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Professor Sioux McKenna is Coordinator of the PhD in Higher Education Program in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Here she writes about her recent research into the experiences of doctoral candidates.

By Sioux McKenna

I was chatting recently to a group of PhD scholars who are about midway through their journey. They are all studying part-time alongside full-time employment, family commitments and other responsibilities. All of these scholars saw the PhD as a difficult process that requires an enormous amount of time and energy. But I noticed that the scholars could be roughly categorized into two groups.

There was one group for whom the PhD seemed to be constant burden offering little by way of gratification along the way. These scholars saw the PhD as a boulder they were bound to endlessly push up a steep hill without ever being able to stop and contemplate the view. They could not speak of their PhDs in anything other than negative terms.

While both groups shared the sense that the PhD is complex and challenging, the other group expressed pride in their work and had a strong sense of being part of something important and contributing to something meaningful. They spoke enthusiastically about what the PhD had already offered them in terms of self-development and improved skills.

Now of course it may be that some of these scholars moved between these two groups depending on how they were progressing at the time. But I wondered if there wasn’t a way to spend more time in the ‘enjoyment group’. Four or more years of satisfying and challenging engagement sounds great but the idea of spending all that time feeling grim and despondent is perfectly horrible.

So, as an academic developer and supervisor who wants to make doctoral study a positive experience, I decided to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out what seems to lead to the sense of the doctorate as something enjoyable.

I collected reflections on the PhD journey from 28 doctoral scholars in which they discussed their ways of working, their views of their own doctorates, and their experiences of getting stuck and getting unstuck. While none of the findings are earth shattering, I think there is some pretty good advice within the data on how to do a doctorate and actually enjoy it. This is advice that supervisors and learning advisors would do well to pass onto students.

  1. Be sure that you’re doing it for yourself

There are lots of reasons to do a doctorate: the status, the improved employment opportunities, as a requirement for a position or promotion, to advance a field of study, to answer an important question, to make new knowledge. But it seems that all of those scholars who expressed real enjoyment in their PhD had a strong sense of the doctorate as being part of their own identity development. They were deeply invested in their growing capacity to contribute meaningfully in their disciplinary community. There was also a sense from some of the scholars that the doctorate was their own space. It was the place in their lives where they could make the decisions, where they could be creative and for which they could legitimately fence off time from other responsibilities for their own growth. They framed the PhD as something they did for themselves.

  1. The magic of momentum

Nobody can sustain an enormous PhD workload relentlessly over the duration of the degree. This was especially true for these scholars who squeezed the doctorate into the gaps between work meetings and after getting families fed. But those who enjoyed the PhD all referred to working on the doctorate almost every day. Sometimes the only input that was possible on a given day was an hour spent reading through an article or twenty minutes writing a brief reflection note in a research journal. The key thing seems to be the regularity of the input, even more than the quantity and quality. On the other hand, those that bemoaned the doctorate as a constant liability admitted that weeks often went by without them working on the PhD. But rather than enjoying the respite from the doctorate, all this time was spent under a blanket of guilt. What’s more, when they finally did get to it, they had to spend hours if not days getting back into what it was they had been thinking and writing about.

  1. Celebrate small successes

It seems essential that there are successes along the way in this long project to spur us on. Some scholars spoke of sharing the completion of a chapter with other PhD scholars through a Whatsapp message. Or of writing up a list of milestones and sticking this on the fridge, with their family making them celebratory dinners whenever a milestone is met. Linked to the idea of regular successes was the notion of deadlines. The PhD is a massive project and there are no clear deadlines along the way, making it very possible to put off working on it for days or even weeks. It was evident that some scholars set very clear deadlines for themselves and shared these with supervisors, family members or other scholars. Some also mentioned using external deadlines, such as seminar and conference presentations, as a way of forcing them to engage with a particular aspect of their study by a certain date.

  1. Be kind to yourself

Rather than beating themselves up about poor progress or less than positive feedback from a supervisor, some scholars seem able to keep looking forwards. They constantly expect better of themselves and then they put in the hours necessary to attain these goals. Rather than berating themselves for what they haven’t managed to do, they happily share what they have achieved and what they are working on.

  1. Find a community

One thing was very clear: even though it’s an individual piece of work, the doctorate doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavour. Those who seemed to be most enthusiastic about their doctorates had found fellow travellers and developed ways to regularly engage with them. Sometimes these were virtual friendships online with others researching in the same area and sometimes these were very real coffee and cake groups where scholars shared readings and provided support for each other. It seems that sharing the process increases the chances of enjoyment.

The doctorate is in many ways the biggest academic project people ever take on and one that extends over a number of years. So I think that it’s really important that everyone learns how to enjoy it! If you have any further advice for supervisors, academic developers or doctoral students, please share it with us.