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Centre for Doctoral Education



‘Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’; or, surviving the PhD

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 8 August 2018

This is the first in a series of blog posts by the Institute’s doctoral students who are either on or have completed their PhD journey.  Dr. Sara Young, who recently passed her PhD viva, has written about how she survived the PhD.

Spring 2018 View across Gordon Square (Photographer: Sara Young).

The adage ‘war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’, said to date from the First World War, could just as well be applied to the long drawn out process of attrition that is a PhD.

Boredom because of the interminable hours you endure going over the same thing again and again until you’ve lost all sense of time or feeling. The endless days spent simply staring at a computer screen. A day during which you’ve written 150 words, deleted them, re-written them, changed the first word, put in a full stop, and then decided you preferred the first version that you wrote at 10am, and forgot to save.

Terror because of the nagging doubts that accompany you throughout the process: fear you won’t meet deadlines, fear it won’t be good enough, fear that you’ll have wasted your time and that the sacrifices you made putting your life on hold for the past four or more years will just have been an exercise in futility.

Here are some of my moments of boredom, sheer terror – and survival:

  • Year 1, December 2014: Working on the first draft of my literature review at the IoE over the Christmas holidays with a January deadline looming; I finished at the end of the afternoon to realise that it was only me and the security guard left in the building.
  • Year 3, Summer 2017: When my laptop broke down as I was writing my data analysis chapters, and the IT technician delicately suggested I may have lost the entire hard drive. Knowing I had almost everything backed up on USB sticks stopped me having a complete meltdown; ultimately, the wonderful IT genius salvaged everything, but I was without my laptop for five weeks while the computer company repaired it.
  • Year 4, February 2018: Attempting to revise the first five chapters of the thesis within a month. It snowed a lot; I trudged to and from the train station in the dark, cold, wet, fed-up and wondering why I was bothering. I sat on a lot of cold trains and in equally cold libraries. At some point, I received a text from a friend reminding me it was my birthday, which I had actually forgotten.
  • Year 4, June 2018: Finally… sitting in the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, celebrating a successful viva.

So how do you reach that final point?

Travelling to the IOE in all weathers (Photographer: Sara Young)

For me, the best antidote to the self-doubt and panic that set in, was simply to get on with it. I established my routine, and stuck to it. Everyone has their own method of working: for some people, targets and specific support networks are invaluable. For myself, I don’t count the number of words per day; I don’t enjoy writing groups; and I feel uncomfortable discussing my work while it’s still in progress. I find it almost impossible to pull an all-nighter. Instead, I found that starting work sitting in a corner of the 6am commuter train worked for me; working through lunch, battling through the afternoon and then going over what I’d written that day during the 5pm train journey home. I tried not to think too far ahead, about how much there was to be done, but just focused on what needed doing that week. I broke each chapter down into sections of under 1,000 words each. The prospect of writing 500 words on ‘Bilingualism’ felt a lot more focused and achievable than an entire chapter of 10,000 words on ‘Everything To Do With Language’.

To wind down, some people practise yoga. I preferred to take long walks round London. In doing so, I discovered I could work things out in my head that had been bothering me; I unfortunately also destroyed countless pairs of shoes.

Another resource that was extremely valuable was that of the IoE library. It was through sessions held at the Newsam that I first heard of ERIC and Copac, and understood how to navigate them together with Google scholar in the quest to locate exactly the item you want. There was always someone available to offer lucid advice, be it on finding the right books, resolving a technical issue or simply explaining the new photocopying system. Or sometimes just for a friendly chat about how things were going, equally important when a typical PhD day is mostly spent working in silence.

View from the 5th floor of IOE Library (photographer: Sara Young)

Over the course of my PhD, the library became part of my landscape. Long Sunday mornings spent at the small wooden desks on Level 5 looking out over the University buildings and watching the changing seasons: autumn leaves blown around in the wind, snow falling, glorious spring sunshine.

What also helped was establishing firm deadlines with my supervisor. Like most supervisors, she was extraordinarily busy, and needed to work to tight submission dates and supervision meetings. I used it as a way of organising my own schedule.

I took inspiration from other people that work to strict deadlines. For people who work in the theatre, opening night is a (generally) unnegotiable event. Having booked a theatre for the run, with tickets sold, and the publicity posters up in the tube, you can’t suddenly go, ‘Actually, we’re not ready. Can we open next month please?’ Newspaper editors can’t postpone tomorrow’s front page until things have quietened down a bit. I used this to motivate myself and tried to apply similar principles to my own deadlines.

Yet whatever you find to inspire you, writing a PhD remains a lonely business. At its worst, it’s miserable, depressing, and most of the time you wonder why it’s even worth it. I suffered palpitations from drinking too much coffee, and realised I had eaten nothing but cheese on toast for a fortnight. Whatever I did with the thesis, nothing seemed to look any different from the way it had several months previously, or even a year before. Even as something appeared finished, it needed revising in light of another chapter, or another article published that I needed to include. And yet gradually, despite my constant worry that it would never end, the work started to take shape.

Nearing the end of my PhD, I began to understand that even if you don’t see it at first, you gradually find yourself becoming more confident whenever someone asks what your PhD is about. You realise that you have become a slightly different person: you have the courage of your convictions, you have a voice.

And when you have submitted the thesis, undergone the viva, and received the final notification of your award, you realise that it is truly your work that you have successfully defended, your ideas, your project. So that however long it takes, and however difficult the process, when you use your new official title of ‘Dr’ for the first time, you remember that the journey was in fact, all worthwhile. Good luck!

Dr Sara Young, UCL Institute of Education

2 Responses to “‘Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror’; or, surviving the PhD”

  • 1
    Ayelen Hamity wrote on 5 October 2018:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am about to start my PhD journey, and suspect I will experience much of what you explained. Congratulations on your new (well-deserved) title.

  • 2
    John Howell wrote on 31 May 2019:

    Thank you for sharing your story, it is inspirational to read. Well done on achieving your PhD.

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