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Should I do a PhD?

So you have asked the question. I know very well the millions of uncertainties that are entering our minds when we need to make such decisions. For some, embarking on a PhD journey can be a continuation of their studies, perhaps ‘buying more time’ before they will decide what to do in the world of work. For others, it might mean a career change, becoming an academic and a researcher. There are also those of us who are doing a PhD mainly to pursue their passions in life. It is simply something we have always wanted to do. After all in the most cases the topic of thesis will end up being very personal. And thus my first simple advice is – you will want to make sure that you are writing about something you are committed to, you find intriguing and exciting, something that energises you. Otherwise, the journey could end up being very long and painful.

What is my answer to your original question? ‘You will not know whether a Phd is a perfect fit for you, until you have tried it!’ It is like changing a career: “Doing comes first, knowing second” (Ibarra, 2002, p.42). You can spend endless time with exploring who you are, defining your strengths and weaknesses (CAPP), weighing up your skills and competencies, etc. – and all of these steps are important – but you will not know if this is what you have been looking for until you have given it your best shot.

Only by looking back I can now see how my PhD is linked closely with my work and personal values. In my work and life relationships  are very important to me.  They have influenced my identity more than I had ever noticed before. If I had not started my studies back in October 2014, I would have not met and ‘linked In’ with some great and inspiring people. I know I am yet to network and connect with many more great minds and hearts out there. I am grateful to my PhD for keeping opening the doors for me. In addition, I value energy in everything I do and discovering new opportunities that my work and life has to offer. This Phd is certainly leading me onto exciting pathways. I have started teaching on personal and career development courses which I truly enjoy; in May 2015 I will be heading out to Sweden for a creative research course by leading scholars; and towards the end of the summer I will be presenting at my very first professional conference on organisational behaviour, symbolism and culture. I believe that given the time I will be able to work on projects and initiatives that will contribute to worthy causes which is yet another enormous drive for me. The work I always aim to choose has to have both – a purpose to myself and meaning to others.

Still undecided? You can try asking others whether doing a Phd may be right for you. After all, it is recommended that you ask your friends to help you to define your strengths (The Strengths Book). However, my entire closest network of friends and family kept asking me something along the lines ‘Why would you want to study when you can get into a great career straight away? Don’t you want to invest into a nice apartment or a house instead? Why would you want to enter the waters of uncertainties when you had fought so hard to secure your current job? Is your PhD a status thing? Can you even afford it? Aren’t you selfish when you are sacrificing three long years of your life to study?’ Yep, I have been discouraged to the last minute and all of those questions were hard to answer to start with. I had no persuasive arguments to battle the majority of them with. Evermore, I was doubtful myself. But looking back, I now have compelling stories about being able to pursue a few of the many selves I have always wanted to become, following Ibarra’s (2002) wisdom.

For me the biggest pressures that I have encountered are existential matters. Therefore my advice to you is to be prepared to cut down with your spending, at times even more than expected. I had to move house a few times and I am having to make significant financial sacrifices to carry me through. Indeed, our wellbeing is everything. I know of someone who has malnourished in the first year of the study, due to not having enough funds.  But you will not only have to look after your physical health. A Phd will also play on your mental and emotional strings. I know people who have been to Himalayas, climbed Mont Blanc or thinking of Machu Picchu to test their stamina. I grew up surrounded by beautiful high peaks of The High Tatras and I can certainly compare parts of my PhD journey with my trips to the highest accessible places in these mountains.

Rysy-2004-06-11

I believe that you have to build up incredible reserves of resilience and carry on aiming for the end. It helps to have a clear goal to keep you moving. And using the analogy of mountains, do not look down if you are climbing the PhD wall, the only way is up. There will be days when you will drop, but also days when you will be happily climbing away. To keep you focused, you will need discipline, but do not forget to look out for those old and new great faces around you for guidance, support and inspiration. You will most certainly get there and the view at the top will be the one you will remember for the rest of your life. This is how I imagine it anyway. For now, I am still climbing up the wall, occasionally having a sneaky peak down, but for the most of the journey I am keeping my head up. I am only half way through.

In summary, it has been an exciting but also a difficult journey so far. When you are deciding whether to embark on this ship or to stay on secure land, you will need to weigh up a lot of resources for your adventure. I have been brought up with a “can-do” attitude and the prospects of pushing away the boundaries and opening up new territories resonates with me more than staying put. Abandoning safety is a risk you have to take. I have heard though and I believe that at the end of the process you will come out a different person. I can certainly vouch for being closer to your values and having more of the explored sides to yourself under the belt.

So you can choose to wonder what if… for the rest of your life. Or you can become one of us. The choice is yours.

References

Ibarra, H., 2002. How to stay stuck in the wrong career. Hravard Business Review, (December), pp.40–47.

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Two exercises to help you your writing life

Eternally grateful to The Thesis Whisperer for new creative ways of approaching my PhD

The Thesis Whisperer

I love books on writing. I have many, many books on the subject, but I continue to buy more because, well – I simply can’t resist them. Just as it’s more relaxing to watch people cook and do gardening on the TV, often reading about writing is so much nicer than actually doing it.

to do listOne of the reasons reading books about writing is so much fun is that they often include writing exercises. I LOVE reading about writing exercises even more than I love reading about grammar and sentence structure, despite the fact that I rarely, if ever, voluntarily sit down to do one myself.

I will, however, happily do a writing exercise in a large group setting and enjoy every second of it. I am sure I am not alone in this. The most insanely popular writing workshop we run ANU is the Thesis Bootcamp, an idea we imported…

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A word about motivation and discovery: reading and writing a PhD

So what it is like writing a PhD? When one starts a research project it can feel exciting. More often than not thought it can feel terrifying.  It is becoming a running joke in my office about how many books arrive from Amazon on weekly basis. How many can I go through? Lots. I love the smell of new books. The knowledge that is hidden behind every new edition entices me into the new worlds of information. I consider myself enthusiastic about new projects and hungry for new insights, eager to press on with my work and life. However, as my dear friend and past work colleague recently pointed out whilst enjoying our tasty breakfast: ‘many people get excited about new things, but only few take their projects to the end’. Phew, I thought to myself, I am fortunate enough to finish my Phd as a big part of me is a completer finisher according to Belbin survey profiles. However, my mind still wandered off. How easy is it to draw a line behind a PhD research project? And can it ever be ‘finished’?

Gap finding

Writing a PhD is challenging from many aspects. One of the most difficult tasks for me is the famous ‘gap finding’, to contribute to the existing research with new insights. Finding that something that has not been theorised about as yet… In the current information obsessed era, I can safely say, it is becoming a test of my endurance. Sometimes, I feel like a little entrepreneur in pursuit of new ideas, chasing life for what it is worth.

When I embarked on my Phd journey in October 2013, I was looking into workplace stress interventions. Although the nature of my research has changed considerably since, I came across some wonderful stress related publications, one of which is The Stress of Life by Dr Hans Selye. When Dr Selye started his research in laboratory settings, he was not the first person to talk about stress. Although he was researching this phenomena since early 1930s, and this area was seriously under-researched back then, he came across many of those who did not believe in his mission to devote his life work to stress. He was not scared, however, of making bold decisions, of the gap finding exercise:

“When someone starts out in a research career, it is somewhat discouraging to think that, because through so many centuries so many outstanding minds have explored the salient problems of medicine, presumably most of the important things have already been discovered” (Selye, 1984, p.41).

We all are creative individuals. There will always be new stories to tell, as long as we keep our desires up and keep believing in pursuing something greater than we are. Every research is unique, since only you can put together the literature in the way you have done, making your critical voice to be heard. Shout out loud enough, scream if you need to, but keep looking and learning.  I am out there too, searching with you… The unique contribution surely must be on its way.

Writing process

When you are a researcher, the moments of accrual of new knowledge are undeniably thrilling experiences. However, a true wisdom lies behind sharing that knowledge. As Dr Selye would put it, “to discover does not mean to see, but to uncover sufficiently that many may see and continue to see” (Selye, 1984, p.39). Writing process is therefore the necessary companion of every researcher. But what about if one is not borne to be a writer? What about if one does not speak English as a first language and is expected to write academically? There is no magic formula. Write every day. Then read. And write again.

But how can one motivates themselves to write astonishing 80,000 words of a research project? Try imagining what it will feel like when you will have finished your work. What will you know? Who will you be? Will you have discovered a new yourself?

If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else. Keep reminding yourself of your ‘why-s’, of your motivations to start studying, of the reasons you are doing this work, of your contribution to knowledge, or day-to-day life. Many people are put off by difficult, or even unrealistic goals, as Tim Ferris would put it. So they end up sitting on a sofa and watching TV. I believe that it is the taste of happiness, the feelings of self-development, one’s growth that could be achieved through the PhD process that should keep us going for a little longer.

Final remarks about hard work

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (2002) points out rightly that when one wants to achieve a state of ‘flow’ one has to be in control of their mind. In order to enjoy the moments when the time stops and you find yourself in a maximum engagement with your work or life, you have to work hard. The best experiences usually occur, not when one is in a comfortable state, but when they are willingly stretching themselves “to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p.3). I would like to conclude this blog post with a wonderful Slovak saying: without work there is no cake.

So let’s pick up that next book and see where it will take us… Good luck to my fellow researchers!

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