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Why I Call my PhD ‘Work’ and Not ‘Uni’

Whilst studying towards my PhD, I have often gotten frustrated at being referred to as a ‘student’. I think a lot of people in my life don’t actually understand what it’s like to do a PhD – and that’s the problem. They’re constantly surprised that I consider my PhD to be a full-time job, so I’m here to tell you why I do!

Now, I don’t want you to read this and think that I am saying a Bachelors degree isn’t hard work, because it definitely is. I’ve been there. Doing a PhD however, is just in a different league. If you were playing League One football in your final year of undergrad, a PhD makes you skip promotion to the Championship and go straight to the Premier League. This is especially true, if like me, you go straight to a PhD without doing a Masters.

That’s why it’s even more important to take the ‘job’ seriously – and realise that’s what it is. Here’s my advice for doing that.

Work/life

Ah, that sweet taste of freedom. Being told what to learn and what to do is a thing of the past and you can now make these decisions for yourself. Sounds good doesn’t it? However, don’t be fooled into thinking this freedom will make things easier. Imagine having your dinner cooked for you every night for the past two decades, then suddenly tomorrow you are asked to make a banquet for a party of 30. . . from scratch. A PhD isn’t like a typical lecture, where 30 Pot Noodles might suffice. Your supervisor is going to want haute cuisine.

This might sound frightening, but it is still a blessing rather than a curse. If you are pursuing a PhD that you are truly invested in, this freedom will allow you to produce better work than you ever did for your Bachelors. Your supervisor is not in direct control of your time and your workload and so you can draw from your own inspiration and creativity. This is one of the reasons why it is necessary to resist the temptation not to think of it as work.

Whether your PhD is laboratory based or not, you work Monday to Friday, nine to five. . . or six or seven or even eight. My working week is no longer the timetable-centric, lecture-based ‘student life’ that my undergraduate degree was. I am no longer surrounded by people who don’t want to be there because it’s 9:00 am, it’s raining, and they are severely hungover. A PhD is a full-time job, so in order to succeed you have to shift away from that student mentality.

This also means that you need to be a bit more disciplined when it comes to allowing time for leisure (aka pub), and, most of all, sleep. Don’t get me wrong, you can still do those things whilst doing a PhD or a full-time job, but during my Bachelors I know I indulged in them a little too much.

You are in control of your own time on a PhD, so take charge of it. I highly recommend that your weekly plan still has some room for time away from work, whether that does mean a visit to the pub, a lie-in or anything else. It is easy to burn yourself out if you don’t make time for fun and relaxation.

Workload

As a PhD student, you need to take more responsibility for your workload by accepting that you might sometimes have less control over it. You can spend weeks researching and planning an experiment, conduct it over the course of several days and wait eagerly for the results, only for it to fail. When something goes wrong in a taught lab session during undergrad, lessons can still be learned without the need to repeat experiments. In postgraduate study you need that data and so you make (more) time to get it. Which is to say, PhD students are not necessarily ‘really smart’, we just work really hard.

But, when you do work hard, you’ll have more opportunities to take pride in that work. As you travel on this roller-coaster journey to become an expert in your field, you are encouraged to publish your findings. As a postgrad, you are much more capable of achieving this. Just like in a job, in a PhD you want to show off what you have done to the rest of the people in your field in order to share your knowledge and expertise. Publishing or presenting your results is a way of doing this.

Finally, there are the goals you need to meet. In undergrad, these are set for you. When a deadline approaches, you probably have a few sleepless nights, a stressful week and then you hand in, and it’s over. PhD students are required to set their own goals. This is part of the job and part of leading and having ownership of your project. The PhD is your life, and you are working towards one big deadline. The relief of finishing individual things is great, but it’s also short-lived as you quickly move on to the next task. Just like everyone else does in their job.

Workplace

In my opinion, I think my working environment also adds to the fact that I view my PhD as a job. I have a desk, with a computer, in an office, surrounded by people who are either undertaking postgraduate study like me or are actual academic members of staff. This shows that as a postgrad you are more highly valued by the university than as an undergrad: you’re part of the department as a workplace.

You also behave differently when you’re there. Certain stereotypes are associated with being a ‘student’. These include being young, drinking a lot, working a little and attending university for about 9 months of the year. PhD students do not have the luxury of having a month off at Christmas and three months off during summer. Instead, we get annual leave, which is one of the big reasons I believe we are not at ‘uni’. Granted, this is probably not as strictly monitored as the annual leave you request as an employee, but it is still limited to 25 days a year.

Final remarks

It’s difficult to describe a PhD to someone who is not doing one or knows little to nothing about them. And when I explain that I am studying at a university for four years, and sugar-coat most, if not all, of the most difficult parts of my PhD, I have only myself to blame for this misunderstanding. The point is that you shouldn’t let people devalue what you are doing. Self-esteem and self-efficacy are vital for succeeding in a PhD.

So, feel free to call your PhD your job, because it will be. And hopefully it will also be the beginning of your career.




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