by Michael Munnik

You put it on your credit card application, your airport landing card. It’s what you answer when people ask, “And what do you do?”

And fair enough: you pay tuition, and other people assess your work before you are given the exit goods. These are studenty things.

But treating your PhD as your job and yourself as a worker can help you to get through it effectively and efficiently.

I delivered newspapers in school, I spent a year working before going to uni, and I had part-time jobs through all but the first semester of my undergraduate degree. I spent eight years in professional work before returning to academia. Not everyone completing their PhD has that experience, but I have always seen it as an asset. The practices I developed enabled me to complete on time, even with the birth of a child in the middle of my studies.

Accountability. Pressuring yourself is a mental trick, and of course we can easily ignore mental tricks when we choose to. But if you can discipline yourself, try this: rather than focus on the student relationship, in which you pay the institution money to give you certain things (access to a library, time with experts, accreditation at the end of it all), imagine you’re being paid for your time. You’re therefore answerable for how you spend it.

So you buckle down. You don’t slavishly devote eight or more hours to the task like a robot – lunch hour and tea breaks are acceptable workplace practices, and I could still get lost in a conversation with a colleague or stare blankly at the screen, fingers retreating from the keyboard. But don’t do it too often, or the boss (in this scenario, your imagination) will notice. Get the work done. Impose deadlines on yourself and meet them. Yes, yes – easier said than done. Other motivational blogs say this, too. I don’t have a magic trick to help you. Just do it.

This payee relationship doesn’t need to be an imaginative exercise. Many PhDs have funding of some or another sort, and although it may be a pittance compared to what other jobs pay (my earnings as a broadcast journalist in Canada – entry-level and sneered at by some as basic civil servant wages – were three times what I received as a monthly student stipend) it helped my family cover rent and expenses. It wasn’t a difficult fiction to maintain.

Work/life balance. A cliché, perhaps, or a euphemism for slacking off. But unless you’re a high-flying City banker, you don’t need to forsake all your waking hours. See this balance as a spectrum: when I worked the drive-through window at Wendy’s, I could easily leave my job behind me at the end of my shift. As a journalist with CBC, this was harder. I worked more overtime there, and I spent off-time thinking of story ideas or purposively consuming the news. But I still insisted on time for other pursuits. Getting married and, later, having children imposed compelling limits on the time I could spend working.

You have control over certain factors, and because of this, you can make decisions. People determine where they live or work, for example, based on their idea of a tolerable commute. It’s part of a conversation about how much time is and is not dedicated to work. So for your studies, have that conversation with yourself and with the people you’re responsible to, and honour those decisions. The perfect number need not be 7.75 hours, five days a week. You might not get the thesis done to your satisfaction in that time, and you will certainly want more than that as you approach submission. But establishing limits establishes precisely that there are limits, a practice that can last through your degree and beyond.

Occupation: Not student. Now, of course, I’m going to give the game away by saying “student” is the wrong way to think about yourself. There’s a trend – which I support – toward calling PhDs “doctoral researchers” instead of “students”. Toby Bennett proposes “intern”,  but he is highlighting the awkward relationship to work and pay. “Doctoral researcher” is about honouring the complexity of the work as well as the time put in, week by week. It’s also a helpful mental frame to adopt when applying for a job, as this anthropology-professor-cum-academic-coach argues.

Is this just semantics, or even dishonest? Perhaps, having adopted the posture, you find it’s not supported by faculty – not even your supervisors. You still run into the “I have a student who…” motif. But insist on this change, both in your self-identification and in discussion with your community. It’s true that this shift eradicates our history – centuries of scholarship during which scholars were classed as students until such time as the powers granted they had studied sufficiently to migrate title and role. We must remember history, yes, but we must also attend to our present and our future. (I would also accept the baser argument that we benefit from student discounts when shopping, travelling, and dining out.)

Some lecturers and professors and such will insist, perhaps pedantically, on referring to themselves and their colleagues as “students” to underscore the fact that learning is never accomplished but always becoming. They may do so in book reviews and interoffice memos, but you can be sure they don’t when filling out their landing card or chatting over canapés at a gala. It’s not the best term to describe their vocation, and what you do on your PhD resembles their work more than it differs from it.

munnik 24jul second photo

Learning may be lifelong, but you don’t want your doctorate to be. If thinking of it as a job helps you get through, do it. I hope you’ll have good reason to continue such thinking after your graduation, but if (when) you don’t, I’ll be writing a post next month that discusses that emotional trough.

Michael Munnik no longer needs to think of his PhD as a job, as he retired with his gold watch at the University of Edinburgh graduation on 2 July. Other jobs he has held include MA student at King’s College London, broadcast journalist with CBC Radio in Ottawa, and paperboy with the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, among other vocations. He tweets at @michaelmunnik, often discussing Muslims in Britain and the media.

[Image 1: (cc) Ben Smith (].

[Image 2: (c) Michael Munnik].