What I Wish I had Known Before Doing This PhD

Today’s post is from Graham Frobisher, who is currently studying part-time for a PhD.

Let’s get the elephant firmly out of the room, at the age of 73 I am not a typical or even normal PhD student. However, this gives me a different insight to undertaking a research degree and the opportunity to be more candid than perhaps I might have been if I was much younger.
At this point you are either intrigued or have stopped reading, so for the intrigued here are 5 lessons about a PhD I wish I had known or thought about beforehand….

Lesson 1: How not to choose doing a PhD

Each person will have different reasons for pursuing a PhD. Mine was driven by the desire to succeed having its roots in being expelled from grammar school. To be fair I was allowed to sit my GCEs and scraped a pass in maths, english and art. Being the bottom of an ‘A’ stream in a grammar school, I thought I was thick (as did my tutors!) and rebelled. Later in life I realised that you need to measure yourself against your own standards and achievements to decide what success looks like. This was a double edged sword as I found that I became driven to be the best I could be at whatever I did. I also recognise that this can be seen as a bit narcistic. I would like to think that achieving a doctorate will be my Everest, especially as I don’t think I have enough life left to become a professor! Undertaking a doctorate for its own sake is not the best reason, but you need to know and accept the ‘why’ as it is potentially life changing.

Lesson 2: Being Different

Day one of Doctoral Training, I am white, male, old, heterosexual and ex-military. I am in a demographic of one in a cohort of a hundred or so. For most of my life I have occupied the ‘majority’ ground but now I was a minority and it was more than a little uncomfortable. It made me think, if in the past, had I genuinely tried to understand, embrace and engage with diversity and those who are just different in some way to myself? Prior to starting the PhD I would have said that ‘of course I did’ but it was superficial and couldn’t really be described as a really inclusive approach. Now being a minority, I realise I didn’t get anywhere near the level of acceptance and integration that was being shown to me. Every effort was made by the cohort to fully integrate me into what is going on. To truly embrace diversity, we need to accept that those who are in any form of minority will benefit from genuine, constructive inclusiveness and healthy curiosity, not just a passive acceptance of their presence.

Lesson 3: How to Write

The English language I spoke and wrote appeared very different from that of the academic world. I had an arrogance gained from over 50 years of success in the army and civilian world. I thought I knew how to write from extensively correcting many reports, position papers, invitations to tender etc submitted by quivering subordinates! However, the papers I had to read seemed littered with words with multiple syllables, academics wanted to say ‘marmalade’ instead of ‘jam’ and then add an ‘ism’ to the end.
This attitude didn’t bode well for me or my supervisors. It was like being back in the MoD as an inexperienced staff officer, the only thing that was missing was the ‘see me’ scrawled over the final page! It took time to understand that academic writing is no different from any other authorship. The key is to find and use the appropriate style and structure to get your message across succinctly and successfully to your audience. The most important factor is to realise that you are writing for them not yourself and it is too easy to forget this in the volume of work required.

Lesson 4: What to Research

What comes first, wanting to gain a PhD or to research something in particular? This may seem a naïve question but in my case I was driven by a desire to prove to myself that I could achieve the highest academic qualification, no matter how late in life. In retrospect, being motivated by wanting to discover and/or understand something unique about the world (or universe) is altruistic and a far better reason for starting a doctorate. By choosing the qualification rather than the topic meant that I was initially struggling to think of a suitable project. Now being at the start of the 5th year of a part-time PhD, I fully appreciate just how important your research topic is; not only to be successful but your own wellbeing. If you are going to intimately immerse yourself in a subject for number of years, it needs to be both interesting to you and of interest to others.

What did I choose? Something personal, the older manager. This originated in being said to be too old (when 64) for a leadership programme, despite at the time heading up a UK wide department and reporting directly to the CEO of a major aerospace company. This in turn led to wondering what it was to be thought of as ‘old’, ‘too old’ and possibly ‘not worth further development’. Further investigation indicated that, whilst there is research centred on the older worker, there is little on the older manager. Old(er) is also defined as 45 plus which covers a great many years, however being in your sixties is different.
Lesson 5: There are three of you in this research
The last homily but probably the most important one. Undertaking a PhD is very personal and takes a long time. It involves dedication and solitude on a scale that most probably have not experienced before. There is the excitement and anticipation of starting a new adventure, along with new discovery about yourself and the world. This is complemented by doing interesting things like fieldwork. The darker side involves what appears to be endless hours of reading and writing. It is easy at the beginning to lose sight of the fact that this becomes a predominantly a solitary process. You alone can assimilate knowledge and information, only you alone can then interpret, explain and disseminate it through your own authorship.
However, there are at least two other people intimately involved in this process. Apart from yourself as the focal point of all the research there is the supervisor(s). However, they are neither your employee nor your employer. They are not sat waiting for you to contact them, this is not their day job it’s the ‘as well as’. Neither do you have to do what they say but would be foolish to ignore their advice. It is your PhD and you have to manage it yourself. You start out metaphorically like an adolescent but must evolve into an independent adult, the quicker the better.
A third party to this PhD is your significant other(s). They didn’t sign up to do a PhD as well. They will be neglected in order to ‘just finish this chapter’, they might neither understand what you are researching nor actually have any real interest in it either. However, without their support, eg. picking up the domestic slack of real life, you will find completing the research will be that much harder if not impossible. Balancing your needs against those of the supervisor and the significant other is challenging and worthy of a PhD or maybe that professorship in its own right!

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Martin Coffey

About Martin Coffey

Postgraduate Career Development Adviser, Doctoral College Team.

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