Why writing a PhD is still a life-changing personal journey

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The Independent Online

Can you write a PhD without going mad? As a secondary-school teacher, I couldn't wait for a break from the classroom and some time of my own. I had been warned that doing a PhD would be lonely, but I hadn't understood what that meant. Working from home was so appealing. No bell every 50 minutes to tell me to start doing something new. I could set my own timetable. But after days in my flat reading and writing, with no one to talk to, I began to doubt my sanity.

I did my PhD in teaching the Holocaust in school history at Goldsmiths, University of London, so that meant a lot of time on my own reading. Along with feelings of loneliness and isolation came guilt and crippling self-doubt. I felt guilty about not going to work like everybody else. Wouldn't I be better off in the classroom? Couldn't I make more of a difference as a teacher?

I felt unworthy of the academy, a feeling not helped by one academic I met who told me he "couldn't talk the language" with me because I hadn't got an MA. Maybe he was right. The books and journal articles I was reading were so well-written. Would I ever be able to write like that? Even if I could, would anyone read it? Would my research make any difference? Was it all a pointless waste of time? What was the point of anything? Everything became a question. There were no absolutes - nothing to rely on. The only structure to my day was imposed by me. Some days, my only motivation to get showered and dressed was going to the supermarket.

Food plays an important part in the life of a PhD student: there was apparently no such thing as truth, and there were days when I questioned my very existence as I waded through books on theory and philosophy. The fact that I felt hungry and needed to eat was reassuring. It meant that I must be alive.

I was never one for eating sweets before I began my PhD. But after one tutorial, I remember sitting at the train station and eating a bag of jelly babies. It helped. And, when it came to the writing up, I found dolly mixtures were a comfort while I stared at my computer screen.

Life outside the classroom took getting used to. But once I had readjusted, I felt liberated. A PhD is an incredible personal journey. For the first time, I had the opportunity to think and question. There were challenges, but I began to realise that I didn't need to be lonely. I only thought that I lacked shared experience. Although it didn't happen often, it was great to get together with other PhD students. But the main thing was realising that there were others out there in the same position.

One thing to bear in mind as the self-doubt creeps in is that everybody who has done a PhD has felt the same. The students who appear to be super-confident and tell you they wrote a chapter of their thesis before breakfast are either lying (because they need to talk up their work to cover up their own feelings of inadequacy), or their supervisor will be telling them to rewrite it.

Practising writing, particularly if you have been out of academia for a while, is a good idea. Books and journal articles are polished versions that their authors have drafted and redrafted. No one writes a first draft that looks like the published work. Besides, you don't really write a PhD. You construct it. A PhD is evidence that a candidate is capable of designing and completing research good enough to earn them an academic post. At the viva - which is a bit like a trial - you present and defend this evidence.

A PhD is unlike any other qualification. It requires more than reading, doing coursework and attending lectures. A PhD relies on candidates' insight and inspiration. You will probably go - at least temporarily - mad in the process. But if you have the opportunity, stock up on the jelly babies and dolly mixtures and go for it. It is a life-changing experience.

The writer teaches at Goldsmiths. Her book 'Teaching the Holocaust in School History: Teachers or Preachers?' is out now, published by Continuum. Dr Lucy Russell is currently writing another book for potential PhD students and would like to talk to people who have a PhD about why they embarked on the qualification and what they wish they had been told before they started. How was their relationship with their supervisor? How was their viva? e-mail drlucy.russell@virgin.net. Names can be changed. A charitable contribution from the sale of this book will go to Oxfam International's Education Now campaign