PhDs: What they don’t tell you

The God’s honest truth is that I never really wanted to do a PhD. I thought only introverts in their mid-50s did one – or scientists. When the prospect came my way (thanks again to the marvellous Dr Lexi Lasczik) I had just finished my Masters and was ready to go out into the workforce.

KIDDING. Who’s ever ready for that?

No, I was petrified that I’d wasted the better half of a decade pursuing a career in the visual arts and didn’t know what to do next. Delay the inevitable job searching for another 4 years? SIGN ME UP.

While there are a lot of things they tell you when you apply for and then begin doctoral research, there’s another side to this academic-limbo-land I wish I had been privy to.

In the coming weeks, I’ll get into the nitty gritty of my project, but there’s a couple things I want you to know before we start.

Firstly, you can apply the ideas below to any kind of creative journey. So if you’ve never been to university or don’t plan on doing graduate work, every time I write ‘PhD’, sub in the name of your project.

Secondly, this isn’t a ‘what to expect from a PhD’ conversation, but rather a few key learnings from the intimate battle I had with myself during the 4.5 years of my candidature.

Everything is magnified

There’s a common misconception that having children will fix or improve a rocky relationship. Doing a PhD is kinda like that – except with yourself. Not only will every insecurity be amplified (hello self worth), but also anything you find difficult will become much harder (hello procrastination).

It’s a personal journey

And a bumpy one at that. As part of my research, I had to articulate how and why I viewed the world in the specific way that I do. That’s fucking scary.

I think that everyone is creative – why?

Writing can heal – how?

This is important – says who?

By exploring the perspectives of other academics, I was able to dive deeper into these questions. This process helped me get my head around the lens I use to see and interact with the world. Certainly not for the faint of heart.

Be prepared to question everything

I mean EVERYTHING. At certain points I even had doubts about what to choose for dinner. It’s not the regular decision fatigue we often face on a daily basis, but something much deeper and more personal.

If there are so many different ways to do things, how do I know that what I’m doing is the best thing for me?…and other such existential crises.

What you’ll REALLY need

This is the formula – that when added together – got me to the finish line. I’ll offer a ‘real world translation’ too so you can find what you need to get shit done.

 Photo by  John Schnobrich  on  Unsplash
Photo by John Schnobrich  on Unsplash

Supervisors who GET you

My supervisors – Lexi, Janie and Amy – really GOT me. They understood how crucial it was for me to have space to create, time to think and plentiful amounts of freedom to pursue my project. Their experience in arts-based educational research and creative writing allowed me to cut corners and get to the heart of what it was I was trying to uncover.

Real world: seek out a mentor, or a critical friend, who you feel comfortable enough with to bounce ideas off, read drafts or help guide your project.


EndNote is incredible – if used correctly. If not, it will become your worst nightmare. I took a few online classes through my university to learn how to navigate this beast and I’m SO glad I did. When it came time to export my bibliography, all I had to do was press ‘export’ and it dropped all of my references into my Word doc. Genius.

Real world: use project management software (like Trello) or a legit way (like a spreadsheet) to keep tabs on all of the moving parts of your project. This could also be an external hard drive or even flashcards.

 Photo by  Anika Huizinga  on  Unsplash
Photo by Anika Huizinga  on Unsplash


This sounds pretty obvious, but sitting at a desk for 8 to 10 hours a day, working on the SAME thing, destroys your body. I chose yoga to get me moving and it also alleviated a lot of the anxiety and stress I was feeling trying to get things done. But yoga can be expensive – same with a gym membership – so it’s important to start small and cheap.

Real world: go for neighbourhood walks, or if you’re into yoga, do classes on Youtube (here’s my favourite teacher, Bad Yogi). DROP AND GIVE ME 20, or whatever – just make sure you get off that chair a few times each hour.

Multiple library cards

This feels more like a life hack. As a PhD student, I was external and off-campus. I was #BLESSED with a postgrad society that covered the costs of posting library books to me from Lismore to Melbourne. I also had 5 other libraries in town that I frequented. Free books – need I say more.

Real world: my love of libraries still remains, and they’re a great place to go if you’ve annoyed the shit out of your local barista after spending 5 hours in their café, only ordering 1 latte.

Google Scholar

Oh the GOOGS. Controversial amongst academics, Google Scholar did save my bacon on more than one occasion. It’s a great place to go if you hear yourself saying: “What was that dude’s name? You know, the grief guy?” A quick search and BAM, a world of references. I’d advise against using it for citations though as they’re not always correct.

Real world: post-it notes or an app like Wunderlist will help you keep track of the things you know you’ll forget at some point.

Where you start…ain’t where you’ll finish

My research process was very organic. I didn’t have a complex Gantt chart, but I did have a desired destination and a few key milestones to work towards. I started my research wanting to explore the coping strategies of teenagers and ended up making an artist’s book about my relationship with my mother – go figure! Be open to the shifting sands of creativity because it will give you what you need (even if it feels like hell at the time).

Then there’s the PhD hangover

I was warned about this phase of doctoral research around graduation time. As with any project, once it’s finished a whole chunk of your schedule (and in this case identity) just disappears. It was like waking up from a really long bender at a hotel in Hong Kong, next to someone you don’t recognise (your former self), with the bitter taste of productivity in your mouth.

 Photo by  elizabeth lies  on  Unsplash
Photo by elizabeth lies  on Unsplash

The best thing to do for the hangover is to bunker down and ride it out. I say this now with the benefit of hindsight, but it might also be good to also drink some water and throw back a couple Paracetamol (that’s Acetaminophen for my US friends).

I still have a sore head, almost a year later, but the pounding has lessened to a dull ache. I’m sure time will heal that one, but if you have any remedies, I’m all ears.

Are you about to embark on a big project or grand new adventure? Let me know in the comments below.

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