On PhD humiliation: letter to a friend

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Hi Beth,

It was good to see you yesterday, although you did seem out-of-sorts and, as you said yourself: shattered. As I sat there I was quite torn. On the one hand you were asking for my thoughts and recollections, but on the other hand it seemed that more than anything you needed to have a good howl. I hope you got that (howl) before the end of the day. So in answer to your question, here are a few thoughts. I hope they help, but I think the howl will probably help more.

The PhD process brought me to some of my lowest lows in my work life so far. Bringing our as-yet-unformed work in front of so-called experts is exposing, even humiliating. It’s hard not to feel demeaned and belittled in front of rigorous academic critique. I remember phoning Rob after one such session and choking, sobbing over the phone. That was my lowest point and I nearly, nearly gave up. On one level a PhD is simply a qualification in bloody-minded persistence. It’s about not giving up, and about keeping going through times exactly like this.

In retrospect (and I know this is probably not much consolation) I can see the emotional lows are a big part of the process. You will reach a stage where you know the answers to the questions raised by experts or you can see the questions for what they are – irrelevant. Then there you are, standing firm on your own piece of ground and robust in your position.

Remember, also, we are ‘disabled’ to some degree by our age, gender and past as practitioners. Academic language and norms are not the same as the languages we use in practice. As difficult as it is to learn a new language, so it is to learn academic norms of communication. This will feel a real struggle at first but once mastered you have a huge advantage because you will know how to speak in practice AND in academic words. Bilingual. Not all academics have that. Similarly as a woman you may struggle to be heard in your male-dominated discourse, but once you’ve mastered the use of male academic language then you have the advantage of being able to slip in-between those worlds.

So well done on getting this far. Hang on in there. Persistence is key. More than anything, just take the next step.

Warm wishes, Lisa

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