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Blog post Part of special issue: From Zero to Hero: Anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate

Having a handle on time, sacrifice and resilience: Further anecdotal tales in pursuit of the elusive doctorate

Dave Morris, Freelance Educational Researcher and Consultant David Cudworth, Associate Professor at De Montfort University

In this blog, we consider the more practical aspects of completing a PhD – namely time, sacrifice and resilience. Having a ‘handle on time’ is a very important aspect of the PhD journey. We may feel that we’re working 12 hours a day, but Gruszczynska (2016) suggests spending at least two-to-three days auditing how you are really spending your time, with a view to identifying potential distractions and where time is being either lost or misspent. We found that time was probably the most challenging factor in completing our doctorates, although we found that it helps considerably to plan what you will do with a block of time when it arrives.

‘We found that time was the most challenging factor in completing our doctorates, although we found that it helps considerably to plan what you will do with a block of time when it arrives.’

For us, ‘dead time’ on a bus or plane was also time to read or write, as well as working during family holidays, reading by the pool during the day and writing by night. When we could, we used Fridays as research days so we could merge into the weekend and carry on writing. At the end of each writing session, we would make notes of where we were at and where next, so we could quickly pick up where we left off. The key messages here are to be creative with your time, to capitalise on quiet moments both at work and in routines in your personal life, and to remember that ‘Procrastination is the thief of Time’ (Young, 1743).

It is worth pointing out that, if you have to sit down and list the sacrifices you will need to make in order to win the game, then you’ve pretty much already lost the race – that is, if you’re really determined to get your PhD then you won’t really notice the sacrifices you are already making (Marshall & Green, 2011). We both found success in building our lives around our doctorates rather than the other way around. We both have families and children, and needed their understanding, because the reality is someone or some people in your life will be compromised.

It is also important to remember that there is life after the doctorate. However, it was a given for both of us that our lives would change, and that something would have to give – particularly working full time. We needed to become resilient. We are both very aware of the critique of the concept of resilience and its relationship with neoliberal governance (Joseph, 2018). For us it simply meant staying strong through the rough times, and we drew particularly on one of the main characteristic of resilience: persistence (Spaulding & Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012). Other important attributes include personal ability, attitudes, motivation, self-belief and supportive factors (Amini et al., 2008), the latter two of which are key for us.

We both experienced challenging times – for example, dusting ourselves down after a difficult and disparaging annual review. We also had many moments of self-doubt. In Dave C.’s fourth year he had a real crisis and was ready to give up; Dave M. wanted to jack it all in just three months before completing his, when it was pretty much in the bag. Given that we had each other as critical friends we were, thankfully, able to talk each other out of doing anything rash or ridiculous, and thus supported each other through these periods. On a positive note, our passion and enjoyment kept us going, and we both found our sense of self-belief came from putting a conference paper together and presenting. It’s a real morale-boosting experience: it makes it feel that it’s all been worthwhile as you receive feedback and get to discuss your work with fellow academics.

The doctoral journey is a long one, and it’s important to reward yourself for reaching a milestone – completing the fieldwork, for example, or the first 10,000 words of the thesis, and then going out for a meal with family or friends. Finally, returning to the notion of ‘doctoral persistence’ (Bair, 1999), you may be challenged by personal events along the way, but try not to see these as reasons not to achieve your goal. For example, Dave M. went through a particularly tough time: during his doctorate, he lost his father, his mother, his brother and his best friend. Yet he still found the ‘resilience’ to carry on and complete the journey.


Amini, M., Dehghani, M. R., Kojuri, J., Mahbudi, A., Bazrafkan, L., Saber, M., Ardekain, G. S. (2008). A qualitative study of factors associated with medical students’ academic success. Journal of Social Sciences, 4: 347–351.

Bair, C. R. (1999). Doctoral student attrition and persistence: A meta-synthesis (doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Dissertation Abstracts International.

Gruszczynska, A. (2016). Taking Control of Your PhD: Time Management. Retrieved from

Joseph, J. (2018) Varieties of Resilience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marshall,S. & Green, N. (2011). Your PhD Companion: The Insider Guide to Mastering the Practical Realities of Getting Your PhD. London: How to Books.

Young, E. (1743). The Complaint: or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality. London: Tully’s Head.

Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: Factors doctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 7: 199–219.