Lots of people have asked me recently, “How’s the PhD going?” My response, besides the usual “yeah, ok” has been “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”. Now although it’s often the case that true words are spoken in jest it has made me think about milestones.
At school, especially high school, we got a number of tasks set weekly. Maths questions, reading for English, writing up an experiment from Science and an GCSE past paper to work through from Geography. The next hand-in date was usually only a few days away. Exams, in this perpetual testing culture, are always just a few months hence.
University is a little different. We had a longer leash. Essay deadlines could be a whole term away, dissertation projects would take two full terms of hard graft, exams became more of an achievement than the goal. Even so, each year was taken by itself. Now suddenly I have the length of a Bachelor’s degree to devote to one project. No amount of “extended essay” writing in Sixth Form can ever really prepare you for that. (Aside: extended projects weren’t a thing when I did my A Levels).
There’s a negative view that people today are more easily…. “yes? oh yeah I’ll be right there, thanks”…. distracted. Young people especially are accused of having short attention spans with the blame laid at the feet of television, film, computer games, the internet and social media (including texting). And it’s true that with distractions it’s hard to stay on task unless you’re really engaged. Personally if our great-grandparents had twitter they would have got distracted too!
But I digress (slightly).
Today, I put together an Excel spreadsheet. It was made up, primarily, of data I generated yesterday. I’ve begun to plot the data into graphs and maybe next week I will be able to apply the data to its task. But when I think about what that one spreadsheet means in the context of my project I could be inclined to be disheartened. Because the context is this: it’s a technique for presenting data so I then can analysis it to make conclusions which I will then formulate into the theories that will be the basis of my thesis. Yeah.
We can become distracted when things get tough or overwhelming. It takes energy to push yourself and anyone who says otherwise is probably playing it down as a way of motivating you.
The days when you don’t feel like you’ve ‘done anything’ are the most disheartening. Days when it hits 5 O’clock and even though you’re sure you must have done something (no, I don’t mean surfing Facebook) you can’t describe what you actually did. But then everyone has those sorts of days, no matter what your job. The difference with research is that, in most cases, you set the tasks. You’re supervisor might look over their glasses in disappointment at you (note: neither of my supervisors have glasses) if you fail to meet a deadline but they’re not handing you a map, just a compass.
So how can I can set up milestones on the map to a thesis? There’s some big ones like submitting chapters but, since it’s Friday, I’m going to indulge and say that perhaps every thing that takes us one step closer to our goal is one less step we have to take tomorrow.
So I think I know of some better metaphors for doing a PhD:
“It’s not a country lane, it’s a hedge maze.”
“It’s not a Yale lock you can jimmy with a credit card, it’s a ASSA disk tumbler lock without a key”
“It’s a 5000 piece jigsaw puzzle with the box lid missing.”
“It’s a tortured metaphor containing too many obscure references”
“Its…” ok, I’ll stop.