What I learnt from my PhD

A PhD is like a long, difficult ascent up a steep mountain, where you learn how to climb as you go, and the terrain is only known once you reach the peak. You’ve got to lift your game to top pitch. If you can’t make excellence a daily habit, you’re likely to drag your feet, be allured by diversions, and hit the wall.

Fortunately, I enjoyed the challenge so much that I was able to thrive. But even then, it was a long and hard pursuit, up to the final day. There are many things I learnt from it. Here’s the top three.

I learnt to potently analyse text. A PhD in English takes textual analysis to the highest level. In microscopic detail and panoramic breadth, face value and underlying depth, words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole documents are scrutinised, contextualised, evaluated, synthesised, and assessed. The reader investigates sound patterns, meaning, grammar, literary devices, tone, and structure. They explore historical links, biographical influences, and intertextuality. They discern fact from theory and fiction. They ascertain what is written and what is absent, what is assumed and what is implied. They examine logic, rhetoric, aesthetics (sensual effects), and epistemology (methods of knowledge). It all comes together to a fine point in reading. Then you repeat. You reflect, seek relevant learning material, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Reading in such a way was the foundational practice for writing my doctoral thesis. And this spills over into analysing verbal communication. Consideration of contexts is vital in all this because language does not exist in a vacuum (despite what postmodernists aver). As I discuss in my thesis, language is a bridge between humanity and the world. Through my PhD, I honed my capacity to analyse language to a level I would never have imagined possible.

I learnt to communicate well. As simple as it sounds, communication is a profound art, among the most important skills in life. As I’ve enquired in another article, we humans start learning this skill early, but do we ever consider the limits to our communication potential? My three years in a PhD were three years of elite training in written communication. Out of my enhanced capacity to read, I also learnt how to write to an extraordinary level.

Writing is a vast discipline containing so many different forms, styles, and ideas, and every reader appreciates things differently. I started seriously writing a decade ago, out of curiosity and passion. In terms of my own style and practice, my PhD gave me the time and the challenge to bring my writing to a much greater peak than I ever previously knew. Having a challenge is important to push yourself beyond your assumed limits. I will continue to improve from this most solid foundation.

I recognised speaking as closely related to reading and writing. I also reflected on the differences. Speaking differs from writing because the speaker and the audience are more present and closely entwined; oral communication is a different medium, including factors such as timing, facial expression, gestures, and personal presentation. But language remains the common factor. By combining my deep study of language, culture, and human nature through my research with self-awareness, professional development, and experience, my PhD improved my verbal communication.

Professional academics must communicate their research. I presented my research internationally, nationally, and locally at a range of venues. The highlight was an invitation to speak at the Paul Mellon Centre in London. I also spoke on panels, facilitated panels, taught classes, served on committees, advised students, engaged in interviews, and hosted events. Public speaking used to make me nervous, but I overcame this by practice and by throwing myself at every available opportunity.

My PhD provided an immensely valuable opportunity to enhance my capacity for written and oral communication.

I learnt what I am truly capable of doing. To complete a PhD, the main requirement is to write a doctoral thesis. In English, this is a 70,000-100,000 word professional scholarly treatise.[1] You can devote your entire time purely to research and writing and, if you persist and do well, obtain a doctorate. Most universities, however, offer many additional opportunities through research training, professional development, conferences, publications, teaching, collaborative projects, and more. PhD students typically find themselves somewhere between doing the bare minimum to pass and doing as much as they possibly can, depending on their needs and commitments. I chose to do the latter. I said yes to everything until I could say yes no more. Having the good fortune of marrying my beautiful wife after completing my PhD, I was able to devote myself fully to professional development, workshops, conferences, projects, publications, and a leadership role within my College at the time. I did a lot. I learnt what I am truly capable of doing. This could only work by applying top-level time management and organisation skills.

It was an intense period, full of challenges and adventure. I expanded my limits and got a taste for high-intensity work over an extended time. Looking back, it is now one of the most inspiring and satisfying times in my life. However, I eat, sleep, and exercise well, maintain healthy living, and am mindful of the need for work-life balance—to maximise both effectiveness and joy in life—and I doubt I could have succeeded in the way I did during my PhD without this foundation of healthy living.

We need challenges to push ourselves to our limits in order to grow as individuals. My PhD mobilised my potential in directions for which I have aptitude; it lifted my love of learning, communication, and engagement with people to a highly professional level.

Professional development and service. My doctoral thesis applies William Blake’s concept of genius towards human betterment. It’s a highly specialised topic. (The running joke is that the only people who will ever read your thesis are your examiners, your supervisors, and you.) My thesis is a product. It is the diamond from three years of intensity in the fires of a doctorate degree. My thesis explores human self-understanding and development through Blake and Literature. After three years in this fire, I became stronger, clearer, sharper, more resilient, more capable, and more adaptable. I became more diamond-like myself. Completed with self-awareness, a PhD will change you. The doctoral graduate is, in my view, the most important product of a PhD.

However, a PhD must also be valuable to the world. It is not navel-gazing. The focus is not on one’s self but what you can offer the world with your expertise. You become a refined super-engine in order to serve humankind to the fullness of your capacities. This is, in my view, the PhD’s ultimate value.

The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than rule.

Albert Einstein


[1] This is true in Australia, the UK, and most countries. The US, however, often combines coursework with the writing of a dissertation.

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