Having what it takes

With the risk of turning the entire academic world against me, I’m going to let you in on a secret: to get a PhD, you really don’t have to be a rocket scientist. But you do have to be tenacious and diligent. That means that when working on a PhD, you’re in it for the long haul and you have to have the discipline to keep at it. You can’t give up. Even when you think you are never going to finish, that it will never turn into a thesis, you still don’t give up.

The other thing about working on a PhD is that it is an emotional roller coaster. Especially in an area like the social sciences, where you choose your topic – a topic you’re interested in, or even better, passionate about – you inevitably start to equate yourself with your work. Your thesis becomes a very personal project, and since you’re basically working on your own, your self-esteem fluctuates with your thesis. When work is good you think it’s because you are good, and when work isn’t so good you invariable start feeling that you’re pretty bad yourself. Yes I know, it isn’t true, but that is how it feels.

So it’s years of ups and downs, euphoria and despair – and plain hard work of course – and you stick it through and all of a sudden you’re given the green light to submit your thesis. And then you get on the mini emotional roller coaster of waiting for examiners’ reports, and then you finally get those and you probably have to do some revisions and finally, magically, you finish your thesis and it gets accepted and life is a dream. The happiness I felt when my PhD was accepted is almost hard to describe. It lasted for weeks. A friend of mine said it was like being in love.

And then you realize, that although you made it to the end of your journey, it really wasn’t the end, actually it’s only the beginning. Now you embark on your life as a ‘real’ academic, and to do that you have to publish. That is, you have to write and publish academic papers in order to prove your worth as an academic, and you have to continue doing so again and again to stay in the game.

And that’s where I am right now. Near the beginning of my continued journey, and I’m working on papers. What’s surprising is that writing papers of say 8000 or 15000 words depending on what journal you plan to submit to, is unexpectedly hard. There’s no space to embellish the way I had the luxury of doing in my thesis. And also, after having put my heart and soul into my manuscript, mustering the energy to saying selected bits again but differently feels challenging. Not to mention all the future rejections I’m bracing myself for…

As I reflect over this path I’ve chosen, that certainly doesn’t feel like the easiest path at the moment, I think about tenacity, and realize that this really goes for anything you want to achieve in life. If you want something, you’re just going to have to work hard for it. Most of us are anyway. It reminds me of a TED talk I once saw (here’s another secret, I really like TED talks). I think it was a talk by Brené Brown and she mentioned how although the organizers invite successful people to talk at the TED conferences, the talks are really about failure. Instead of talking about great successes and breakthroughs, the speakers talk the audience through all the failures it took before achieving success. If they had given up the first moment things got tough, they wouldn’t be where they are now, and ironically we wouldn’t have very many success stories to talk about.

So how does this translate to every day life? Well, I’m going to quote my dad whose motto, whether playing a game of chess or navigating professional life, is ‘never give up’.

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