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an open letter to those who’ve never done a PhD

Image: Becky Wetherington

Image: Becky Wetherington


An open letter to the family, friends, acquaintances, baristas, colleagues of a PhD candidate, and anyone who might have come in contact with one or even observed us from afar.

Dearest Family, friends, acquaintances, baristas, colleagues etc,

This is a really difficult letter to write – but I feel you’ve left me no other choice. I’m writing this on behalf of PhD candidates everywhere.

I would speak to you individually but funding for PhD Candidate Awareness Training (PCAT) was rejected on the basis that the chief investigators do not have sufficient publications. But they do hope we’ll consider applying again next year.

Back to my letter.

Firstly, we’d like to thank you for recognising that we’re currently going through a “difficult period” in the PhD process.

Some might say the entire PhD is a difficult period in the PhD process but we like to think we dip and soar.

We thank you for being patient with us while we snap at you for asking if we’d like sugar in our tea or indeed if we’d like tea at all.

We thank you for being lovely and understanding about our short tempers.

We thank you for recognising that it’s out of character for us. We really do. And we hope we can return the favour some day.

But no matter how well-meaning you are, there are some things we’re just not going to thank you for.

It’s high time you realised the things you think are “nice” and “caring” are annoying as all hell.

We know you don’t mean to be, hence the letter. We’d love to salvage this relationship but first, we need to be heard.

We don’t thank you for your incessant questioning of our progress. If we could ‘just sit down and finish it’ we would.

If it really could be done in ‘one, maximum two, years’ as so many of you love to claim, we’d do it in ‘one, maximum two years’.

We’d love to give you an answer to ‘so when do you finish?’ but we can’t because, for the Love of Thor, We! Don’t! Know!

When you ask us what we’ve been doing for the last three years we silently grit our teeth, clench our fists and will ourselves to exercise restraint. Because behind that smile is the overwhelming desire to either scream obscenities or punch you in the face.

We know it’s that you genuinely care, and we think it’s great that you take an interest in our lives – it’s really very sweet – but we can’t tell you how much we don’t want to talk about our PhDs. Honestly it’s a unique form of insanity, one only those who’ve been there can appreciate.

Which brings us to our next point: we don’t thank you for the unwelcome advice.

If we wanted your advice, we’d ask for it.

We know it’s really hard to understand but even when we burst into tears in the middle of a Korean restaurant, we still don’t want your advice.

We would really appreciate a hug though. A bear hug. The kind that makes us cry more because once all the tears flow there’s nothing to do but pick yourself up and give it your best before the next big blow.

So hugs – yes; questions and advice – no.

We don’t thank you for questions about our post-PhD lives.

Right now, we cannot envisage life beyond the oppressive black cloud that is the final write up of the most difficult thing we’ve ever written.

And NO it is not like a ‘really long assignment, duh’.

We don’t thank you for the constant clarification of ‘you won’t be a real doctor, though’ and any other lame play on the word ‘doctor’. All those jokes have been made before by someone much funnier than you.

We will never thank you for every unwanted chirp of ‘what is the significance of your research anyway?’ which is almost always followed by the only thing more unoriginal than a ‘real doctor’ joke: the proclamation of ‘my tax dollars fund you.’

While the research I work on contributes to our progress as a nation, you’re pissed off that three cents of your weekly tax from your “real job” goes to keep me living on or below the poverty line. Thanks, dude!

We happily recognise that we occupy a very privileged position. What we do is something many people would love the opportunity to pursue, but it’s not easy, or cruisy, or a creative way to avoid “getting a real job” – it’s hard work.

So when you’re looking for ways to support us, try offering hugs and cake, love and affection, but leave the questions and inquiries at home.

With love,

Every PhD Student Ever xx

4 thoughts on “an open letter to those who’ve never done a PhD

  1. Great article. Gives a great voice to the PhD Candidate and the insanity that goes with it. I loved your comment “… It’s a unique form of insanity, one o my those who have been there can appreciate.” Oh that is so true. When I was doing my PhD (I actually finished with an MPhil instead as after five years and health issues this was the best option) I’d wished there was someone that could give advice, guidance and understanding. Someone who could have told me “really think about what you are doing – it is a very rewarding, unique and fulfilling experience, but it is mentally, physically and emotionally draining, it becomes your life, it is stressful and breaks people.”

  2. way to be ungrateful for genuine inquiries. would you rather nobody spoke to you for 3 years? people make conversation about the major things you do in life and since a PhD takes up so much of a lot of student’s lives it’s a pretty legitimate talking point. unless someone is being an actual dick about it, there’s no need to get all offended and holier-than-thou just because that person “doesn’t understand what it’s like” if they haven’t done a PhD. just tell them to their faces if you don’t wanna talk about it rather than expecting people to know that you don’t want about this huge, interesting thing in your life.

  3. As someone who once declined the proposition to embark on a PhD, rest assured that the reason why (PhD) candidates are often asked those inane questions is because – with the exception of science, medicine and material-related PhDs – most of the doctoral research are of no value to human condition. They are, to put it bluntly, a huge academic con job. Take architecture for example. Most if not all of them are about dead architects or some research into the never-never of architectural practice; the dissections of esoteric words, metaphor or faux creativity.
    Universities are funded on the basis of the number of research projects. PhDs fit the bill to a ‘t’.
    That’s why we – mere earth-bound mortals – ask what is it like to be researching Nothingness? It’s almost Zen. Don’t you think? My advice is, get a job, get out from under a shelter workshop. Be a carpenter or plumber or electrician. they’re mosre useful when the nuclear winter comes.

  4. There are obviously a number of different opinions about the relevance of PhDs, the PhD student experiene and research in general. Undertaking a PhD is a unique experience, and some people who haven’t undertaken research may not understand the differences between this and coursework. PhD students occupy a niche that straddle both student, researcher and employee. A sort of limbo, where although you are technically a student and will graduate with a degree at the end of three years or more, you are a researcher at a university, you associate with academics and experts in your chosen discipline, and you don’t attend classes, or conventional assignments or exams. You attend conferences, discuss the literature and become a sort of expert on your subject. If you have a scholarship, you aren’t technically employed, yet working on your research is work, a job. With this unique experience brings all manner of pressures and I think it is where PhD students get lost in their emotional state. If others view PhD students with some of these things in mind, perhaps they can understand some of the emotional outbursts and frustrations.

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