Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Diary of a PhD Student: What do you call a PhD student with no work to do?

The question that frames this blog post is one with many, many possible answers. The most obvious one being: A liar. The second most obvious one – and the one that currently applies to me, I think, is: A bit lost. The initial elation at not having work to do has given way to mild feelings of anxiety that maybe I do have work I could or should be doing, but for whatever reason – despite having micro-managed my working days for the last three years – I can’t put my finger on what the work is. In a sentence: I am suspicious of finding myself with “free time”.

I have read a few posts online from people who have recently (read: in the last twelve months) finished their PhD studies. They have gone through their examination process; passed and made their amendments; they’re waiting to graduate. It’s a grand place to be, in theory; in practice, it seems troublesome. The people writing these posts are reporting back some worrying feelings, largely about not knowing what to do with their lives now their PhDs are over. And I get it. I’m in a work-free space for two weeks maximum (because that’s the deadline I have asked my readers to stick to) and I’m like: ‘What the hell do I do today?’

The initial not-having-any-work-to-do lasted around two days – which wasn’t exactly surprising. My supervisor had looked over my concerns for my research paper and bounced it back to me with one or two final edits, and said: ‘Talk to Second Supervisor; we need some fresh eyes on this.’ I emailed my second supervisor who said she could take a look at it in August, but September would be tricky. ‘No trouble,’ I replied, ‘I’ll have it with you by the end of next week.’ And then I promptly set the whole thing to the back of my mind – without even looking at the latest edits, might I add – so I could enjoy a few days off without any work interfering. I was on an official break until this morning, which is when I vowed to look through these latest edits.

Quiet house, fresh cup of tea, game face on:


It took me less than an hour. I wasn’t clock-watching; it may have taken just half an hour. Either way, these final edits were nothing at all to worry about, and as it turned out, they certainly weren’t hefty enough for me to have cleared a whole day for – which is what I originally planned. Three of the edits (remember, there were only around five in total) were completely rectified by removing the three complicating sentences as I didn’t need them anyway – easy! The other two edits were changing one word in a sentence, and adding a new sentence to one of my footnotes.  

That was all there was for me to do. I then attached this new file to an email and booted it off to my second supervisor, and now, we await judgement (which will be brutal and will no doubt give me an intimidating amount of work to do, but at least then I won’t be blogging about how lost and tortured I feel, you’ll be relieved to know). 

The point of this post, I suppose – because I’m just wasting your time if there isn’t one, right? – is this: For three years, my PhD has been everything; for seven years, university has been everything. I now find myself in a position to ask what is left when you take those things away. I won’t have this free time for long – which might be a good thing – so I’ll drop these questions soon, and pick them up later in the year no doubt, but while my musings on the matter may be brief, they feel significant. Since I started the university process – which has lasted an awful lot longer than I originally expected it to, I can tell you – I have worked. On essays, on seminar prep, on revision; and later, on stories, on poems, on more essays, and now on a novel and on a research paper. I have been a student for my entire adult life. But I now find myself wondering what is left when you take that away.

I suppose the next seven years will shape an answer to that query, much as the last seven have. But first, I’ll have to get through the next two months. We can worry about the next seven years some time after that.

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