up phase, a pretty healthy work-life balance. I refused to work Fridays or weekends but worked incredibly hard Monday to Thursday. Working majority 4 day weeks I managed to finish my thesis in 2.5 years. Yet, despite having a strict work-life balance, I still felt and feel all of those things above. Now add onto that, the complexities of life that you have to deal with as well, family, friends, and relationships, deaths of family members and pets and general life stuff. It’s crazy. So please, for the love of whatever Devine entity you worship, stop saying to PhD students “you do nothing” or “to get a real job” because…just don’t. Just give them a hug and a coffee. Trust me when I say that even the ‘strong ones’ are struggling at times! PhDs are hard enough without having to deal with your shit banter.

Supervisors make or break a PhD

Now it’s hard enough surviving all those enemy ships and yourself that I mentioned before on your research crossing the Atlantic, let alone having your escort team have an incident of friendly fire or conveniently have a radio issue when you call for back up and assistance and then reply and turn up once the damage has already been done. If this was world war two crossing the Atlantic, my tiny ship in my escort has been flanked by my supervisors who have equally played a part in my survivability thus far. A veteran Heavy Cruiser and a newer built guided destroyer. They have been exceptional in absolutely everything. Giving me heads up on threats ahead, actively trying to mitigate them before they got to me or helping me to dodge those attacks and helped me plan my way forward across the choppy seas. I’ve been lucky.

Supervisors have been said, and I can only add to this, that supervisors really do make or break a student’s PhD. Please don’t take this lightly. It’s fundamental, and it’s a real issue. I 100% believe there is no more prominent part of a PhD student’s likelihood of surviving a PhD than what supervisor they have. There is a reason that on average only half of all those who take on a PhD survive until the end, in some faculties the attrition rate is only 1 in 5 stick it out and survive. You could be the GOAT of Grad School but you ain’t getting shit if you don’t have a good supervisor team. I’m not dramatic here, I’ve seen with my own eyes that at best, some supervisors are inconvenienced by their duty to mentor PhD students, because not like it’s their job or anything right? They see such an inconvenience as a way to increase their tally so that they can be promoted. Or, metaphorically speaking here rather than literal but I’ve seen supervisors literally tie their students up and place a gun in their hand. They either shoot you, get the system to shoot you or you get so marginalised and worn down that you use the gun on yourself. Let me shout this louder for the people at the back, if you’re a supervisor put aside your scramble to the top, set aside treating your students like stepping stones or cheap manual labour and instead treat them as valuable assets, and you know, actually, develop them. Crazy radical thought I know. Just remember you were here once.

I used to think such horror stories were the minority, yet coming up to three years and having interacted with hundreds of PhD students now, in person, at conferences or on social media, my supervisors were the exception, the minority. My supervisors have been beyond exceptional. I cannot express into words how lucky I feel to have had a team like I have had. I’ve always been fortunate to somehow luck out with mentors in my life. Of course, part of that is in how I interact with those mentors over the years and what words of wisdom and tricks and tips I’ve taken from one into the other. I’ve had experience of how it should be done and witnessed plenty of ways for how it shouldn’t be done. If I ever did become a supervisor, I’d make sure to emulate my great mentors of the past and present. What has been a real eye-opener is besides the small pocket of truly exceptional people and that is often faculty and discipline-specific who are very much for the student, i.e. my old department, geography in general, SaP folk and pretty much other PGRs and staff in Education, everyone else wouldn’t give two seconds about climbing over you to get to the top. The real eye-opener in grad school is actually while I thought it would be the students to be like this (maybe in other grad schools this may be the case, again maybe I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by incredibly supportive PGR culture, woo go EHC!) it’s actually the majority of staff who do some truly eye-opening things to get ahead. Sometimes I look at them and I actually feel sorry for them. A. because they’re like that. B. That the system and culture of modern-day Higher Education have made them like that and C. That those who don’t actively be dickheads and instead are decent, supportive, encouraging and want to get somewhere on their own merit, get left behind. All I can say is I shake my head in pity and shame of what the UK higher education culture has become. All I can say is, thank god for those exceptions, although becoming increasingly rare. There is no surprise why many PhD students like me are turning our backs on academia to head into industry. UK H.E has many fundamental flaws that are a blog in its own right which I won’t go into here but to name a few; Student’s as consumers, REF pressure, chronic underfunding except the elite and most depressingly a culture that rewards and glamorises overwork, competition and ill health to get ahead.

You can’t do it alone

If anyone says they’ve done a PhD, and it’s all down to them, well they’re an arse and they’re lying. You cannot survive a PhD on your own. There is too much pressure, too many challenges and obstacles for even the savviest or strong-willed person to overcome. I like to think that I’m a very self-sufficient guy and I want to believe that most of the time I know what I’m doing, yet even me who can be an emotional, rational, logical robot at times, I deeply value having people around me. In recent years there is no surprise that my most happiest times were the 2nd year of Uni, RA team and 2nd year of the PhD. What they all have in common is a supportive, close-knit group of people around me, who all have their strengths to bring to the team and for all who I rely on and confide in.

Something I learnt very early on in my days in the RAF cadets, especially in -5c at night on an SAS training camp, is adversity and a challenge brings the best out of people and brings people together, all they need is an element of common ground to enable a seed to grow. Before I ever ventured out onto the PhD, I had read countless articles about how lonely PhDs are. To tell you the truth, I was deeply concerned by this before I started. For the first month, my worst fears came true on the PhD. I would leave the house, talk to the guys at the ticket office for my train, and I wouldn’t open my mouth again until I got home. There was just a lack of PhD students in the faculty. I was in a giant hot-desking office that was decidedly cold and empty. Some of the 2nd and final year students would pop in once in a blue moon, exchange pleasantries and then leave after an hour or so, never enough to ever feel at home.

That all changed when my cohort started a month after I started. Our super group I imagine may well have formed anyway at some point, but our origin story fills me with smiles looking back. If it wasn’t for Laura venturing in to say hello that morning and following mornings and building that rapport with each other who knows where a. our friendship would have been, would we have been friends at all? And b. would the group have formed around us at the start, who knows? For me, that getting to know Vic, Rosie, Laura and later Katie and building that team was vital for me and it’s down to them and others too like Cara, Hannah, Sha and Rozie and the other PGRs which made the journey what it was.

Without being too emotional here as I have a reputation to keep! But the core H105 group went very quickly from being colleagues to friends, to best friends to ultimately, a family and a massive part of what I am right now. The PhD has been challenging, it has been a journey of research but also self-discovery. I’ve felt like I’ve developed more as a person in these two and bit years than I have in my previous 26 years and that honestly is saying something considering I thought I changed a lot in undergrad, masters and RA work. Yet, these hard, tiring, stressful few years have been offset by laughter, encouragement, guidance, and learning and above all, unconditional love and support from them. I don’t like to admit it, but I deeply value people like that in my life, and I’m at my happiest when I have that team around me. It actually kills me to admit it to myself but for the first time in a very, very long while have I felt outside of my own family at least, that I have a family and that I rely on them. That’s a very hard thing for me to realise that for once, I admit that I rely upon and that I need that PhD family. Without them, this PhD would have been far different.

As our group has at least in a physical setting changed with people moving away or getting jobs, it hit me hard this summer sitting alone in the office of just how significant an impact a group of people can have on you.

A PhD is not just another degree, a PhD is not just having the privilege of calling yourself a Doctor or the creation of new knowledge. The PhD is a life-changing and affirming process, which is emotionally and intellectually the hardest thing I have ever done.

While I still have the viva to go and I’m still a long way off from being Dr Cliffe, what scares me most about the next step in my life is not where what or how life will be post PhD, which has been something I’ve lived and breathed for nearly three years. While the terror of the unknown does indeed worry me, what upsets me the most is that that next chapter will be without seeing my H105 family every day.

I have one final PhD battle to go. For this one I must do it alone, to enter the battle field and come out as a Doctor or not at all. I await, the Battle of the Viva!