I have much advice to impart on anyone who is enrolled in a PhD. Every person who has finished a PhD – recently or not – has a lot of advice to give. But we don’t go around giving it. That’s because the first thing to realise about a PhD is that it’s a fairly unique experience for every person. And I really, really loathe the word ‘unique’. That’s why I’m so annoyed by the glut of articles giving advice about finishing a PhD (I’m sure you can all guess which specific recent article *cough*THE*cough* has sparked this post).
My own experience led to a complete disconnect between achievement and celebrating (I don’t think this is unique…), and like many people I came out with a pretty mixed bag of good and bad things to say. I cannot claim to have gone through everything possible, though I did do a fair amount of stuff during my PhD (both directly and indirectly related to my work at a PhD candidate). So, I don’t tend to give advice unless asked. Or actually, I think I am fairly fond of giving advice, and will sometimes do so unasked, but only if I feel my particular situation matches the particular situation of the person I am talking to.
That is the crux of my problem with this/these articles. It’s fine to give advice when asked, or when you think it will actually help a person and is relevant in their context. But articles like this are so rarely relevant to everyone’s context that they cannot really be taken seriously. I think authors of posts like this realise this fact, which is why the most recent offender is written in a style that, I guess, is meant to be funny. How to fail your PhD?
With the amount of mental health issues (from both the acute and chronic to the temporary and more ‘mild’*) that are rife in academia, particularly among PhD candidates and early career scholars, it is absolutely not funny or clever to frame an article so negatively. What PhDs need is advice about how to compensate for possible shortfalls. If a student must stay at the same university because they have caring duties, for example, then what they need is some advice about how to network widely and what social networking or other digital tools can do to help them achieve the level of networking they need. If a student decides to fund their own PhD (and I don’t want to say anything about the ridiculous notion of a department not being ‘invested’ in a self-funding candidate…) then what they need is some specific advice about how they can work their studies around other financial commitments they have, and how they can perhaps supplement their income with smaller grants. This list could go on forever.
This brief post actually began because I wanted to make a plea for THE and others to stop sharing that article on my Twitter feed, because it’s driving me crazy. It’s not helpful. It wouldn’t have helped me during my PhD, and all I can see is the ways that is shames PhD candidates for the ‘choices’ they might not even be able to make for themselves. Without individual context advice is meaningless. So, stop giving advice.
*I want to be EXPLICITLY clear that I think that even ‘mild’ mental health issues are serious, because they absolutely are. What I mean by ‘mild’ is something that is not debilitating, does not necessarily require medication or medical intervention, is temporary, and perhaps induced by a specific event. For example, anxiety in the days leading up to a conference presentation, or similar.