Finding Ph.D Camaraderie



There will be many things that help get you through the experience of a PhD: friends, family, food, faith, and episodes of Arrested Development. But there will be times during your doctorate when you won’t be able to see beyond the specific moments you are in, when you will be stuck or feel a bit lost, or when, as a completely hypothetical example, writing even one more paragraph of a methodology chapter will appear seemingly insurmountable and will cause you to lose perspective and lie in a soggy, teary heap on the floor for three hours.

Doing a doctorate is an experience like no other. The process of getting through the terminal degree simply can’t be explained or understood unless you have been through it. Or are in it. Or wish you were anywhere but doing a PhD. You’ll anticipate how tough the experience will be, but it does not have to be overwhelming or lonely. There are ways to get through the tough times. Having recently been awarded my own PhD, I want to share some ideas on staying motivated throughout your doctoral degree, and how to keep your focus on your research without freaking out about the future.

The time it takes you to do your PhD will be a lot like a Dickens novel: the best of times, the worst of times…but, and here’s the important part, at all times it will be your experience, and you can own it. By the way, take a look at the opening paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and it pretty much will sum up the entirety of a PhD experience – but you won’t really get the grim humor of that paragraph until you’ve gone all the way through it! At any rate, I’m sharing some of my own PhD wisdom in the hopes that this advice may help you anticipate and endure the times that lie ahead, whether they will be the best of times, or the worst of times. Or what was very often true in my own case – sometimes both best and worst times at the same time.

My PhD is in Education from Oxford University, (yes, the one in England). Technically, my doctoral research degree is known as a ‘D.Phil’ because after 800 years the university really sees no reason to change medieval slang. (Quick ancient university joke: How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change? Why on earth would we want to change?). But, no matter the way in which my degree is referenced in the hallowed halls of Oxford colleges, I am a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, a title that represents the outcome of years of hard-won effort, and also a fair amount of personal struggle.

To finance my doctoral study, I held a job throughout most of my PhD. Sometimes I worked full time, sometimes I worked part time, and for the last five months of my writing-up, I did not work at all. I was lucky in that I worked in an academic administrative job at the Oxford University Careers Service, as a Careers Advisor, which allowed me proximity and scheduling flexibility to easily dash around the university on my trusty bike from professional job to departmental seminar to grad student social events.

One intersection of my two worlds (graduate student and staff member) was in getting to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of doctoral students in a range of disciplines beyond my own. With many of those fellow students, I built friendships, but I was also a professional advisor and mentor to many students; as well, I simply made acquaintance with countless PhD students, who were often researching and working on topics completely removed from my own study of educational psychology. I learned some important things from my accumulated interactions with all these disparate individual students (and I mostly came to this realization well after being out of the PhD environment). In doing a PhD, every doctoral student and his or her research are completely unique. But there is one thing that every PhD student shares, and that is this: a PhD is tough. No way around it. You don’t really need a PhD to figure that out! So, fine, no two PhD experiences are the same. Yet, the commonality that brings us together is in knowing that undertaking and completing a doctoral degree is not easy for anyone, whether astrophysicist, social scientist, or statistician.

During my years of doctoral study, I especially loved the talks my fellow DPhils gave every few weeks, in the early evenings before dinner in an ancient drafty room in my Oxford college, explaining their research in laymen’s terms to a motley group of assembled PhD candidates from various disciplines. These were purely social occasions, billed as ‘Research Colloquia’, and allowed us a chance to talk about our work in a low-pressure, yet still academic, setting. Looking out at the darkened medieval quadrangle through mullioned windows, we listened to explanations of research and then got to ask questions – all of us blinking away a day of intense focus after a day in the lab or library, usually very happy to spend a few minutes in a state mental miles away from our own research, drinking free wine and eating free cheese, learning something new, and feeling camaraderie as we realized that economists, historians, and philosophers all struggle in the PhD process. This memory – of a respite from the slog, surrounded by others taking a few deep breaths, sums up what I want most to convey to PhD students. And it’s surprising to me that this memory is what appears to me when I think about PhD motivation, because at the time the research colloquia did not seem of too much consequence to me.

My best advice is to keep your focus as much as possible on your PhD, on your research, on your dissertation. It is a solitary endeavor at most times. And then there will be distractions, both the ones you anticipate and the things you never see coming. You will need to do some teaching, you will want to attend conferences, you will probably present posters, and write papers and journal articles, and maybe asked to serve on committees. You will have angst over whether you should pursue an academic or a non-academic career. All of the anxiety and pressure of doctoral research are simply unavoidable.

But what can make things bearable is occasionally finding company with any group of people in which you can feel a few moments of respite – maybe even solidarity- with others. Camaraderie’ is a sometimes elusive feeling, but no matter where you find it, it will provide an antidote to the often overwhelming weight and responsibility you might be feeling. Don’t forget to seek and discover those places and groups of people during your PhD that can hopefully make you feel part of something ‘bigger’, and help you feel, if only for a few moments, a sense of commonality and unity with others.

Dr. Natalie Lundsteen is a writer, researcher, Assistant Director of Graduate Student Career Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the owner of Capital College Consulting in Fort Worth, TX. Her doctoral research examined the transitions university students undergo when moving between academia and a summer internship workplace.