Dear 2020, you were definitely not the year most of us wanted or asked for as we were bidding 2019 farewell, but here you are. I’m grateful though, very grateful. I really wouldn’t have learned any of the things I know now if it weren’t for the curveballs this year has thrown my way. As the saying goes, ‘fine weather never made a skilled sailor’. It’s true, as cliché as it sounds. (Although I still sometimes wish none of us needed stormy weather to become savvy sailors.) Below are some of the critical things I learned from this year, but also some of the key takeaways from a recent workshop I attended with my HDR peers and new graduates. It was also fortunate that two senior academics, who were also PhD supervisors, were able to join us to share their postgraduate journeys and the different forms of ‘disruption’ that they had to navigate through. Why am I sharing this now, at the end of the year? It’s because although most students have finished their semester and exams are slowly concluding too, a lot of HDR students like me will need to be mindful that we give ourselves a chance to have a proper break during the summer break even though we can be silently plugging away with our writing and work.
Celebrate small wins. This was shared advice from both senior academics. Celebrate all small milestones. The PhD journey is a marathon and not a sprint. Go out for dinner and celebrate a publication. Have a sleep-in the morning after delivering a conference presentation. Catch-up with friends and go for a long hike, after editing a chapter of your thesis. What are fun things you like to do and share with friends? This will give you renewed motivation to tackle the next task.
Carve out work time, however that works for you. Sometimes PhD work has to be balanced with caring responsibilities. There are students who are enrolled part-time and need to be working full-time. Go with whatever works best for you but try and delineate work time from personal time so that you can allow yourself some space for rest and recreation too.
Write every day. Again, the PhD journey is a marathon, not a sprint, so keep plugging away and write every day. I am only slowly realizing that writing my thesis is essentially a repetitive task of re-writing and re-editing. Also remember, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Yes, we need to do our best, but sometimes in trying to write the perfect paragraph, we never even get to finish a well-written sentence. Our doctoral thesis is not the only thing that we will write in our lifetime.
Reach out. Most doctoral students tend to be perfectionists. Yes, we need to be cautious about comparing ourselves to other postgraduates and their accomplishments, but the PhD cohort is also a source of support. Most of our family and friends may not fully understand the struggles, and so we need to reach out to our peers. Stay close to those who are supportive of your work. The PhD is quite often a very isolating experience and the experiences of lockdown during a pandemic can heighten this, so make sure to reach out.
Find the meaning in your work. Remember that as a PhD student, this is one of the very few times you will get to work on just this single piece of research at one given time. For most of us PhD students, our research project is also something that we picked out ourselves. Remember why we wanted to study it in the first place. Make your research relevant to your life and your experiences.
Contribute and share. Think about how you can make your research relevant to the world, engage with society by allowing your research to contribute not just to existing knowledge in your field, but also to real-world issues and conversations. Remembering why your research is important will help motivate you to keep going despite disruptive periods in your candidature.
Dear 2020, especially as I’m writing this on the day that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, despite the challenges this year I am so thankful for Uni. Everything may seem unpredictable, and yes bureaucracy can still be annoying, jobs are scarce, but Uni still represents opportunity and provides a space to breathe. I am also thankful for all the wonderful people who work earnestly to support us students. I am thankful that through the different periods of lockdowns, I very much still feel a real sense of community among my cohort and real support from academics and the professional staff.