How to complete your PhD when you’ve got more difficult things to deal with – and how your PhD can help

This guest post comes from Dr Clare Edwards, who has recently completed her AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD with Glasgow Life at the University of Glasgow. Clare’s PhD investigated the emergence of cultural policy in Glasgow in the decades leading to European City of Culture in 1990, based on archival research and oral history interviews with key decision-makers. Clare now works in cultural regeneration. You can connect with Clare on Twitter at @ClareTedwards.

A PhD is meant to be one of the hardest things you can do. What happens when you’re doing a PhD but it’s not the hardest thing you have to deal with? How do you keep your PhD going?

I started my PhD five years ago and last week I finished it. It’s been an eventful few years. For most of this period, my PhD hasn’t been the most difficult thing in my life, which is not to say it was easy.

Cards

I started my PhD in a new city with a three year old son. By the time I reached my viva, the three year old was eight and another three year old had come along. In these five years, I have had severe sleep deprivation caused by a particularly full-of-beans-at-3am baby, which was not particularly conducive to thesis writing. There have been childhood illnesses that involved ridiculous levels of juggling between my partner and me. I have lost support networks and after school childcare when my elder son was bullied and we had to move him to a new school. On the day I submitted my thesis, he was diagnosed with autism. Over the past few years, quite a few of my relatives died, including my mum, who died from cancer while I was pregnant during my second year. In the final year of my PhD, my severely disabled sister who lives 200 miles away from me was nearly killed by a series of failings in health and social care, and spent five months recovering in hospital while we were embroiled in a convoluted (and still ongoing) complaints process with social services. And finally, a building burnt down twice which had quite an impact on my family’s life and the time I had available to write my thesis.

Having made it to this point, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt about getting through a PhD when you’ve got other more difficult things to deal with, and how your PhD can help.

Make your mental health a top priority

Over the past few years, some of my friends reminded me of the metaphor of putting your own oxygen mask on first in the event of an emergency on a flight. If you have caring responsibilities and you don’t look after yourself, you won’t have the capacity to look after anyone else. It’s easy to become isolated when you’re doing a PhD and you have other responsibilities that mean you can’t go to events in the evenings, for example. But small changes can make a big difference.

I went to see a counsellor at the university who gave me the advice to (a) meet a friend for coffee once a week and (b) do some kind of exercise once a week. I never got round to doing any exercise but I did make it a priority to have coffee at least once a week with a friend. This provided me with a window of breathing space that I really needed.

Be mega organised

I’ve found that getting through my PhD has been mostly a case of putting the hours in and being awake enough to focus. This has meant planning my work time very carefully.

When I was particularly sleep deprived, I broke my work down into a series of tasks, then planned those tasks around the amount of energy I had available – so thinking, researching and writing in the mornings when I was most awake and able to work without interruption, and more mechanical things like the bibliography in the evenings when I wasn’t.

I always had long and short-term plans with milestones over the coming year and months, based on the amount of childcare I had available. I’d also end every work session with a plan for what to tackle in the next one, so I could sit straight down and start work.

Build up your support networks and delegate

It can be tricky to find all the time you need for your PhD when children and/or unanticipated disasters can be rather time consuming. This is where delegation is important. Some things you can’t outsource during your PhD – but some things you can. I got through my PhD by offloading some things (like cooking) onto other people (well one person in particular – thank you John, I promise I’ll learn how to cook now).

Take a break

My version of taking a break during my PhD was to go to a conference where I’d get a good night’s sleep, eat entire meals without interruption and still be able to keep moving my work forwards. I also didn’t allow myself enough time to grieve when people died and just kept going. In hindsight this was a mistake and I should have made proper time to rest and take stock before now. Just keeping going is unsustainable.

Soft play

Photo credit: John Ayers

Your PhD can help

When other things aren’t going to plan, it puts your PhD into perspective and you might find there’s much to be valued in it. It’s a brilliant distraction from whatever horrific thing is happening that week. I found my topic fascinating and loved having something else to focus on. The flexibility and being able to fit my PhD work around everything else was a godsend. Contributing to new knowledge is a wonderful thing to do with your time. You meet some really interesting people. And you end up with valuable skills.

Although my PhD was in cultural policy and local government history, and not health and social care, the research skills I gained helped save my sister’s life. My sister has limited speech, none of my relatives knew how she had ended up in intensive care and helpful information from the care provider was less than forthcoming. The skills I developed as a historian meant we were able to piece together enough evidence to bring to light what were endemic failings in social care and have my sister discharged from hospital to a competent care provider.

If you’re doing a PhD there’s nothing you can’t learn. Doing a PhD should give you confidence that you’re capable of dealing with some of the most challenging things you’re going to face in your lifetime and that you can change things for the better.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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