Surviving the PhD in an Age of Uncertainty

I’ve entered my third year of doctoral studies and looking back, I’ve learnt many lessons both pleasant and painful. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what has been important to me in ‘surviving’ but also at times ‘thriving’ in a journey beset by uncertainty.

Uncertainty lurks in all corners of doctoral study, including the research itself such as grappling with theory and data collection and analysis, as well as the supervision relationships. There’s also uncertainty in what comes after – what kind of career will my PhD lead to. There’s no way to avoid uncertainty, but there is a phrase my supervisor introduced to me at our very first supervision meeting that may help manage it – ‘ambiguity tolerance’.

When I first heard it, my first reaction was to shake my head. I didn’t give up a job and travel all the way here to deal with ambiguity. I came here to do research – unambiguous research! Looking back at my naive response,  I can now say that a good measure of ‘ambiguity tolerance’ will get you through uncertainty. If you’re willing to accept that answers don’t always come immediately and may change along the way, uncertainty doesn’t have to turn you into a train wreck.

I’ll frame my reflection about being (in)tolerant about ambiguity along three points: i) research, ii) relationships, and iii) results.


Research is a long and intensive search for answers do I absolutely do not recommend flying solo. Sure, the PhD is about being independently developing new ideas and forming critical thought, but being independent doesn’t mean not using resources and resources include other humans, more specifically, mentors. These are not your supervisors but people who are able to help you make sense of your research.

Recent graduates help you see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Research groups that meet regularly help create a space for intellectual (and social) development. It think one of the most valuable mentors a PhD student can have are those whom the PhD student aspires to become – the academics or professionals in your chosen field. In my experience, they are all around you but challenging to connect with, especially when you’re a cultural/professional outsider. But they’re valuable enough for me to keep trying, even if it’s a brief coffee chat, or several failed attempts before we sit down face to face.

While establishing real life connections with mentors can be hard work without any assurance of success, connecting with virtual mentors, thankfully, is within your control and full of certainty! By virtual mentors, I’m referring to those whose work is about demystifying the PhD process. My top virtual mentors are (in no particular order) Inger Mewburn aka Thesis Whisperer who regularly blogs (and does research on) PhD issues, Pat Thomson who offers nuggets of golden advice on writing, and the ThinkWell team of Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner whose advice on achieving and maintaining high performance is spot on.


Supervision relationships for me are really about changing identities over the course of dong the PhD. At the beginning, I believed I was an apprentice learning from the master, expect that it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to learn from the master. I simply felt thrown about by the waves of insecurity and feelings of being inadequate. After confirmation of the research proposal, however, I felt that I had finally earned the right to research and became a lot more confident. I was still ‘learning on the job’ and made mistakes along the way, but I saw myself at the steering wheel most of the time. Although my supervision relationships never really took on the apprenticeship model I had hoped for at the beginning, I feel that I’ve thrived in other ways. I had become more tolerant of ambiguity and allowed the ‘unknowns’ to drive me towards searching for clarity – one bit at a time.


Now as I’m working on analysis and figuring out the meaning of it all, while being mindful of deadlines, I’m feeling I should be less tolerant of ambiguity. Yet, there’s still no escaping the process of discovery – one that takes time and patience. For example, the three weeks I had planned on analysing a data set eventually took double the time – and double the agony. I remember feeling that I needed to come up with an answer by the end of the day, but each end of the day seemed murkier than the previous one. But allowing the process of discovery to take its course – as well as stepping back from it to let the mind rest – was what yielded results.

Apart from the results of my research, I’m also concerned about what kind of person I’m becoming as a result of being intensively involved in research. Is life and its periods of illness and mood swings affecting my PhD, or is the PhD affecting my life? This is one thing I don’t want to be ambiguous about – I am not my PhD; it mustn’t end up controlling my emotions and self-image.

A quotation from C.S. Lewis sets me thinking about who I am beyond the PhD: “To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?” It reminds me that achieving a PhD is not the be all and end all of my life. That I – and my research – is really not the most important thing. That an all-powerful God is the one who gives me purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose – ambiguous to me for now – but will surely be revealed in His time. I can only truly be ambiguity tolerant if I can trust in an unambiguous God.

2016 – A year of living intensively

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I look back at this year and I think of myself as a circus performer balancing plates on my fingertips, toes and nose. Those plates represent data collection, conference papers and presentations, thesis writing and serving the postgraduate community. At times, some plates were spinning slower than others, but none of them came crashing down. I could be extolling the virtues of productivity, but I have to concede all that scheduling and compartmentalising has awful side effects that affected not just myself, but my family as well (a Guardian article elucidates this reality).

Through this one very intensive year, I learnt lessons that no textbook can teach you about doing research – that you never only embody a single role of the PhD researcher; that you mustn’t confine yourself to just doing the PhD; but that in the end, you are ultimately human, not machine, a being with limitations and a spirit that needs to be nourished.

“I am a PhD student.”

Sure, I am a PhD student. My purpose is to conduct research and report on it. And while it is a time and life consuming endeavour, I am also many other people – a mother, a wife, a friend. However, the personal realm didn’t feature much on my very filled out Google calendar. In fact, maybe because it didn’t get penciled in, it just didn’t get done. Since the better part of the day was filled with academic, mostly mentally exhausting, activities, by the time I came home, it was pretty much leftovers for my family in terms of energy and attention. As a non-resident and non-local, building relationships with other families and peers was also important, but that simply dropped off the radar – there were no leftovers after the leftovers. And as for the fabled ‘me’ time, it was barely experienced except when I was on a plane to Wellington to attend a conference.

“Publish or perish!”

And of course, when you do research, there is a need to communicate it to a wider audience. Conferences and publications are important academic/research activities – especially when future employment opportunities are dependant on them. While the PhD research is the central focus, there is also a need to seek out appropriate conferences and publishing opportunities. I was very fortunate to have participated in the recent ISANA Conference, a conference that nurtures doctoral students by having a doctoral consortium and encouraging doctoral students to publish refereed papers. It was also at this conference that the mantra of ‘publish or perish’ was put in perspective. The life of an academic is one of writing – and very importantly – publishing. Getting your work reviewed by intellectual others who are detached from your work and yourself (i.e. not your supervisors and friends) builds the inner capacity to be critiqued and to respond as part of the scholarly conversation. So even though doing the PhD is demanding, it’s simply not enough to write a long and complex tome only a handful of people will read. And even if you were interested in non-academic jobs, prospective employers would still need to see you doing more than just being holed up in a room writing endlessly.

“Is there any wax left in the candle?”

So I’ve realised that I’m more than just a PhD student but the commitment to doing it is draining my energy away from important relationships in my life. I’m also convinced of the need to be a productive academic during my PhD candidature, and not wait till after the PhD. This seems to be leading to a conclusion where I resign myself to another busy year ahead and hope that family and friends will be understanding and forgive me for my lack of tenderness towards them.

But I reject that conclusion. It will be another busy year, without a doubt, but it will also be a more intentional year. My intentions are not grandiose plans, but about making family time a non-negotiable part of my schedule. I’m thinking short trips with the family during school holidays. Better yet if I have to pay for the trips. I know I can’t devote the same amount and kind of energy towards friends but my lunch and coffee breaks can be planned with them in mind. I think the main challenge, however, is to have ‘me’ time that sits outside academic and personal demands.

So instead of going through another intensive year with relationships dangling at the periphery, my hope for 2017 is to be intentional with my time with people who matter, and perhaps I should start with myself. It won’t be a solo trip to a mountain top, but a still morning or quiet evening in prayer.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.