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Nilam's PhD Rollercoaster

This material is work in progress and is part of my unique, participatory workshop 'The Ups and Downs of PhD Research.' For more information, please visit my website nilamashramcgrath.co.uk. Thank you and enjoy!
by Nilam Ashra-McGrath on 7 November 2012

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Transcript of Nilam's PhD Rollercoaster

Nilam's PhD Rollercoaster
(no-one told me it would be like this) This just gets better! Look at all this data! And it's almost summer and I haven't done enough to transfer to the next year. I have to get this report
done for my sponsors, then
work on my literature review. August 2005: A white A4 envelope landed on my doormat this morning with a big ESRC logo on it. I knew what it was – I was to start a full time PhD in a months’ time and knew that this held an unimaginable amount of promise for my future. I ripped open the envelope, scanned the contents quickly and kissed it. Then I went to work, and with a smile playing on my face, I handed my notice in. Then I met my sponsors who said... 'can you just ask our 8000 members a few things about their jobs? It won't take you long... So it started on a high. I was enthusiastic and motivated, and loved lying in bed for a little longer... 6 months later and I'm tearing my hair out trying to get the sponsors to respond to my emails and phone calls. Wasn't this their idea? Why are they being so difficult? Man, this is hard. Meanwhile, I spend Christmas and New Year in Singapore. I don't realise that this will be my last 'real' holiday for 3 years. The sponsors finally sent the questionnaire in their ebulletin and members are actually filling it in! I did that! Me, little ol' me! Whoaah! No-one told me it would be like this... there's a surprise... Crap. Look at all this data. but the great people I meet on my research methods course help me through the next few years I send the report to my sponsors. No-one replies. I get an email telling me that my main contact at the sponsor left last week. I feel like I've wasted the entire year, whereas my peers are on schedule with figuring out their research questions and methods. Even though I went on a research methods course, I have NO IDEA what I am doing. A bad day Then I find myself on a winning streak, and things are GREAT.
I'm on fire just now.
I mean, really shit hot...why? Because within 1 hour of my press release going out asking for research participants, I've had several responses, which I am astounded at.

It seems as though my planets are all aligned to make things easy. After much weeding out, I select 3 organisations in Scotland.

“Is that because Scottish people are nicer?” says one of my supervisors.

I dash up north to visit them. They are all keen to take part in my diary study, and before Christmas they have started writing their diaries.

I leave for the festive season thinking that I don’t want to stop for the break. Truly the sign of an obsessive. I have been bitten by the PhD bug. Over the summer, I try and put the experience behind me. Eventually I feel that it's not all bad... In fact, by the end of the summer my reading and writing is sharper than it has been all year and I actually enjoy the process. Even though I've just done a course on research methods and analysing data, I have NO IDEA what I'm doing OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! This isn't a learning curve, it's a rollercoaster. I'm on a really punishing schedule of interviews, in addition to keeping track of all the diary entries But the results I'm getting are great. I'm becoming a geek about my data and diary methods. I'm also reading non-stop: speed-reading, skimming stuff, devouring anything about discourse analysis. Up and down I go on my rollercoaster But all the travelling is taking its toll. I end up being trapped in Dundee in a blizzard after taking a 5am train for a 1pm interview. I book into a hotel with a hot-tub, and sleep like I've never slept before. It gets worse. I go to a course in London about discourse analysis. My body is screaming for me to take a rest. I should have listened to my body. To make matters worse, I have taken on teaching duties, which I begin to absolutely HATE. More teaching. (with bags under my eyes, back pain, and general anxiety attacks about my research) After a gorgeous honeymoon in Japan, I return to a library fine of £33 and the last round of interviews in Scotland. And then, after 165 diary entries, 20 hours of interviews, and too many early mornings and late nights, my data collection is complete. Erm, now what? Transcribing is horrible. I turn into a total bitch and snap at everyone around me. AND...I am spending a small fortune on acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, Bach's Rescue Remedies and anything I think might help with the stress and the pain. If someone told me that eating ground up seahorses would give me superpowers to finish the PhD, I would do it.

Merry Christmas, eh? I spend Christmas Day, in my pyjamas, transcribing at my kitchen table.

My husband watches DVD
box-sets in peace.

I go to bed crying with back pain.

When will this horror end? I have given myself 6 months to write the thesis (before my funding runs out), so I suppose I should begin writing.
But how do you write a thesis? I mean, no-one actually tells you how to begin writing it, do they? Light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. The transcribing is complete! Wow, look at these themes, they're really cool... At first, I'm writing about 300 words a day, then the more I analyse my data, the easier it is to see the themes and how they link together. This soon turns into a thesis plan My deadline is approaching but my supervisor does not give me the feedback in time for me to submit before my funding runs out. My second supervisor steps in to save the process from ending as a train wreck.
Him: I've examined hundreds of theses and this one is ready to submit
Me: [sob] But it feels so final handing over this baby to a woman behind a glass screen. All I can think is 'now what?' Sshhh! I've secretly packed my thesis to read on the beach. My viva is set for January. I spend New Year in Abu Dhabi. No-one tells you about the year after finishing your PhD, when you're trying to adjust to civilian life, and you've forgotten how. VIVA DAY! I see a rainbow and find £50 in shopping vouchers in my old work bag. How corny is that? with no corrections! Now what? But there is a storm brewing DEADLINE
GONE! I am now without funding, or any work, or any contact with my supervisor. What's happening? What shall I do? Dec 2008: 2 months after my funding ends, I have NO IDEA what to do with myself. I have no job, no money and my body is wrecked. No-one told me it would be like this. I should be happy right? OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! Here's the thing... And it still feels like a rollercoaster. But it eventually evens out as I get more and more freelance work as a researcher and writer The world is mine
for the taking. June 2009: I graduate, with my husband and mother in the audience. We are on a live web-link and friends and family see me from afar.

The sun is shining on this day only, during the rainy, stormy spell that we are having in the UK. We have food, champagne and I open cards from my friends and family who came with me on this journey.

Before graduating, the chancellor gives a speech about how we have to be flexible to find work, and also how we have to create jobs instead of apply for them. I feel that the speech resonates with my mindset at the moment, as working for myself has proved very successful this year. Going rapidly
downhill.... But the teaching ends in the summer and........ I get married! For one day only, I drink a lot. A month later I am writing between 1000-2000 words a day. I'm on fire again! I'm feeling good about what I've written, so head to my last conference to present some ideas. Bloody hell, I've written a thesis! I am shattered. I head to China to visit my partner while he teaches there, and get a chest infection that lasts 3 weeks.
I have a miserable time. Z Z Z And the academic year begins with my first ever conference and shoulder to the grindstone with writing up my literature review. Thank you Scotland
and bye-bye! It's been emotional Oh yeah...I have to transcribe all those interviews and code all those diary entries. Energy levels going
rapidly downhill again.... So I start organising my data using NVIVO. little crop of ideas that might be included intro chapter lit review chapter methodology chapter my 3 organisation case studies, eventually combined as one chapter (I ran out of yellow sticky notes in mid-flow) my research findings, eventually written as three chapters concluding chapter I'm miserable because the last few months have left me feeling isolated and unsupported. This is the ONE THING THAT EVERYONE WARNED ME ABOUT, but you are never prepared for this because the feeling creeps up on you. I pass Praise be! OUCH! Ceremonies are important, they bring closure.
I end the day feeling that I am a practitioner with almost 20 years' experience and an excellent PhD to my name... What a mistake that was. A leading academic states, in front of me and around 10 people, that there is no PhD in what I have presented, and he should know, as he's examined lots of theses. He continues to pick holes, and I am reduced to tears in front of everyone. I ring my supervisors:
Supervisor 1: I've just looked him up on the internet, he's a nobody.
Supervisor 2: What an idiot. You'll pass. No student of mine has ever failed.
The organisers are so disgusted at this behaviour that they publicly thank me, in the conference communication that follows, for presenting new research.
I hate doing this. I want to give up. recovering from being shaken at the conference... YEAR 1: HAPPY. YEAR 1: HAPPY. YEAR 1: HAPPY. YEAR 2: WAVING, THEN DROWNING. YEAR 2: WAVING, THEN DROWNING. YEAR 2: WAVING, THEN DROWNING. YEAR 3: DOOM. YEAR 3: DOOM. YEAR 3: DOOM. YEAR 4: ADJUSTING TO CIVILIAN LIFE. YEAR 4: ADJUSTING TO CIVILIAN LIFE. Thank you for taking the time to read about my rollercoaster. Please don't let it scare you witless. Doing a PhD was an important part of my personal journey and, despite the pain and anxiety, I'm really glad I did it as it has opened up my career options.

Does this journey feel anything like yours? What else would you like to see included, for example, more about job hunting, relationships with supervisors or sponsors, or some more on health and wellbeing? This is a work in progress, and your comments will help shape what else I include on my timeline.

Please share my journey with as many PhD students as you can, and drop me a line to let me know what you think: n_ashra at hotmail dot com, thanks. My not very sophisticated,
low-tech plan, on my
kitchen wall. I submit my thesis Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot.
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