Socialising outside of the PhD bubble
I met up with some old friends and their families at the weekend, none of whom are doing or have done PhD’s (although the majority are from science background and a couple are commercial researchers). We chatted for a while about work, and I explained a bit about my career plans. It was interesting in hindsight that I found myself explaining my plan for finishing the PhD and for finding a post-doc in a slightly defensive way. My friends have little in depth knowledge about the process of a PhD and would have next to no interest whether it takes 3 years or 5 years to finish. They were approaching it as “it’s really cool you’re doing a PhD, what’s next?” and I was hearing “it’s nearly been three years why haven’t you finished yet and got a postdoc?”! So why did I feel so vulnerable talking to them about it?
I think the answer is down to the intensity of the PhD experience; although we work with people on a diverse range of projects typically everyone we interact with at work is on the same treadmill and we measure ourselves against each other’s progress and the 3 year “deadline”. It is a commonly accepted fact that PhD’s are rarely completed within, or on 3 years (a quick calculation of recent new Dr’s here gives an average completion time of 3 years 9 months) indeed most European country’s programmes are 4 or even 5 years. This places a psychological burden on people doing a PhD in that from the outset you are working towards a goal that few people will achieve. I stated from the outset I wanted to finish in 42 months (not 36), but I have felt the increasing burden of expectation in my third year. There is a sense that you are a slight failure if you do not complete in 3 years, and people seem increasingly reluctant to ask people writing-up when they are hoping to finish the longer they go on.
This is a tricky issue and I think it stems from the funding time of UK PhD’s (although I’d be interested to hear the experiences of non-UK people in the comments) and as such I don’t think there is much we can do to avoid it. However I think a sense of perspective can really help people from getting too down-hearted about the grind to complete. Ultimately a PhD is a job, an apprenticeship if you like, and although important no one should define their self-worth solely on how good or competent they are at their job.
For those of us with partners outside of academia it can be a valuable reality check, but by socialising outside of the PhD bubble from time to time, particularly with old friends you can get a sense of perspective that completing a PhD is a great achievement whether you finish it in 3 years, or 3 years and a bit…