A PhD pep talk: what I’m telling myself before my first day as a PhD student

Does it feel real? Has it sunk in? I’m not sure. After 6 years of wanting to do a PhD, I start my Literature PhD programme on Friday. I’ve been away from academia for 5 years, working in corporate admin & finance, with my PhD dream always in the back of my mind. Finally, I took the plunge, quit my job and accepted a place at the University of Glasgow.  

Maybe I should be nervous about returning to university after a significant time away but I just feel excited and ready. I only have one fear.  

My biggest fear going into this PhD – a programme of independent study and a 100,000-word thesis written over 3 years – is that I will lose the resolve and the confidence I have right now. I am a stronger, more resilient and more self-assured person than I was 5 years ago. I have worked hard to get to my current mental state and present situation, through journaling, looking hard in the mirror and clarifying the vision I have for my lifeI don’t want to lose any of the progress I have made with my self-development and inner strength.

Why would doing a PhD change all that? Well, academia is where I feel most insecure. The team-leading, problem solving, analytical, confident and opinionated corporate version of myself becomes a quiet person, who only speaks if she is 100% sure of the answer, in an academic setting. In academia, I can very easily feel intellectually inferior and less well-read - and sometimes the ‘real world’ seems like another planet when you are wrapped up in academic life. Instead, I want to apply what I know about myself and the situations I have navigated in the outside world to be a stronger and better academic! 

So, these are the things I am telling myself before I start my PhD and the things I want to remember throughout my PhD project:

  • You are worthy of this opportunity because you want to be here. I have not given up on my dream of completing a PhD, applying for places & funding and developing my project proposal for 6 years and have done academic research in my spare time. That academic insecurity I mentioned has often made me wonder whether I should do a PhD but now I feel strongly that the passion and drive I have to do a PhD make me worthy of my place.
  • You are more than your research. I want to remember not to judge myself entirely on my PhD progress. There are going to be times where I receive negative feedback or I do a rubbish job. As a naturally emotional & sensitive person, my instinct would be to judge myself as the worst and most useless person on earth. I want to remember that I am more than my work. I am a loving partner, daughter, friend, instagramming crocheter and tortoise-mum and I know that I bring value to the lives of those around me: with or without a PhD. 
  • There are three brilliant reasons you are here. 1) pure love of studying & research; 2) love of women’s literature and a sense that my purpose is anchored in it; 3) for the ultimate challenge as my emotional and sensitive self will have to overcome fear of judgement, overwrite my inferiority beliefs and find out what it’s like to actually be happy and satisfied with your work, which is scary because it’s not the norm!  

  • Be the kind of academic you want to be. I want to be the lecturer who starts the seminar with a reminder that nobody has read everything. I want to encourage people to declare gaps in their knowledge, ask questions about the things they have never heard of before, rather than nodding along and secretly feeling inferior when somebody is talking about obscure critical theories or Ulysses (I mean, I think 90% of us Lit students haven’t even read it properly anyway). After all, gaps in our knowledge are learning opportunities and we should embrace that.
  • You can make this as productive and stress-free as you want to. Early mornings, super focussed and intentional study sessions, superior time management and designated logging-off and relaxation times is going to make for an enjoyable and successful project, right? (Maybe I am being naïve, as most accounts of PhD study I have heard/read have suggested PhDs are all-consuming and sent from the devil. Maybe it will be 10 times harder than I imagine and maybe all my days will be a hot mess. But maybe if I go in with this approach, my experience will be positive. Watch this space for future blog posts confirming whether this was a naïve attitude or a super-smart approach.)

Here’s hoping that I don’t look back at this blog post in 3 years’ time, as a broken shell of a person, shaking my head and wondering how I ever believed any of this!

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