Searching for Normal: Navigating Unconventional PhD Journeys

In this guest post, University of Strathclyde PhD researcher Andrew Porter discusses his experiences as a part-time, self-funded researcher who has yet to step foot on his campus, and offers advice on how we can all persevere through our PhDs.

When I began studying my PhD in October, I knew that it was going to be a less-than-conventional experience. The combination of studying on a part time basis, through self-funding, and being situated many, many miles from my university’s city, meant I was potentially as far away from the traditional on-campus PhD experience as you could possibly get.

Throughout lockdown, we’ve all had to become accustomed to isolation, and in many cases, maintain a rigid work schedule in our own homes. And while it might have been short-sightedness that told me things would be back to ‘normal’ soon enough, I was less prepared for some of the other hardships that were to come my way, including changing multiple job roles. One of these found me once again working in a retail environment, always an eye-opening experience but one that I’m not keen to repeat, and the other found me working in a COVID-19 testing centre working shift patterns that were, frankly, damaging to the human psyche.

While each of these roles presented an unkind working schedule in one way or another, trying to balance the right amount of PhD study alongside these roles proved to be a daunting task in itself. Nobody tells us what the right amount of work is, and trying to find that while balancing other commitments is a hardship faced by every researcher at one time or another. What’s worse, any experience that isn’t closely aligned with the typical full-time, on-campus PhD experience can amplify feelings of imposter syndrome, making us feel as though we don’t belong to this academic world we’re trying to navigate.

So while I slowly settled in to something resembling a routine that worked, I found myself wondering: What exactly is a ‘normal’ PhD experience?

When asked, we can all conjure a certain picture in our minds of what the traditional doctoral research experience entails. Engaging with other researchers at conferences and events? Stress? Long, lonely days spent researching and writing in relative silence? All part of the journey.

This symbolic image of the lone researcher surrounded by books and deep in thought is perhaps the biggest unifying factor across all PhD projects, especially with doctoral research spanning such broad and complex disciplines. After all, every project is different, an attempt to break new ground in its respective field. This is a marked difference from most undergraduate and Masters courses, where cohorts of students undergo the same taught units, at the same time, working to the same result.

Asking other researchers about their projects can often result in a sort of stalemate of gazes, trying to work out what each other’s project title even means, let alone work out how they’re conducting their research. This separation, and unfamiliarity of others’ projects can mean that sometimes, you’ll read advice which is applicable to only a certain type of researcher, or a niche within one particular field.

Scrabble words spell out 'Discombobulated' in the shape of a pyramid.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The truth is, we all have more in common across our projects than we have differences. In finding a working routine that’s unique to my project, I’ve found some tips that I believe are applicable to every type of PhD experience, whether on-campus or off-campus, full time or part time, funded or self-funded.

Strike while the iron’s hot

When you’re hit with motivation or inspiration, you’d do well to capture it as soon as you can. Make notes. Type into a blank word document. It might seem messy and disorganised, but the next time you find yourself sat down and ready to put forward some rare, uninterrupted work time, you’ll be able to sift through these notes and connect the dots.

By acting on this inspiration when it strikes, I find it helpful to ‘buy back’ this time at a later date. Say you wake up on a Saturday morning with a thread of research burning in your mind – if you can find half an hour to give your thoughts some clarity, this will pay off dividends further down the road, and you’ve used some of your working time that you may otherwise be agonising over on a Wednesday afternoon.

This point works both ways: if motivation isn’t striking, and you don’t want to force it, it isn’t the end of the world to convert this into recuperation time. This time should be made up for, however, so be gently ruthless with yourself when it comes to adhering to your set number of working hours per week.

Keep a record of your time spent working

Of course, much has been said on the usefulness of counting your working hours as a PhD. I’d argue that this is vital. Classify any time you’re making notes, or even thinking about your PhD research, as working hours. Not only does this allow you to buy back hours you wouldn’t ordinarily spend working, as mentioned earlier, but looking back on the amount of time you spend working on your PhD – including theorising, formulating, organising, structuring, and general admin work such as responding to emails – can be surprising.

Treat your academic work as creative work

In this way, I find academic research is not all that different from any creative endeavour. Like writing or creating music or art, inspiration will strike when you least expect it. One of the worst things you can do is try and force that creativity if you aren’t in the right frame of mind. The work your produce will more than likely be muddled or uninspired, it won’t ‘feel’ right, and when you come to take another look at it, you might end up resenting it – and the whole process.

One of the wonders of postgraduate research is that it captures so many of the great qualities (and challenges) found in other creative endeavours. It’s project management. It requires patience, creativity, and a strong will. Most of all, your research is something that’s never been done before, and this uniqueness is what defines your project.

Don’t forget why you’re doing this

Above all, when stuck for motivation and struggling to even open up a Word document, the most vital thing I do is remind myself the work I’m doing is important. This makes it easier to move forward in the knowledge that the end result will be of value to someone other than myself. In this regard, the experience of every PhD researcher is the same. We’ve all seen a problem with the world, identified how that problem should be tackled, and we’re taking steps every day – however incremental – to fix that problem.

That’s vital work, no matter how normal, or unconventional, the journey may seem.

Photo of the author of the post, Andrew Porter.

Andy Porter is a PhD researcher in Gender Studies at the University of Strathclyde. His project focuses on self-branding and new forms of masculinity in online spaces. Andy gained an MSc by Research from the University of Edinburgh in 2017, with a dissertation focusing on the concept of the hive mind and the power of crowds in online contexts. Andy also works part-time for the University of Manchester, assisting with their marketing and communications, and volunteers for Beyond Equality, a charity creating possibilities for change by working with men and boys in tackling gender norms in schools, workplaces and universities. He is based in Manchester. You can find Andy on Twitter at @andyprtr.

If you would like to write a guest post for the SGSAH blog, email Danielle.Schwertner@glasgow.ac.uk

Feature Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

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