By Dana Gold.
As any PhD student is aware, writing a doctoral dissertation is not a simple task. In fact, it’s often daunting, heavily time-consuming and requires an intense level of focus and commitment. A variety of resources, particularly in the Twittersphere, ranging from Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics to accounts such as Worse Reviewer, poke fun at the plight of graduate students through amusing anecdotes, to which most of us can directly relate. However, maintaining a healthy and positive relationship with one’s thesis in graduate school is imperative.
As someone who is currently going through the process of thesis writing and revisions, I thought to share my advice for those experiencing similar circumstances or those contemplating a PhD program.
1. You’re not alone
Several professors I’ve spoken to have told me that the stresses and anxieties surrounding the dissertation process are often not widely discussed among graduate students. This isn’t surprising as many are working towards academic careers in an increasingly volatile job market where any sign of weakness could be viewed negatively by mentors, committee members or other scholars. Knowing that other graduate students are experiencing many of the same feelings is indicative of a larger issue that many PhD students face. Further, the stigma of opening up about potential mental health issues that are common among graduate students is a problem at the core of academia that needs to be better addressed.
2. Establish a strong support system
Building a strong support system throughout graduate school, whether this includes family, friends or others in the academic community, is advantageous. I’m privileged to have a network of incredibly supportive individuals, including family as well as my thesis supervisor and committee, who have literally been by my side through the best and the worst of times. Some graduate students are not as fortunate, although it’s important to seek out individuals, whether they are within the academic community or not, that you can rely on. These are the individuals who will motivate through the finish line.
3. Don’t let your thesis define you
This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across although I don’t recall the original source. All too often, the thesis becomes tied to a graduate student’s identity, myself included. It’s all you can think about, talk about, and any form of criticism might be taken as a personal attack. Albeit, in reality, the dissertation is likely the most valuable and significant component of a graduate student’s career, it’s important to realize that our role as graduate students is to produce a piece of work that will contribute to current academic knowledge. Acting as if we’re to generate research worthy of a Nobel Prize is a weight too heavy to carry on our shoulders. The best you can do is to use your passion and drive to write a thesis for which you and your committee members can truly be proud.
4. Most importantly, be persistent
Lastly, persistence might be one of the most important traits for a graduate student. Regardless of one’s intelligence, without the determination to research and write on the same topic for years and to overcome difficult circumstances, completing a PhD can be incredibly challenging. I often use the analogy of hiking to a distant destination to explain what obtaining a PhD is like. On some days, you’ll enjoy a sunny sky and clear path, and food and water will be easily accessible. On other days, you’ll encounter treacherous winds and an uphill slope which make it almost impossible to continue. However, with each step you become closer to your destination.
Some may not continue the journey of a PhD for personal reasons or circumstances outside of their control. Regardless, know that your efforts are admirable and although rewards are not immediate, the opportunity to contribute and share your work with others, both within and outside the walls of academia, is an incredibly meaningful experience.
Dana Gold is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Western Ontario. Her research focuses on how mental representations of the “Other” are constructed and perpetuated in the Israeli education system.