PhD reflections — What worked, what I would do differently

I hunkered down to complete my PhD around the time that COVID-19 hit in Australia. My initial thought was that lockdown would be a perfect opportunity to finish the thesis. I was mistaken.

The pandemic proved an ‘all hands on deck’ moment for anyone involved in economic and community development work. I found myself busier than ever even as I read stories about people learning to bake bread and being bored in lockdown

COVID-19 also became the dominant distraction. A PhD is already an exercise in disciplined procrastination avoidance. The pandemic combined with a pervasive media cycle has proven virulent in consuming any available attention.

So my 2020 PhD completion plan of two weeks became four, then a two month plan extended to six. We are now in October, the chapters have gone through multiple supervisor reviews, and I am in the final revision and submission process. Between external reviewers and admin, I am looking at a March 2021 completion date.

Now that I am coming up for air, I wanted to take a moment to reflect and learn before my own revisionist history gets the better of me. Writing provides benchmarks in our lives. Reading my original PhD post from 2016, I smile at who I was, my optimistic two-year prediction, and who I thought I might be when I finished.

I share so that perhaps others may learn for their future journey, that those who have been down the path might reflect and compare, and those who are considering the PhD path may learn as careers and professions continue to be disrupted. Like any personal narrative, take and apply what adds value, leave the rest. Below are some brief reflections on what I found helpful and what I would do different.

Some people do a PhD through coursework, others through submitting multiple journal submissions, still others with one main thesis. I did one thesis, but I recommend submitting articles as you go. PhDs will also be different based on the domain — medicine, business, sociology, psychology, manufacturing, etc. The steps below are based on my own experience at the cross-section of business and community.

The first step is to apply. I have heard of people having a few attempts as they find the right fit with their question, one or more supervisors with interest and capacity to support the topic, and a primary university in which they will be based. Universities are also often looking for people to research a particular field and scholarships are available if your interests align with desired outcomes.

I was was working as a community manager in an innovation hub in 2016 when I started asking questions about the impact the hub was having on the wider community. This aligned with a focus area for the local university (University of Southern Queensland) and availability of supervisors including one who with a focus on social enterprise and another who was developing an innovation program for women in regional and rural communities. I later added another supervisor from the Queensland University of Technology who specialised in regional innovation-related entrepreneurship and data.

The second stage of a PhD is to refine the question and develop the research proposal. This involves a review of research that has gone before and conversations with your supervisor to focus your question.

I was too broad in so many areas, asking about the role of the innovation hub, ways to measure the impact, innovation hub sustainability, regional comparisons and statistical data, and all this across all of Australia with global comparisons. I developed a software platform to measure innovation hub impact, mapped the ecosystem across Australia, and planned to physically interview every innovation ecosystem in Australia. I was grossly over-ambitious.

I am grateful for the feedback of those who helped me focus my attention. This process of refinement is natural and not unexpected. In startup terms, this is similar to the process of customer validation. Like many startups, there is a risk of trying to solve to many problems, addressing issues that aren’t really an issue, and not identifying the gap where others have not already addressed the issue or opportunity.

The third stage is presenting the research proposal and being confirmed. This is like pitching your idea.

I was humbled to present my proposal for confirmation to a panel that included leaders whose work inspired me to pursue my topic. I remember the chuckles as I shared my plan for a national driving tour over 10 months. I am glad I took their feedback on board to limit the scope to Queensland. Otherwise I might still be on the road.

What was planned…
…and what actually happened

Through the proposal and confirmation process, I also met the tribe of like-minded researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners who were interested in similar outcomes. This process was valuable to connect with many who I now call colleagues, mentors, advisors, and friends.

The fourth stage is conducting the research. This may be collecting new data from surveys, interviews, or workshops, or collating existing data sets in new ways. My research involved driving across Queensland for almost three months conducting over 180 interviews, as well as fly-in visits to centres in each state and territory.

I have an entire hard drive of drone shots

A key take away was to do one thing and do it well. My intent was to focus on research outcomes while at the same time promoting regional innovation and supporting local leaders through sharing stories. After over 60 days of AirBNBs, going through two drones, five hard drives of data, two laptops, and navigating a summer of record heat and fires, my priority focused exclusively on capturing the stories and data. I still have the content for a potential documentary, but the research became a priority.

Once you have the data, it is time to analyse and write up the results. I found this a process of learning how to write as much as writing itself. My document ballooned to over 250,000 words before settling on the current 120,000 words over nine chapters.

Written and read is better than perfect. I held on to my work for too long before getting it reviewed and in front of my supervisors early and often. I ended up with significant rewrites having followed a few literature rabbit trails and mixing method with theory. Earlier reviews would have minimised the rework.

The writing also did not flow like I thought it would. I would stare at the screen for days with only one or two pages to show for it. Then re-reading a week later, I would move entire lines of thought to the appendix as they were not contributing to the original question.

I ended up taking breaks and engaging regions to break the blocks. It was necessary to reconnect with the original passion that inspired my journey in the first place.

I am now in the final stage of review and submission and expect to defend my position with external reviewers by early 2021. Given the past reviews and refinement, I am fairly confident in the next steps. I will keep you updated as I go.

The PhD process is one of ups and downs. There are Twitter communities dedicated to the journey at #phdlife and #phdchat. Anyone doing a PhD will quickly stumble across the disturbingly accurate Piled higher and Deeper comic strip. These streams of thought have been very helpful to normalise my experience versus to my own preconceived view of my PhD journey.

The tweets below remind me I am not alone in my thinking…

What I thought:

I’m done writing, my thesis is awesome, after a brief review I should be done in two weeks!

The reality:

What I thought:

I can write, I’ve done a Masters, and have you seen my blog posts?

The reality:

What I thought:

I’ll drive around and collect data across Australia, film and edit a documentary, make a significant contribution to literature, and build a software business in on the side.

The reality:

I could go on, but you get the idea. Part of my desire to write this post is to now contribute for those in the midst of the PhD to know that what they are experiencing is OK. With that in mind, here are some top of mind reflections.

My first reflection is an acknowledgment that life happens around a PhD. A full-time PhD is scheduled at three years. My own journey will clock in at five years and includes a leave of absence and three extensions. A lot of life happens in five years.

From when I started my PhD to now, I:

  • created three businesses,
  • was contracted or employed in seven positions,
  • completed regional consultancy engagements across Australia,
  • toured North America,
  • visited every state and territory in Australia,
  • divorced, and
  • re-married.

Not to mention the pandemic.

Who I am now is different than who I was. I have had successes, made mistakes, and learned lessons along the way.

Through it all the PhD has been a constant. My starting question has not changed, but the personal and global context in which the question is asked has. The PhD has been a constant interaction between self and the environment.

Rather than detract, these changes and challenges have made the process all the richer. It has allowed me to explore personal, organisation, and community resilience in the midst of disruption.

A PhD is a marathon. Marathons are about the journey, not the finish line.

My second reflection is about something I read a lot about in PhD conversations — the guilt. At some point, my life became a constant state of either working on the thesis or not working on the thesis. Everything else — sleep, family, eating, work — was framed as a decision to not work on the thesis. You would think this would be motivating to finish the thesis, but the self-imposed pressure inhibited creativity and the words stopped flowing.

I also found it difficult to justify writing the thesis with so many immediate needs to be addressed, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. Social media feeds became a vicious cycle of procrastination and guilt. The inner monologue was that others were making a difference while I stared at the screen willing my paragraphs to rewrite themselves.

A few perspectives helped with this process. First, everyone is in different stages and seasons in life. I have had times of building companies and communities, working in agencies, and studying. This was a season of study. It was just taking a bit longer than I expected.

Second, I kept reminding myself of the reason I started the journey in the first place. I believe the challenges we face are complex and systemic. These challenges require solutions that have rigour and address systemic and embedded barriers. I believe my research is contributing to this solution.

Finally, the guilt is a feeling that passes. The way out is the way through, appreciating what the guilt was saying, applying what is mine to own, leaving what is not, and continuing with the work regardless. Once I was able to observe the guilt for what it was, I was able to lean into it and continue writing.

The third reflection is that the PhD is only the beginning. When I started the PhD process, I felt it would be the pinnacle of academic achievement and the consolidation of my experiences. One of my supervisors gave me great advice — the PhD is not my life’s work, but a starting point. This was confronting and humbling to realise that what I thought was the finish line is actually the starting block.

Every day of research is an awareness of how little I know and how much there is to learn. The PhD will not be a culmination of knowledge but joining a group of those on a life journey of sharing knowledge with others.

My last reflection (for now) is the value of support from others. I started the PhD as a solo effort. It was not until much later that I leaned more on my supervisors and colleagues for input, feedback, and support. Having been a mentor and coach for others, I found it difficult to raise my hand and ask for help or even be aware that help was needed.

I would not be where I am if not for the last six months of weekly submissions and daily catch ups with a few people who have provided advice or simply a sanity check. I am very grateful and look forward to returning the favour for others. If I were to do it again, I would get this routine in earlier.

Which brings me to where to from here. I am working through the backlog of projects and reports queued up as I worked on the thesis. I am fortunate to have two Research Fellow roles that allow me to apply my research, and there are about six papers to be delivered off the back of my thesis. There is also ongoing regional work and mapping to be done across Australia through the Universities as well as my not-for-profit Startup Status.

One of the things I am most looking forward to is the ability to be a supervisor for others on the PhD journey. I am keen to pass on lessons and walk with others so they can go even further and faster.

I am also excited about making my research operational. I expect I will turn my thesis into a book and integrate the models into platforms so leaders in the field can benefit more broadly. Finally, I look forward to reconnecting with everyone I interviewed and repay them for the time they so graciously provided.

Thanks to those who have been on the journey with me. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

American & Australian, playing in the cross-section of people, business and digital, with a passion for discovering how we all tick