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Izzy Stuart: In defence of working less on your PhD

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Since the pandemic, there has been a widespread cultural reconsideration of work in the UK. The introduction of working from home reconfigured many people’s relationships to their jobs, and the nature of the pandemic led to many readjusting the importance of work in their lives compared to time they spend with family, friends or partaking in other leisure activities. A plethora of literature has been released over the past two years that aim to challenge ‘toxic productivity culture’ and the traditional working model under capitalism, ranging from self-help books on how to cheat the system, to radical texts that offer solutions outside of capitalism altogether. This year, thousands of UK workers are taking part in four-day week trials to see whether workers can maintain the same levels of productivity while working less. While it seems like things may be shifting for those in corporate workplaces, from my perspective as a PhD student, the pressure to dedicate unsustainable amounts of time to our work still weighs heavy, especially for PhD students and early career academics in precarious positions.

I argue that in the current climate—both within academia and outside it—there is no shame in getting your PhD done in as few hours as possible and prioritising rest and pleasure. The PhD process can take so much of us emotionally, physically, and financially. For the reasons I lay out here, it is essential to the well-being of PhD students that we take back time for ourselves, while acknowledging this is easier for some PhD students than others. Not only do I suggest that we could all be working less on our PhDs, I think that there is a radical political potential in being proud of procrastination, encouraging real rest and relaxation beyond neoliberal ideas of ‘self-care’, and an honesty about our productivity (or lack thereof) that could foster solidarity and collective care within and between PhD communities.

My motivation to write this piece arose from my frustration at a Twitter thread I saw which encapsulated this pervasive attitude of toxic productivity that exists in academia. The original tweet said something like: ‘here’s my advice for PhD students: don’t work nights or weekends unless you absolutely must. Work 40 hours a week – nothing more.’ Although I’m sure it was posted in good faith, I felt guilty rather than reassured by this tweet. The poster was seemingly pleading with me to not do something I have never done. I find it nearly impossible to do PhD work on the weekends, and I don’t think I’ve worked anywhere near 40 hours a week since starting my PhD two and a half years ago. I regrettably looked at the replies. Far from my reaction to the tweet, I found many people passionately stating that this was terrible advice to give to upcoming PhD students. If any PhD student wants to make it in academia, one person said, they must commit far more than 40 hours a week to their ‘chosen passion’. Another wrote: ‘how can anyone become truly masterful at something so difficult and demanding by only putting in 40 hours a week?’ and ‘self-care for PhD students is important, but for 99.9% of doctoral students, 40 hours a week simply isn’t going to cut it.’ I guess I must be in the 0.01% of doctoral students, but I find that unlikely.

This tweet, and the outraged responses to it, highlight the contradictory pressures of being a PhD student. On the one hand, we should treat the PhD like a full-time job: working at least 40 hours a week, more than the average working day in the UK. On the other hand, our PhD is our chosen passion – not like a salaried job, but something that we should willingly want to put all our time and energy into if we are truly serious about our studies. Every PhD student works differently, and each research field has different demands too. I can only speak from my own perspective of doing a PhD in the arts and humanities. With that in mind, for most of my PhD I have tried to go with the ‘treat it like a job’ option. This has mainly been so I can try and keep a healthy distance between the PhD and the rest of my life, and to allow myself to have weekends off. This approach falls short, however, because doing a PhD does not come with the benefits of many occupations of full-time employment. For example, when I take a week off from researching because of illness, I have often been left with intense feeling of guilt and stress about losing time on my thesis. I do not get sick pay to cover this time off, nor does someone else cover my deadlines for that week while I recover. Similarly, almost all workers are legally entitled to 5.6 weeks paid holiday a year in the UK. Although PhD students can technically choose when to have time off, we are not required or regularly encouraged to take holiday, and any time we do take off will come out of our research time.

There are other ways in which treating our PhD’s like they are jobs falls short. If doing PhD was a job, it would be severely underpaid. A large number of PhD students are self-funded. Many have caring responsibilities or other forms of employment happening alongside the PhD, making it impossible to keep PhD work within the Monday to Friday, eight hours per day model. While those in full-time employment have wages that (generally) rise with inflation or are subject to regular wage reviews, for those who are funded, PhD stipends are not rising with inflation or accommodating for the cost-of-living crisis. In real terms, this means PhD stipends decreasing year on year, when they were already below the London living wage to begin with.

It is also important to view PhD’s within the wider context of academic and higher education as it is today. Action from the University and College Union (UCU) over the past several years has drawn attention to the horrendous working conditions, low pay and pay gaps, pension cuts, and lack of job opportunities within the higher education sector that many PhD students see themselves as working towards. In recent years, arts and humanities departments have come under particularly sustained attack. For some fields, it is no exaggeration to say that the risk is existential. On Monday 16th May, it was announced that over 40 courses in the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Performing Arts had been suspended. In the same week, staff at Roehampton University faced department closures and threats of mass redundancy. At Goldsmiths University, local strike action is being taken over 52 workers being made redundant as part of a management ‘restructuring’. In the face of this collapse, there is a radical solidarity to be found in the commitment to work within our capacity, benefitting everyone, rather than continuing to perpetuate a culture of cut-throat competition and burnout.

In any case, research is by its nature entirely different to a full-time job. PhD progress is non-linear and often cannot be quantified in legible and clear-cut ways. An afternoon talking about my research with friends can be more productive than staring at a laptop screen for 8 hours. Going for a swim in the local lido can bring new thoughts to the forefront of my mind that can’t be accessed by reading a journal article. In the depths of writer’s block, I often find that when I completely take time off and come back to my work anew, I have a newfound clarity and perspective. We should be encouraged to embrace the flexibility within our lives as PhD students, rather than pressured to fit into closed-minded ideas of capitalist work and productivity without any of the benefits of full-time work and employment.

All PhD student’s lives are wildly different, and in very different personal circumstances. It is not easy to resist the pressures created by a work-orientated society and a marketised tertiary education system, but I believe that taking small steps towards undoing harmful and unrealistic narratives of PhD work can make a big difference to making ourselves and our fellow PhD students feel supported and cared for. So, next time you take a day (or week, or month) off, or find yourself staring out the window for 4 hours straight, or having a well-deserved lie-in on a Monday, try to fight that voice of guilt in your head, and instead share your time-off with enthusiasm – chances are you will make someone feel better about doing the exact same thing.

Izzy Stuart is a third year PhD researcher at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research focuses on the value of emotions in contemporary feminist performance and the political potential of these affective encounters.