What does finishing a PhD over 7 years REALLY teach you?

This week I finished the biggest project I’ve ever worked on. I never really felt like it would end – despite many assuring me that it would, that there WAS a light at the end of the tunnel. There was always a defined finish line, it’s just that I felt like I would never cross it.

After seven years, two babies, getting married, moving house twice and a whole host of travel and adventures along the way, I finally, FINALLY submitted my PhD. I’ve been working on this for all of my marriage, all my babies lives and what feels like most of my adult life. Certainly since my husband and I arrived back in Australia after traveling in Africa for most of 2009.

But I’ve learned a few things along the way.

Some about forensic criminology, lawyers, DNA evidence.

Some about how much I love to teach/lecture/work with students.

Some about academic life.

But mostly about myself and the sort of life that I love and that is important to me.

It’s amazing how these big things have such a varied, but widespread impact on your life.

I’m going to reiterate something that I really feel has become one of my key messages.

Life is NOT just all about hard slog and not everything that's worth having is obtained purely through hard work alone.

Now don't get me wrong.

The PhD has been one of the hardest things I've ever done and truth be told I'm not 100% sure I'd go back and do it again, but I suppose that's the beauty of having it finished – I can say things like that. I’m proud of having finished and I am certainly ready to step up and celebrate this huge achievement.

What I mean though is that the journey for me has been mixed with LIFE along the way. I chose to take as long as I did, perhaps subconsciously, but I COULD have finished my PhD a lot more quickly than I did. Even with my beautiful babies, getting married, house sitting, moving house - I chose to keep my life going despite the enormity of that task.

I could have buried my head, had it finished in three to five years part-time but the holidays, the camping trips, the special occasions, the maternity leave that I chose to take for the periods of time that I did, they all made my life worthwhile. I CHOSE those to be as important as my PhD and my life has been colourful and full of adventure along the way because of them.

I used to think that life was just around the corner of the next big thing that I had to finish. When I studied my undergraduate law and business degrees it was the degree finishing. Or the next bill to be paid. Or even my next holiday – because I always loved and still love to travel. Most trips I felt the most alive I’d ever been – but I knew that “real life” would start when I returned and continued on with whatever my life looked like at the time.

I’m so thankful that Africa taught me to appreciate my life and the little, unmissable moments. I was at a point in my life, in 2010 when I started this PhD journey, where it was PART of my life, not ALL of my life and I didn’t put my life on hold while I finished it.

My life wasn’t on hold.

Feeling that way meant that my 3-4 year project went part time and took 7 years. Sometimes there is GREAT benefit in sticking your head down, bottom up and just absolutely getting it done but sometimes, if it means that you're going to be anxious, extremely stressed, missing out on all of the fabric of life's wonderful adventures, holding yourself up in a space where you don't see your family and friends for long, long periods of time - to me that just wasn't worth it.

So although I really feel like the weight and the burden sat on my shoulders for a lot longer than it otherwise would, I was still happy with that over the feeling of stress and anxiety that I know in my heart I would have gone through even more than I already did, if I had put aside everything else and fully immersed myself in mind, body and spirit all of the time.

I embodied my research. I lived and breathed it while I was conducting interviews, and this is not unusual for a qualitative researcher like me. But I also lived and breathed the life around the edges too.

Over two years of my seven was spent on maternity leave with my beautiful babies and I remember adventures, dinners with friends, camping trips, holidays overseas, momentous family moments that I didn't miss because I immersed myself in my PhD work. I worked along the way. I taught fantastic subjects, I learnt interesting things and perhaps I did a little too much of that but I don't regret it for a moment because I lived, I experienced and I learned new things along the way.

So remember if you have a huge task in front of you, it's not always about getting it done as quickly as you can. If you have a deadline that's a bit different and mine was certainly a flexible one, but I didn't thrash myself out to meet that deadline any more quickly at the expense of my life around it.

Remember that sometimes the hardest slog is not the only way you can achieve something and it's certainly not necessarily the most enjoyable. Life can be lived with flow and ease and you can achieve incredibly difficult and challenging things along the way whilst maintaining that flow and living a life that you love, full of adventure.

I'm going to be celebrating my PhD being submitted. There's certainly a road to go with examination and obviously updates and graduation but I'm still celebrating this milestone because I did it my way and I lived a life filled with adventure in getting here.  

Don’t forget to be kind and gentle with yourself in all that you achieve. Because the bits around the edge of those momentous things that you’re achieving or producing - they’re life too and they’re fabulous. Don’t forget to embrace them and enjoy them.

It’s where the magic often happens.

Kate