Why I shouldn’t have finished my PhD - reasons I should not be sitting on this side of submission
I was listening to a podcast the other day - on my luxuriously void of rewriting thoughts Sunday morning walk around my local lake to be exact - and there was one question that I absolutely loved and started answering immediately in my head. The host (@rachelhollis) had some very successful women on her stage and in front of a large audience of aspiring entrepreneurs asked the question:
Why shouldn’t you be here? The subtext of which was “How have you got to where you are now despite all the reasons why you should not have achieved those lofty heights of success?
And I immediately thought of all the reasons why I should not have finished my PhD. And frankly if I’m honest, all the reasons why I should not have started a PhD. This is not a great big rant about privilege, or a rocky-esque story of underdog achievement - I am very privileged and the closest I get to training at dawn is rolling on to a thomas-the-tank engine figurine in my sleep. But I have found it useful to unpack some of the reasons as to why I should not have got what I wanted… and perhaps this same list will be useful for my future self and my next big project, as well as you and yours.
In the almost 5 years I took to complete my PhD a whole lot of life happened. And at least 3 of these could have derailed the phd progress, and they all did. Let me reframe my self-talk so it’s clear what I mean I should not have finished my PhD because I had a baby in the middle of analysis and writing up my papers. Guys, Mama-ing is no joke. It will chew you up and spit you back up, usually AFTER you’ve taken away the gross burping towel and have on clean clothes… I struggled (and still struggle) with trying to get my brain to switch on, think creatively, solve problems and especially re-write paragraphs to address feedback. I was sleep deprived, wanting only to follow my instincts around parenting this little world changer and have her with me all the time. And I did that. And big picture - I regret nothing. But an attachment parenting approach coupled with a very busy partner and no family in town for the first 9 months meant that I should not have progressed my PhD.
I should not have finished my PhD because my Mum got sick 6 months into starting it. Cancer is a bitch and makes you re-prioritise faster than most things anyone will experience in their lives. My Mum and I are very close (like Gilmore Girls close) despite me now living on the other side of Australia from her and in the afternoon of knowing there was a tumour and before getting on the red-eye across the country to be able to go with her to meet the surgeon the next day I had all sorts of scenarios running through my head. Including, moving back across the country and abandoning the PhD. Two surgeries, months of chemo and now almost 5 years later she is cancer free- the best outcome we could have hoped for. But being the primary carer for someone, whilst being on the other side of the country was very challenging. And there were plenty of times when I was in the hospital wishing that I didn’t have to be responding to emails and could focus on the important things with Mum - like rewatching episodes of The West Wing and beating her at Gin Rummy (even when she did play the cancer card).
I should not have finished my PhD because I had to plan a wedding and get married. And weddings ain’t cheap. Before starting the PhD there was a lot of financial analysis to identify if it was feasible, and how long it would take to make the lost money back again. I’m not there yet, and don’t bother asking for at least another three years. The smart move would have been to take a full time therapist job, plan and pay for the wedding and enjoyed the whole process more. But, I’m obviously not that smart. Which brings me to my next category of reasons why I should not have finished my PhD: Mindset
Mindset: or the shit I tell myself
I should not have finished my PhD because I am not a good student. Ask any of my teachers in my formative primary and adolescent years and they will likely tell you a similar story - gifted but terribly disorganised. Not a good student. Does not apply herself. I’ve had this mindset as part of me for so long that even in my mid-thirties I let it sabotage my efforts with writing my phd, or trying to learn something new about analysis. Never mind that I was one of only a few single-parent household students at my school, never mind I was a year younger and had a few gaps in my learning having skipped a grade in primary school, never mindAnd it wasn’t just when I was a kid, this same label could be applied to my undergrad degree. I didn’t even get first class honours… by one point… averaged across two examiners… and I never challenged it. When I got to the application stage for my phd and scholarships I really regretted not challenging that one mark. Some of why I didn’t challenge it was because I was listening to that mindset of I’m not a good student, I’ll never do a PhD, I just want a job, I don’t care, I’m not good enough to get first class honours.
I should not have finished my PhD because I am not good at statistics. Like other girls of my generation, and generations before me I was told I wasn’t very good at maths. It doesn’t matter that it was complete bullshit - I have carried that within me for years. I even held on to it during my undergrad intro to statistics courses and got the worst mark. Not because I didn’t understand it, but that I didn’t bother to try to understand it because I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to. I had a defeatist attitude from the start, and only proved myself (and that little, shitty voice) right.
I'm lazy. This is a lie. It’s impossible to be lazy, run a RCT, plan a wedding, Mama a toddler, start a business, grow a business, buy a house, move to a new city, create content for an instagram account, come up with new ways to bake with rhubarb, write a childrens book, get it illustrated, self-publish, teach future leader OTs, occasionally straighten your hair and address reviewer comments. And yet here I am. Having done all of these things in the last five years and still telling myself I’m lazy.
It is legitimately hard
I should not have finished my PhD because it is legitimately hard. It is. It is bigger and harder than you expect, than anyone warned you about. And things will go wrong. And you can’t control everything. And there is no way around that. No one to handover to to do the work when you can’t, when you need a break, if you’re sick or want to take a holiday. It’s always there, waiting only for you to do. It’s harder than a job. It’s harder than starting a business. It’s harder than writing a book. It is that simple. It is that hard.
I should not have finished my PhD because I could never “finish” my chapters. I could never write a perfect chapter. There was always something to tweak or improve or reconsider or reorder. I needed to get more comfortable with different iterations and constant improvement and failing forward. But if I was trying to write a thesis that was good and comprehensive and concise I’d still be working on it. Although it is submitted, my thesis is not finished. I just hope that it is good enough.
I should not have finished my PhD because I had never run a research project before. This isn’t something that I went in to the PhD thinking, I went in with a student mentality - I was here to learn. But looking back it would have been so much smoother if I knew then what I know now. I would have chosen different outcome measures, changed the intervention, some of the analysis… all of which I can take with me to future projects. But I can see how I really had no clue about how big my research project was or all the different balls I needed to juggle.
Reading back through this post I realise two things: 1. I am SO done with rewriting and have no interest in taking this draft and reworking it. Sorry, I’m still pretty raw from my thesis and you’ll have to find your own way through my meandering long sentences; and, 2. This is a pretty negative post and I’m usually optimistic; the little positive problem solver in your Instagram feed.
I’m an OT remember, the quiet cheerleader of the health world.
So I want you to remember that I have finished my PhD. I have achieved this big, hairy, audacious goal and I’m sitting on the other side of it, dangling my feet in the water and enjoying the sunshine.
And now I want to ask you, with this in mind and considering what you’ve achieved - why should you not be where you are today?