People often say that writing a PhD is like giving birth to a baby. Having given both these projects a whirl in recent years, I’ve decided that some parts of the analogy are more apt than others. 

Warning: Your brain may increase doing a PHD but you're also bound to lose your mind.

Like making a new human, enrolling in a Doctor of Philosophy program often seems like a good idea at the time. It is frequently accompanied by thoughts such as “how hard can it be?”

The answer in both cases, of course, is “mind-meltingly, stomach-churningly, sleep-deprivingly difficult”. In fact, I wonder if any sane person would ever knowingly embark on PhD study or biological reproduction if they were fully cognizant of the hard labour that was actually involved. 

I’ve lost track of the lunatic number of: weekends I’ve relinquished to study; journal articles I’ve read but failed to understand; sentences I’ve written and discarded in existential funks; and exotic European theorists whose names I’ve mispronounced at annual reviews.

Thinking back over these brutal statistics makes me feel like sleeping for a week then reading nothing but pulp fiction for the next century.

It’s erudite alright.

Like many other students, my doctoral difficulties began with conception. This is because PhD candidates are required not simply to learn stuff but to make an original contribution to their field.

In other words, you’re supposed to come up with something that is both brand spanking and new.

Human propagation is a cinch in this respect. Prospective parents do not have to wrack their brains formulating an innovative combination of outer and inner characteristics for their offspring. They are able to outsource this part of the process to the magic of DNA.

(And here I also note that accusations of plagiarism are rarely hurled at those parents whose biological compositions show signs of uncited genetic replication.)

In PhDland, however, you can’t enrol until you’ve come up with a proposal, and you can’t come up with a proposal until you’ve absorbed everything that’s ever been written on the topic in which you’re interested.

It is then necessary to devise a research question no-one has ever asked – quite a feat given the extent of human curiosity and the surfeit of PhD students.

The imperative to find avant-garde inquiry angles helps explain the delightfully specific nature of many PhD titles. One of my personal favourites is The Biomechanical Effects of Acute Fatigue to the Lower Extremity in Female Kentucky High School Cheerleaders.

I’m also a big fan of Relaxation Processes in Semiconductor Quantum Dots and Using a Controlled Lagrangian Drogue to Document Plankton Patchiness.

(Easy to mock. Very hard to do.)

Once deciding on your bizarrely narrow topic and having it cleared by the relevant authorities, you must then commence the lengthy task of PhD gestation which – at between three and five years of full time study – is positively elephantine.

Here, PhDancy has distinct advantages in that it is possible to reduce your workload or take official breaks. (Pregnant ladies, on the other hand, do not have the option of gestating only at nights or on the weekends. Neither can they temporarily suspend their candidacy in order to visit Venice or fall in love with someone from the dog park.)

As with human propagation, some theses don’t turn out to be viable and may miscarry under tragic circumstances.

Complications during the first trimester of PhD-ing include what the 2007 book Supervising Doctorates Downunder refers to as the inertia caused by “an orgy of reading”.

Failure to read can also be problematic. In his paper Diseases of the Thesis, Chris Fleming from the University of Western Sydney notes that acquiring a library’s worth of books is not necessarily an incentive to read any of them.

He writes of the belief that mere proximity to books in a room can be absorbed by some mysterious process of osmosis: “Who has not, at one time, breathed a sign of relief after copying a long article, momentarily forgetting that one then has to read it, and feeling let down by the banality and drudgery of it all?

“Now, this all seems to be produced by the vague feeling that you “don’t know enough” (indeed, this can grow into an almost zen-like absoluteness of a mantra like “I don’t know anything”).” 

Other PhD-related pathologies described by Fleming include Fraud Paranoia (characterised by the conviction that your intellectual ambitions are an elaborate con), Never-ending-story Delirium (in which you become convinced you will never finish your thesis) and Motion Sickness (involving the endless postponement of study in lieu of tea preparation and house cleaning).

To these, I would add One-track-mind-eosis in that PhD students are required to think about the same subject for years on end. Forget the aphid-sized attention spans required for modern media forms such as Twitter.

Doctoral research requires fixation in extremis, an obsessive focus I suspect may be more detrimental to the human psyche than the much-discussed inverse.

The final processes of labour involved in the birth of a PhD share many similarities with those involved in the birth of a child.

Both can involve pain, panic and a feeling of profound alone-ness (despite the attendance of various loved ones and assisting specialists). And both may be followed by an inscrutable, post-delivery melancholy which is exacerbated by outsider assumptions that you must be feeling only unmitigated joy.

So why do it? Why make babies or embark on long degrees? Are these acts of unadulterated masochism that would die out if any of us ever had the benefit of hindsight?

Happily, no.

When it comes to parenting, the ceaseless slog makes sense because of the crazy love we feel for our children. A similar attachment can form between a student and her dissertation – and, indeed, between a student and higher education in general.

I am on the cusp of formally submitting a PhD thesis after five years of study (all of which also happened to have been spent either being pregnant with, giving birth to or raising a tearaway daughter).

And as I strain away in the academic delivery ward, I’ve concluded that – like parenthood – studying brings with it great exhilaration as well as great exhaustion. 

Education is aerobics for the brain. It might hurt at the time but it affects the way you perceive and think about things long after you’ve stopped reading the theory, writing up the paper or mispronouncing Foucault.

Will it leave you time take a shower, do something fancy with your hair or interact with other actual grown-up humans? No, it will not. But, like making babies, it does make the world a far richer and more complicated place.

Want more Emma Jane? Here’s her page at The Australian.

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    • acotrel says:

      06:34am | 09/05/11

      A PhD sounds like an interesting qualification.  What can you do with that? Would it get me a job in Australia where all that R&D is done by private industry?  Or in a non-existent government research establishment?  I suggest it might be better to do a short TAFE course in how to sell motor cars, or insurance, or real estate, or ANYTHING made in China!

    • Antipodes says:

      08:24am | 09/05/11

      I have long given up trying to determine whether the “long-timers” on the Punch are attempting sarcasm so I will just address the questions acotrel.posed. A PhD is the entry key to jobs requiring someone who can think independently, write well and contribute to their chosen field. There are few examples of PhD graduates from the School in which I am employed who have not been able to move into further research as either a postdoc or in employment in the private sector. The private sector seeks PhD graduates for positions that require their skills and capacity to contribute (at least in the sciences - I cannot speak for other sectors).

      Your statement that all R&D is done by private industry is just silly - there is an entire granting scheme devoted to just that - Australian Research Council Linkage Grants - on top of all the R&D Corporation grants (e.g. Fisheries - FRDC). Industry contributes directly as cash and indirectly as in-kind contributions to the research.  The applications have to meet additional criteria though, based around the quality of the work being proposed. Private industry cannot just have their nuts and bolts work done on the cheap using this scheme.

      Non-existent government research establishments. You have perhaps not heard of the CSIRO or the AIMS or the many state-based departments that do research. Add to that list the many institutes within universities that are focussed just on research.

      Good article Emma - I will pass it on to my PhD students all of whom will get a job in their chosen field when they finish, have survived on a scholarship that is, while not overly generous, enough to feed and house them, and for ~4 years have been at the forefront of work in that field.

    • iansand says:

      08:30am | 09/05/11

      My ex-wife dropped out of her PhD when our daughter arrived.  The double was too hard, but her work is (I think) still being cited regularly in DNA research, particularly in relation to polymerase chain reactions.  15 years ago she had a heap of citations.

      My sister started her PhD when she was 59 (still going).  She is having a lovely time swanning around giving papers at conferences all over the place.  Her work is showing some very interesting trends in the patented seed stock area.  Her paper was seriously considered for publication in Science.

      Both sets of work have or will advance human knowledge.

    • Stephy says:

      08:41am | 09/05/11

      Well Actorel, I’m not sure. But it can often mean you’re turned away from jobs for being overqualiied by companies who want to hire postgrads because they’re cheap.

    • iansand says:

      09:24am | 09/05/11

      I forgot to mention that the ex’s work was funded by a brewery and a lot of her work was looking at, and possibly improving, brewers yeast.  Now tell me PhDs are not good for something.

    • acotrel says:

      09:42am | 09/05/11

      @Stephy You’ve got a choice.  You can remain ignorant and subservient, or you can become ‘overqualified’ and unemployed.  I’m one of those idiots who studied all of my working life until age 57.  I studied so I could do my job effectively, but now it’s become a hindrance in my retirement.  Middle managers feel threatened, and there’s an old saying ‘never employ anyone better than yourself’! Everyone looks after their own turf, especially academics in local TAFEs where you might be of some real value to the education system.

    • acotrel says:

      12:29pm | 09/05/11

      ‘Your statement that all R&D is done by private industry is just silly - there is an entire granting scheme devoted to just that - Australian Research Council Linkage Grants - on top of all the R&D Corporation grants (e.g. Fisheries - FRDC). Industry contributes directly as cash and indirectly as in-kind contributions to the research. ‘

      I thought that R&D in private industry comprised researching how ro get the R&D tax breaks! But I’m only speaking as a detached observer.

    • RT says:

      06:02pm | 10/05/11

      Who the Foucault is Foucault?

    • Thanh says:

      01:27pm | 11/05/11

      You are absolutely right! In fact after going through this ordeal of getting a PhD, you may find it even much harder to find a job, ‘cos you are over-qualified!!!

    • Penny Hampson says:

      05:34am | 30/08/11

      I agree! I’m sure it’s encouraging for other students to read this article. Hopefully it’s promising, not in the fact that their studies will become easier, but that others are going through the same thing and that it is possible to make it through. “Education is aerobics for the brain.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement. If education is like aerobics, then getting a PhD is like running a marathon… 3 times. Between juggling classes, thesis papers, internships, online courses, and everything else in between, a student’s brain becomes so stressed out. Education is an essential part of many people’s life, but it sure can be exhausting!

    • progressivesunite says:

      08:10am | 09/05/11

      Thanks for that - you just made me feel better about being smack in the middle of a law degree and wondering if it’s all worth it - it kind of is : )

    • VVS says:

      11:47am | 09/05/11

      Definitely don’t do a PhD in law… or a masters for that matter. At least until you have several years experience under your belt (and can use your study for your yearly CPD points).

      You will find that in practice the legal professionals with all the study are rarely the best lawyers. The best ones are the ones at small places who do whatever it takes for their client, the things you cannot learn from books and university.

    • Amanda says:

      07:59pm | 09/05/11

      VVS - not everyone who gets a law degree goes on to practice as a lawyer…

    • Thinking about getting a PhD says:

      04:22pm | 03/08/12

      Some jobs in Law will go only for those with a higher degrees. : )

    • Matt says:

      08:21am | 09/05/11

      Acotrel - you’ve missed the point of the argument. A PhD, in fact many higher degrees, are not a “qualification”. If all you want to do is sell cars or plasmas at Harvey Norman, then by all means do at TAFE course. For some people, and I don’t belittle them at all, that is what they’re good at, and enjoy.

      A higher degree is an invitation to think. To absorb hundreds of arguments and opinions, and synthesize them into something (hopefully) original.

      It’s also not something you necessarily do to continue “research” (you seem to think all PhDs are science based). As with all uni degrees it is (or should be) about teaching you a way to think.

      Qualification-wise, it shows an employer that you are capable of learning, and capable of the discipline that goes with hard study.

      One of the best examples is a man who did a PhD in medieval English literature. It didn’t qualify him for his current job, but you could ask yourself whether he’d now be corporate counsel for Wesfarmers (I think - could be Woolies…) without the style of honking he learned in his PhD.

      And as for many of those people selling cars or insurance? I bet a lot of them are doing it so their children have the option of going and doing a PhD.

      (disclaimer - I’m planning a PhD in Roman history - won’t say what because I don’t want my thesis idea stolen! It won’t help me in work one jot, but it will exercise my mind, the same way a run does my body.)

    • Dale says:

      09:04am | 09/05/11

      People learn independantly. A Phd can not teach someone how to learn. It may give them a different perspective but to learn anything you have to be actively engaged. Simply reading non understandable journal articles is a waste of time if you want to learn something new.

      That is the problems with unis. Too exclusive. Peer review is just a self congratulatory cabal where any original thought is suppressed if it doesn’t fit the existing line of the day.

    • acotrel says:

      09:35am | 09/05/11

      @Dale Next you’ll be expecting engineers and scientists to be creative?  Do we really need that in support of Australian industry?

    • acotrel says:

      10:17am | 09/05/11

      Dale, I found your comment about peer review interesting.  A young relly of mine is currently pursuing management studies.  He’s doing an assignement on organisational change.  He’s found plenty of journal articles confirming that permanent change is possible, but none which pursue the negative case.  It seems psychologists know which side their bread’s buttered on?

    • Bilby says:

      10:22am | 09/05/11

      To continue with the analogy in your last paragraph, a lot of people are mistaken in thinking that sport builds character, like education develops thinking. In fact sport *reveals* character, just as education *reveals* existing abilities. If you can’t already think, then you can’t have a job that involves thinking, and as a corollary, don’t bother with a higher education.

      I dispute the ability of tertiary academic institutions to teach thinking. That might require academic teaching staff to have an education in, perhaps, education?

    • rach says:

      11:31am | 09/05/11

      @Bilby: I don’t think you quite understand the system when you say academic staff don’t have education in teaching. At my university, all courses are constructed by senior academic staff who have a degree in higher education. Furthermore, almost all professors, associate professors and senior lecturers who then teach these courses have degrees in higher education. Some “junior” lecturers do not, however the university actively encourages them to study degrees in higher education. The university goes as far as to pay for these degrees. So contrary to what a lot of people think, teaching academics are often not just qualified in their field, but they are qualified as teachers too.

    • Bilby says:

      11:53am | 09/05/11

      rach - It’s been a while since I was at uni, but a quick browse over the staff pages at my alma mater show that nothing has changed. I couldn’t find a single professor with an educational qualification. Lots of engineering qualifications, no educational ones at all. Perhaps it is different in different faculties or different institutions, but that is the way it was, and still is, at at least one of the major Sydney universities.

    • rach says:

      05:28pm | 09/05/11

      Bilby, would a professor of neuro-surgery put a graduate diploma in teaching after his name? Hell no. Most don’t even put their bachelors. So I’m not surprised you couldn’t find any degrees in education - if I look at my department website, all the people I know have them, don’t have them listed.

      At the end of the day, you can give people as much education as they want, but if they aren’t naturally able to do it, then they won’t be effective. I’ve known teachers from primary, secondary and tertiary education levels that have teaching qualifications, but were rubbish. That said, I’m not disputing the ability of primary, secondary or tertiary educations to teach thinking, just because of a few crummy teachers…

    • Bilby says:

      08:03am | 10/05/11

      rach - When they’re offering higher degrees, a graduate diploma doesn’t really cut the mustard now does it? When they’re charging not for their engineering expertise, but their ability to teach said skills, then their educational qualifications are important, so if a graduate diploma is the best they have then I wouldn’t display it either. Better to say nothing than reveal the unfortunate truth.

    • rach says:

      09:45am | 10/05/11

      Bilby, all I was trying to say is that many tertiary educators do indeed have an education in educating, because I’ve found a lot of people (including yourself) are not aware of this, and I wanted to clear up a common misconception.

      On a side note, I personally don’t have a problem with grad dips - I think they are a nice “bite-sized” learning journey. For example, many secondary school teachers have bachelors in science (majoring in maths, physics, chemistry, health, or whatever) accompanied with grad dips in education. Not all choose to obtain a pure bachelor in education. Personally, I’d rather someone teach me that has more knowledge in the field, combined with a small bit of knowledge in teaching, rather than the other way around. That’s just me though…everyone is different.

    • Marg says:

      02:01pm | 16/05/11

      I’m surprised so much value is being put on a degree in Education in this argument.

      I have one and it doesn’t teach people much about how to teach - the practicums/work experience is where teaching is mastered. You really think learning theories of how 1940’s children learn is still actually valid?

      If a Professor has a PhD but no ‘teaching’ qualification, it’s fair to say that within a semester or two he will be competent in delivering course content to students. It’s something you master by trial and error and experience.

    • Helen says:

      09:27am | 09/05/11

      Best wishes for your PhD, Emma. As I read this piece I wondered why you’d submitted it to a site where most commenters struggle to form a simple sentence, but it seems some more intelligent lurkers have come out of the woodwork.
      Of course there had to be a comment complaining that a PhD doesn’t map one to one with some specific job in commerce selling stuff so it must be useless - that sums up the Australian attitude to education in a nutshell and it’s the reason why when we call ourselves the “Clever Country”, we’re (mostly) dreamin’.

    • acotrel says:

      10:39am | 09/05/11

      @Helen I’d like to know when ‘underqualified’ changes to ‘overqualified’.  It seems we’re never good enough? And we’ll certainly never get paid for being smart, there’ll always be someone smarter who’ll pick our brains, and ride on our backs!  I’ve also wondered about that ‘clever country’ stuff.  It was obviously some sort of propaganda designed to build team spirit amongst the dills. The evidence doesn’t support it?

    • rach says:

      11:49am | 09/05/11

      I think we’re a very clever country - we’ve had some amazing inventions! My favourites are the black box (Dr David Warren), cochlear ear implant (Professor Graeme Clark), spray on skin (Dr Fiona Wood) and recently, Gardacil (cervical cancer vaccine, Professor Ian Frazer). Oh, and all of those are from people who have degrees in higher education. I’m not saying you need a sound education to invent, but I think it certainly helps.

      A PhD doesn’t just teach you how to think, it also teaches you how to conduct your research in such a way that the results are sound and understood by others in your field. This allows others to conduct further research, and hopefully, society benefits in the end.

    • zen says:

      03:09pm | 09/05/11

      u got it wrong emma, the PHD is the birth of oversize twins.
      my mba was like child birth. an even though it was my autism that led me thru 4 degrees, A Phd was not on my 2do list till i got senile an if i survived 2 an oldage home ha ah.

    • Al Chunk says:

      09:51am | 09/05/11

      Phd’s independent thinking?  While very smart people go through the academic process, not all people that go through the academic process are smart.  Go against any current academic consensus from within and see how independent thought is discouraged, self interest will always overcome truth (e.g.  helico pylori bacteria).  Academia is not the exclusive pathway for bright people, really smart people just are.  They apply their innovation and ideas in the most surprising areas (just take a look at The New Inventors).  The smartest person I have ever come across is a migrant with no qualifications who has developed and built up a world leading tech product company in a very competitive international market.  He finds himself employing Phds and teaching them the industry.  The inventor of television was a farmer, powered flight by bicycle mechanics, DNA a patent lawyer.  Sometimes academics need a little more perspective in order to see that not all Phds are equal and not all really smart people have Phds

    • acotrel says:

      10:20am | 09/05/11

      @Al Chunk You won’t make many friends that way!  Everyone must pay homage to the system!

    • Rick says:

      02:47pm | 09/05/11

      “..DNA (was invented) by a patent lawyer”


    • maybe says:

      02:51pm | 09/05/11

      DNA wasn’t invented…by a patent lawyer…


    • Al Chunk says:

      05:53pm | 09/05/11

      @Rick - Apologies, my stupid unchecked mistake and it read incorrectly (should’ve had a peer review). I think I was after Mendel the monk and his work with peas, credits him with being the father of modern genetics.

    • Kel says:

      10:38am | 09/05/11

      It’s a bit simplistic and cliched to suggest that anyone studying an academic degree has no life experience outside of a university. People from all walks of life enter university at different stages of life, and academic education is life experience in and of itself. I don’t understand the apparent urge in this country to tear down the pursuit of academic education.

    • Shane says:

      11:11am | 09/05/11

      This is VERY true. The average age for a starting PhD student at the ANU is 37, and I suspect the same holds true around the country.

    • Erick says:

      11:16am | 09/05/11

      It’s got a lot to do with the political and social indoctrination that goes with an academic career. Australians see universities turning out thousands of cookie-cutter clones with the same politically correct, groupthinking values. If it weren’t for such toxic byproducts, academia would enjoy a better reputation.

    • Tigger says:

      11:30am | 09/05/11

      At the end of the day, universities are large government funded institutions with very limited budget and resources. If your career aspiration is to be an academic, then it’s in your interests to tow the party line.

      If you want to more independent and challenging thinking from these places, then I suggest that funding and progression not be driven from a model that promotes groupthink.

    • James1 says:

      01:06pm | 09/05/11

      I was 24 when I started mine at ANU Shane.  But I was in the minority, admittedly.

      Erick - that is what drove me out of academia.  With every year that passed, the groupthink become more and more obvious to me, until I could bear it no longer.  I can even specify the actual thing that broke the camel’s back.  I call it “The Idiot Question”.  Let me explain.

      At all seminars, conferences, roundtables, and the thousand other public events at ANU there is a question and discussion session at the end.  Many times - at least dozens - I had seen some dullard at the end, for want of something real to contribute, raise The Idiot Question.  The specifics may change, but the formula is constant:

      “(Quotes statistic about the effects of climate change) will do such and such by (some made up year). How will (whatever you have been talking about) be impacted by the effects of climate change? 

      When defending my own thesis, after talking for more than an hour, I had someone ask me this.  It was the only question I couldn’t answer.

    • Tigger says:

      11:26am | 09/05/11

      Congrats on (almost) submitting - that is a very big milestone. I like Bilby’s comment that education reveals existing thinking ability. Actually I would describe it slightly differently in that a PhD *trains* thinking ability in a way that undergrad coursework simply cannot, in the same way that athletes are trained using specific exercises and techniques to bring out their best performance. My PhD supervisor said to me that if you look at the requirements for the degree, it is more about demonstrating that you have mastered the *ability* to conduct research, rather than the novelty of the research per se. Sure, better research is great to have (like a more tasty cake) but for the purposes of the degree it is mostly a conduit to demonstrate that thinking ability (or “cooking ability”) instead.

      I think you will find that many of the very specific titles around are only partly inspired by the need to generate novelty (a wholly original idea). It’s also because the data and conclusions drawn are only from a limited sample, or a limited set of cases, so the findings cannot be claimed to apply outside of that context.

      I’ve met many academics who are totally clueless (and I think a considerable amount of research is plain rubbish), and I’ve met many smart and practical people who don’t have higher degrees. So I think you only get out of it what’s inside you to begin with (returning to my first para).

    • Grant says:

      11:29am | 09/05/11

      Yes, like childbirth without painkillers and a labour that lasts 3 - 4 years. Ouch.

    • stephen says:

      11:40am | 09/05/11

      Try, Emma, once you get your bit of paper, that what comes from your pen, or from your mouth. is not still-born.
      I’ve read a few theses, (not officially, of course) and I dispute the ‘creativity’ you asserted in your piece. (You can come up with any topic for research you like and almost concoct any informations to plead your case, but if you take the main point aside, one could also assert the opposing view.)
      This is why that, as so many of us can read, we, only nowadays, read Poetry.

    • JR says:

      12:02pm | 09/05/11

      I’ve met quite a few PHD students who were surprisingly lacking in general knowledge. My pub trivia team has beaten ‘PHD’ teams on a regular basis. That has to be quite embarrassing for the brainiacs.

    • rach says:

      12:41pm | 09/05/11

      Ergh, this is exactly what I, as a PhD student hate. I’m doing a PhD in computer science - that does not mean I am infinitely knowledgeable on every possible topic in the universe. In fact, I’m pretty dumb even within my field….I have to get my boyfriend to fix my computer when it breaks. Embarassing? No; I recognise he has skills and knowledge I don’t, and vice versa. Doing a PhD means becoming an expert in an extremely narrow area - we are certainly not experts at everything in the world, so please, don’t expect too much of us.

    • stephen says:

      12:47pm | 09/05/11

      The ‘why’ things happen and ‘why’ things are ; this always can stump a rote-learner, though admittedly the PHD does have a good specific knowledge base.
      I’d rather talk to an interesting person, anyway, than a knowledgable one.

    • ILR says:

      03:45pm | 09/05/11

      Yes, the ability to remember the name of the little dog on “Petticoat Junction” is a great contribution to society.

    • Paul says:

      12:11pm | 09/05/11

      It’s an adventure into yourself.  no one else can relate to what you’re doing - either academically (because it’s supposed to be original and no one in your family or group of friends cares - not really) or actually (I was full time on a scholarship, going in everyday to sit and stare at the void for 8 hours, trying to fill it with new knowledge…from where? how?  why?) - and so you must face the howling darkness alone: for years.  many people in my dept simply walked away, never to return - their desks were like the mess table in the Marie Celeste, pencils still askew as if dropped mid-thought.  i took a break in the middle after 20 months of near madness.  opeople don’t understand, it follows you everywhere - whereas Honours is a crazy, intense, frenzied rush, your brain stuffed full of exotic and high-pressure information - the PhD is a slow slow burn that is with you when you wake up and goes where you go, eats what you eat, will not be sated by all the drinks you drink (well, not for long).  and always the feeling that the longer you stay there, inside the walls of the uni and yourself, you are slowly becoming detached from the world at large - deskilled as an economic unit and as a person.  it’s a monkish life, your thesis the endless deeply spiralling search for angels on a pinhead, which, once finished, betrays you by sending you blinking and naked out into a world that has forgotten you.  when i finally came back to my thesis after 18 months off it had all sorted itself in the back of my head, somewhere near the lizard brain, and I bashed it out for another year and handed it up: emptied, jubilant, numb.  then I got a job in a Parliament.  The labyrinth goes on.

    • acotrel says:

      12:23pm | 09/05/11

      Emma, Don’t listen to cynical, jaded old farts like myself.  We’re only jealous that circumstances dictated we couldn’t take the opportunity to do a PhD.  Most of the doctors I worked with during my working life were excellent people with extremely clear thought processes.  I found that many were too specialised, and probably suffered for that. I wish you well in your academic endeavours, and whatever you do with your education. I particularly like to see women excel and compete for room at the top.

    • Scumbag says:

      01:14pm | 09/05/11

      Emma, I’m pretty sure you’re going to make it, after reading your support here. Couldn’t help, in my brain’s unusual mapping, a nexus between a Mr Flemming, (casting no aspersions on the good doctor from UWS), and Dr No, or even Dr Who! Either of these legends could be available, in case of a brain explosion. Good luck dear lady.

    • St. Michael says:

      01:28pm | 09/05/11

      It would be interesting to see how many PhDs—particularly the perennial students amongst them—are actually just addicts of external validation.  External validation means to rely on other people telling you you’re good, or doing something well, to keep your self-esteem from falling.  The opposite of external validation is internal validation: taking satisfaction in holding yourself to a certain standard or having enough self-esteem to realise you’re actually smart enough to function on planet Earth without someone telling you you’re doing it right.

      I’m not saying external validation is a bad thing—while you’re still emotionally immature and don’t have a sense of your own self-worth.  For kids, being told by their coaches or by people in a position to know rather than their parents that they’re good at something can be a massive boost to self-confidence.

      If, however, you’re still looking for people to tell you you’re “good enough” past about your 25th year on the planet, you need to look into your own self-esteem issues.

    • bec says:

      05:57pm | 09/05/11

      Holy crap, every single thing in here is true. As someone doing their third degree, it really is like that episode of the Simpsons where the teachers go on strike and Lisa throws tantrums until her parents write an A on a piece of paper for her. And the fact that I have the experience of previous degree-level study means that I’m experienced with the assessment and study rigmarole. I did a good job in my first round of study, but this time I am nearing 100% on every single task I do. It all comes from the experience of having studied, but the biggest thing has to be that continued burning self-loathing that comes from a childhood of only having your academic success valued above all other traits.

      Mind, my long-term dream *is* to be a professor and teacher of English literature at a university, something which I do need the additional qualifications for. But sure as shit, so much of it is derived from the external validation.

    • uppitywoman says:

      11:03am | 10/05/11

      It could also be argued that just as many PhD candidates are working from a place of internal validation.  Their particular self standard includes studying a field or topic in depth.  Academia is one of the few ways to do this & also earn a subsistence living whilst doing so.

    • gorinosho says:

      10:11pm | 10/05/11

      Sounds like an EXCELLENT PhD topic, St. Michael! Thanks!

    • leelee says:

      02:46pm | 11/11/11

      St. Michael- as a current PhD student, I can tell you that if I relied on external validation in the way you described I would have quit a LONG time ago. Where do you suppose this external validation is coming from? There are no exams to ace, no report cards to admire- just you and your research.

      I suppose it depends on your field, but as a scientist, when I’ve completed an experiment and I’m looking at the results (expected or otherwise), the feeling of satisfaction that I get from doing my work well, carefully and thoughtfully is what keeps me going. Finding that new, interesting piece of information that nobody else knows (yet) but me has a certain thrill about it.

    • Hill Bill says:

      01:48pm | 09/05/11

      Congrats on being so close to submission Emma! I’m slowly, slowly inching towards completion myself, but 80,000 words still seems a long way off…

      I work full-time and I’m doing a PhD part-time in an unrelated field - why bother? Everyone should have something grand to try to accomplish outside of their career, whether it’s mastering a sport, building a house, creating a garden or whatever. It gives you a sense of a greater purpose, of doing something challenging apart from getting up and going to your wage-slave job every day. My PhD is part of a long, long line of work tackling my particular subject (people have been researching it since the 1800s) - I’ve identified a gap in the knowledge, and will advance knowledge in this area just a tiny bit further, and one day someone will pick up on what I’ve done and use it to advance the research further still. It’s also the only thing of cultural worth that I’m likely to leave behind when I die - a tiny speck of immortality!

      All that aside—any employer who can grasp the sheer effort, staying-power and long, hard slog required to complete a PhD would employ someone with a doctorate at a moment’s notice. I’ve never come across anything at work requiring the sustained effort and sheer stubborness required for a PhD.

    • Daniel says:

      01:59pm | 09/05/11

      Thanks Emma. I too am about to complete the 5 year gestation of my baby thesis…I’m due in just weeks. Actually it was my supervisor who directed me to your article after I had using the metaphor of pregnancy to describe my doctoral journey.

    • Hill Bill says:

      02:32pm | 09/05/11

      @St Michael - have to disagree with your ‘external validation’ comment - one of the things that distinguishes a research student from an undergrad is that you are expected to be independent and self-driven. In fact, if you look at the info for prospective PhD candidates across most of the uni websites, it usually stresses that a PhD candidate must be able to undertake independent and sustained research.

      Yes, PhD candidates do have supervisors, and some lean on their supervisors for support way more than others, (which I suppose is where your external validation comes in), but it isn’t the supervisors’ job to buck up candidates’ flagging self-esteem with endless compliments and encouragement for years on end. They have better things to do, and are only there to check your work.

      Others - family, friends, even other PhD candidates - really don’t care at all about your PhD, so you don’t find external validation there either. Rather, your description of ‘internal validation’ seems to fit the state of mind required for a PhD: “taking satisfaction in holding yourself to a certain standard or having enough self-esteem to realise you’re actually smart enough”/ or stubborn enough to complete your thesis.

      It isn’t about feeling validated by a fancy embossed certificate at the end - it’s about getting your head down and learning to become an effective independent researcher.

    • St. Michael says:

      02:53pm | 09/05/11

      (a) I wasn’t saying research students are all external validation addicts.  Merely that it would be interesting to see how many there are.  You don’t need to get defensive about it.

      (b) Being an expert in, or being knowledgeable about, a subject doesn’t necessarily require a PhD.

      As a counterexample, consider people who shout down others as “self appointed experts”.  That’s the sign of someone who puts too much stock into external validation, that in order to be an “expert” on something you must be anointed with some sort of invisible oil conferring the ability to put three letters after your name.

      In practice and ordinary life it’s somewhat different - plenty of people are extremely good at, and extremely well paid for, things they do without having the stamp of an academic institution to officially mandate their position as an “expert”.

      Now, the juvenile response is “some jobs won’t employ you without a PhD.”  Fair enough, but they’d be the minority.  And of themselves they’re nothing more than, say, having a driver’s licence if you have to drive in a job.  I would have suggested that they merely set a floor on qualifications; they don’t necessarily reflect intelligence or ability which is going to be useful in, y’know, an actual job.  The Rhodes Scholar program, at least in the humanities, is a prime example of facile external validation status.

    • jim says:

      02:50pm | 09/05/11

      For starters, to start a PHD one needs HD average. No HD average, then you can’t get in, unless one is very rich.

      Theres a chinese saying, that you’re either born as a Business-man(Entrepreneur) or a Worker (Academic).

      My younger brother is finishing his PHD, he was born in that. I was not, no matter how hard I try, I cannot get a HD average. I’ve watch colleagues understand material in seconds, of what takes me weeks to understand..

      And during examination, I have gaps in my knowledge which I never thought of.

      It’s not the time and effort that makes the difference, it’s that I wasn’t born for it.

      However my journey outside the academic world has been incredibly successful. My approach to problems with creative solutions, along with a humble attitude for Customer Service..etc has been so successful , I now question the 8yrs spent in academia.

      I have friends that ask if I’ve done a PHD, as I’ve always resolved complex problems in a highly differentiated approached which most times work. But no, I tell them, tried and realised, I’m not born into academia.

      So I guess, regarding PHDs. It all comes down to whether one is born for it or not.

    • Markus says:

      04:33pm | 09/05/11

      It also comes down to whether one is born to a PhD in the subject matter or not.
      Granted I’ve only known a couple of PhDs in my life, but I’ve known plenty of people who have bombed out of undergrad degrees in one field, only to re-enrol years later in a completely different field and score HDs in most of their courses.

    • CC says:

      04:48pm | 09/05/11

      Incorrect - qualification grades are totally dependent on the field of study and the institution you are applying to. 

      Many require you to do an honours year first, which removes the marking system that includes HDs - rather first class, 2A, 2B etc.  And many insitutions allow those who receive lower scores than first class honours to procede to the PhD phase - based on attributes more in common with perseverance than “booksmarts”. 

      The reason for this?  Approximately half of all that enrol in a PhD course fail to finish, and finishing does not correlate with performance scores.  In addition to this, organisations often receive extra funding for each student that completes their course, so you see why selection criteria has changes over time.

    • stephen says:

      05:02pm | 09/05/11

      Wrong saying mate, (second para.)
      Li Bai (or Li Po) a 7th Century Chinese Poet said ’ A man can walk to his fields, or, if he knows someone, can have a ride’.
      Hows that sport, and I ain’t even got Pee Aitch Dee, (’ though I’m certain a certain lady with a baby might make good use of the learnin’, and all’)...Steve, Australia, a 21st Century Poet.

    • gorinosho says:

      10:27pm | 10/05/11


      I was one of those people. I first tried undergrad studies as a ‘mature’ student of 21yo, having been prevented from completing Year 12 by a turbulent home life and subsequent absence of same.  Then had my heart broken by a sweet girl, bombed at uni that year. Returned a few years later and blitzed the field with very high grades despite working full-time through the 3 years of undergrad study. I was more motivated and hard-nosed and mature, and not at all interested about what was going down at the refectory that night. Which is not to say it was easy - it wasn’t, and I was burned out by the time it was done.

      Now with 20+ years work experience (10+ years in IT) and a couple of honours degrees, I am apparently not very employable because I am multi-skilled and over 40, so I’ve been contemplating taking on a PhD, but an article such as this does nothing to encourage me down that path.

      Our business culture severely undervalues education and intelligence, and it even becomes an obstacle. Little wonder that so many of the tall brains in Australia are moving overseas to pursue their careers or studies.

    • Laura says:

      05:03pm | 09/05/11

      Sounds like you are doing an arts based PhD. Try doing one in science, where not only do you have to do all that reading, you have to do all the experiments from scratch too! I swear i spent on average, 10 hours in the lab 6 days a week, some weeks 7 days, then 3-4 hours of work at home. Public holidays meant nothing. we were supposed to have 4 weeks holidays, but i and most of my colleagues took 1-2 weeks a year. by the time you add in public holidays and ‘overtime’ it was moot. We had to publish papers, and present at conferences, hell we had to sit on committees to run conferences. we didn’t have to teach, but if you wanted a job at the end of the thing, it was a box you had to tick. It was a mind-numbingly exhausting 3 1/4 years but i wouldn’t swap it for the world.. Even though there are no unions to protect us from overworking which has become the norm. Even though we got paid $20,000 a year regardless of how much ‘overtime’ we worked, or how few holidays we took. It was an amazing thing. It’s just such a shame the Labor government keeps trying to cut funding to medical research when it’s the only way people like me can have a salary. Find out tomorrow if we held the dogs off again this time i spose.

    • stephen says:

      05:36pm | 09/05/11

      By the way, at Borders in Chermside, there is a beautiful translation of Poetry by Li Po, up the back of the shop, past the cafe, (on your left).
      Would make a lovely wedding gift.

    • thequeenofcastile says:

      05:57pm | 09/05/11

      There are a lot of reasons why people do a PhD. Some see it as a qualification towards a job where such a degree would be hughly sought after. Others jump to it straight after a Bachelor or a Masters, they have no real world experience and have never had a proper job. I know of a number of these people and the majority of them are in engineering.

      I am towards the end of my Masters in Medieval and Early Modern History and once I am finished, I plan to return to the workforce doing project administration before thinking about tackling a PhD. This will have me around the age of 30 when I start my PhD. For the record, I also had a five year break between my Bachelor and Masters degree. Hopefully the combination of study and real world experience and having had proper jobs along the way will stand well for me.

      For me, the goal is to become a lecturer and in my opnion, to make myself competitive for such a position I feel I need to have a PhD. So that is my plan which may work for me, it is not for everyone and nor should it be. There is nothing wrong with doing a PhD; whether it ties in with your chosen career at the time or not. If you want to do it, do it; if not, don’t knock others down who would give it a go.

    • Meagan says:

      10:47pm | 09/05/11

      There are many jobs where a PhD is a minimum qualification (eg medical research and lecturing).  I remember mine as a hellish 3.5yr marathon.

      Would I do it again? No, probably not, I love science and love what I do, but begging for salary funding is undignified. Using scientists as a political football is pathetic. (Gillard government, that comment was aimed directly at you.) The stress associated with not knowing whether you’ll have a job when your grant finishes is not worth the pathetic salary.

      Congratulations on your PhD Emma and welcome to the club (make sure you get someone to teach you the handshake)! It truly is a wonderful accomplishment.

    • DaveinPerth says:

      12:52am | 10/05/11

      Emma. Kudos to you! Some unkind people would suggest a Doctorate in Philosophy is a spectacular waste of time, but,....but….but….(recursive loop trying to think of a ‘but’)...............

    • Gaby says:

      10:30am | 10/05/11

      Thanks Emma for such a fantastic article! I am in the middle of my PhD and it reflects 100% how I have been feeling.  It is great to see someone give voice to the frustrations and the wonder of furthering research.

    • Sam says:

      10:57am | 10/05/11

      Yes… I’m doing a PhD in biological reproduction, all I can say is, I concur.

    • Shama says:

      01:19pm | 10/05/11

      When we were studying, PhD stood for permanent head damage. Not because you were doing ground breaking work, but more like limping to the finish after being worn out by the process - and with little to show for the years except a thesis of whose merit you were yourself not fully convinced.

      Like much of modern science (and perhaps the arts), it just gives middle class people a way to delay entering life. Its not that terribly hard to get a PhD these days either-profs need it on their CVS, the judging committee is an old boys club.

      IMO the best PhDs are those who do it later in life because they really want to do it and its not a means to prolong student life or a career progression step.

    • Tony Burden says:

      10:56am | 11/05/11

      Well done Emma Jane! I have a thang for smart women that are willing to put out.

    • punkdocker says:

      12:01pm | 11/05/11

      Help, I’m stuck in an orgy of reading, where I mostly don’t understand the titles let alone the content, who uses words like phlogiston anyway? I’m definitely no academic and whilst I dream of retiring to work in the paint or garden section at Bunnings there is much to be trudged through to make the world a better place. thanks so much for posting this, makes me feel a little better, just need to get off these sites and stop procrastinating

    • Faybian says:

      08:47pm | 11/05/11

      Loved the comparison between reproduction and a PhD. I can (and have) do the first, but am not willing to attempt the 2nd. Even the thought of my masters sets me on edge.

    • Sangita De says:

      01:01pm | 16/09/11

      I am impressed with this piece, I know exactly what it means , as I have lived every bit of it. I have a 9 year old boy, I enrolled for PhD program at Griffith University when he turned 3, six month into the program I was expecting . My daughter is 5 years old and I have submitted my thesis waiting for the outcome. So years 5 year old child and 5 years of PhD work. And still wondering….

    • lb says:

      03:53pm | 23/05/12

      I can’t believe anyone would compare childbirth to a PhD. A PhD is a breeze by comparison. I have to say I did spend 4 months in a wheelchair from my pelvic joints separating too far and I did push out a baby without even a panadol whose weight was in the 85 th percentile while mine would have to be the bottom 10 percent but even without that I’m sure a PhD is easier. I had a shower every day during my PhD. I went to the toilet without a small person on my lap and I certainly didn’t get up every hour at night.

      That said having a baby is more rewarding too. grin


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