the devil is in the details . . . and a PhD is hell

Sitting down to write a dissertation is bringing out all the worst in me. If confession is good for the soul, then you should know that I am a first-class procrastinator. This blog is exhibit #1. I love what I get to do; it’s an incredible privilege to have focused time for study. BUT . . .  I am afraid; I think I know what a good dissertation will look like, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to cut it . . . at least not very quickly. My brain is already on tape delay, and I know it will take immeasurable hours of sheer grunt work to bring me up to speed on even some basics. Discipline! Get going! “Write you must!” [Yoda voice.] In an effort to give myself a kick in the seat of the pants (or procrasitate some more), I’ve been looking into a few study hacks and motivational tactics. I thought you might enjoy some quotes from this guy – Things I learnt during, and about, my PhD [You may want to read his disclaimer first.] Happy laughs. (HT: Jose)

. . . . This post represents the advice I wish I could have given to myself when I was thinking about applying for a PhD. The short version of this advice is: Don’t.

The devil is in the details – and a PhD is Hell

I came to my PhD with a fairly clear idea about what I wanted to investigate. In fact, I’d been thinking about it and working on it for the previous 2 years. However, many people start their PhD with a vague interest in an area and spend the first 12 months figuring out what novel aspect they want to pursue. Initially, it can feel as if finding out what you are going to research is the main hurdle. Alas, that is not the case. The main problem is that once you’ve narrowed your research area down, you need to keep focusing. And again. And again. In the end you’re left looking at boring equations, graphs and theories that are the complete opposite of the interesting and practical idea you started with. In many ways this is like starting a business: everyone can have a grand business idea, some people can tease out a feasible business plan, but the successful businesses are run by the people with the big vision and the attention to the smallest details.

Know your audience

It is important to understand, from the outset of the PhD, who your target audience is: it’s you. I remember hearing that, on average, 1.6 people will read your PhD thesis. I’m pretty sure that includes yourself, your spouse, your supervisor, your second supervisor and your examiner (yeah, that’s technically 5 people. If someone says they’ve read your thesis, they’re probably lying – they read page 9). You have to accept, that no one in the world will want to wade through this document. Ever. You might start your PhD with the intention of making a discovery crucial to the future of the world and winning the Nobel prize before you’ve even graduated. You will be very disappointed. No one in the world will care about your work. Repeat after me: No one cares. . .

[I have a great supervisor, so most of that part of it is irrelevant. If you are having problems connecting with your supervisor, check out the latest PhD comics and scroll back bit.]

. . . Being a PhD student isn’t like being an undergraduate. There a very, very few lectures you have to attend and very few regular assignments. There are no grades either. There’s also no timetable. Essentially you can work (or more often, not) whenever you please. So, it’s not like having a proper job. Even if you work regular hours (say 9am-6pm), you’ll be reading papers, writing papers, running experiments and any number of other pointless things during your free time. I tried sticking to a regular working day and it didn’t work – or, rather, I didn’t. If you’re like me, when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, boring detailed work of the PhD, you need to remove as many distractions as you can because, at this stage, just about anything is going to be preferable to your PhD. . .

. . . On the downside, for every job that a PhD will help you get, there are a thousand which it will over-qualify you for. . . . . . consider the PhD for what it is: a qualification to conduct individual research. Producing something interesting, useful, wonderful and absolutely cool is not part of your PhD. . . . . . 3 years sounds like a long time but it isn’t. . .

The two most frequent PhD questions

There are really just two questions that you’ll be frequently required to answer: What’s it about? Enjoy this phase as it only lasts for about 6 months. Once someone has asked the question, and listened to the largely incomprehensible drivel that you’ll reply with, they’re highly unlikely to ever ask again. How’s it going? The true purpose of this question is revealed after about 2-2.5 years: what they really want to know is “When will you be finished?“. The subtext is that a PhD is something to finish, not something to do. . .

There’s much, much more; read the whole post.  Better yet, save it for later. I wouldn’t want to lead you into procrastination. Come to think of it, what are you doing here in the first place? . . . Check out some of the Links of the Day – on the right-hand side of this blog ;-). . . come one, it will only take a few minutes . . . there’s great stuff there . . . really helpful . . . you really need to be aware of some this great information . . . I mean, what are you trying to do? Bury your head in the sand? . . . 😉


One thought on “the devil is in the details . . . and a PhD is hell

  1. Thanks for this information. I start writing my thesis on John in two months from now. Seriously, I laughed throughout reading this post in a meaningful way:)

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