Hard-learnt lessons on how to do a PhD (Engi Messih)

Photo by Jannes Glas | unsplash.com

My favourite poem as a child was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. My PhD experience could be described as a very tough road that many would not have taken. I know every PhD candidate believes theirs was a tough one, but I’m convinced mine surpasses all!

Luckily, I do not regret it, as I learnt many lessons that I can now share. This post talks about how I travelled the PhD road, and the lessons that can be learnt from it!

Throughout my journey, I revolved my life around the thesis. I dedicated my days and nights to working on it. It meant my only time off was church on Sunday; that at family holidays, on arrival I designated an office area in which to work while my family tried to enjoy the holiday without me. My workday was 5.00 am (at times 4.00 am) to 10.00 pm, with minimal breaks.

Accompanying these long hours, was the guilt! Katherine Firth’s blogpost, The Monkey Demon of PhD Guilt, eloquently summed up my PhD life in that respect! Despite all the hours I put in, the guilt was with me every single day of my candidature, and this wasdespite my supervisors telling me I should be studying less!

The lessons I learnt, in retrospect, are:

A mentor, other than your supervisor, is very important. 

Someone you trust, and someone who is very honest with you in their advice. It was in fact my mentor, through her support, encouragement, and even tough talk (bringing me to tears one day), who was a major contributor to me finally submitting my thesis.

Whether your relationship with your supervisors is great or not, at the end of the day, they are undergoing this experience with you, and can become as overwhelmed. Let’s be honest, at some time in your candidature your relationship with your supervisors may break down or there will be tension. They, too, can get stressed by it. How they react to this tension varies; some continue to support you, some may distance themselves from you (which will mean you feel you are going to have to do this on your own). This is where a mentor’s role becomes important.

Throughout the degree, and especially in the thesis-writing process, join social networks and surround yourself with support groups and cheer squads. 

Join ‘Shut up and write’ (SUAW) sessions, and find PhD support groups (for example, on Twitter, specifically #phdchat or #phdlife). Throughout my candidature, I underestimated the value of doing this, thinking it would be a waste of time.

Post-PhD, when writing my first article, I have now joined these. I cannot describe how they help me, mentally and in practice, to get tasks done, feel supported, and obtain valuable advice. They give you the sense that you are not doing this alone (feeling alone being a common feeling experienced by many PhD candidates, myself included). I attend sessions such as #MelbWriteUp and, more recently, RED’s daily SUAW. These sessions allow a dedicated space to focus on writing and being creative. In fact, this blog was written at a SUAW session!

In undertaking your PhD, believe in yourself and your capabilities – have confidence. Believe you can do it. 

It is the moment you do this, that you will take control of your thesis. A friend of mine, initially not very confident, was given the above advice. She would stand in front of the mirror every morning and tell herself: ‘I can do this’ ten times. She would also listen to motivational videos daily. She is now a senior lecturer in her faculty!


As I described earlier, my graduate researcher life revolved around my thesis. Self-care was never a priority. I feared it would consume some of the time that I thought was better spent on my thesis. I thought spending more time on my thesis would accelerate my exit from it. On the contrary! In the final few months of my candidature, giving myself one day rest a week made a difference – I finally submitted!

As part of your self-care program, it could be useful to set a goal such as staying fit with daily exercise, or dropping in regular social time with good friends. This will give you a purpose other than your PhD. Having a purpose in life other than your thesis shifts your mindset. Then, when you return to your thesis, your mind is clear.

Make your study space cheerful. 

A PhD is a major long project that will consume many of your daily hours. You need to love your space. If possible, choose a sunny corner as your office. Invest in colourful stationary, colourful work clothes, and desk plants. Find and designate a secondary outdoor office where you spend an hour of your study day – this could be your garden or a nearby park. I often studied on the balcony, overlooking the reserve, with birds and my elderly neighbour singing away. I looked forward to it.  

Teach during your candidature if you can. 

The semesters when I taught were the most productive of my candidature. Taking too long on a task was not an option - there was simply no time!

Also, being involved with a community of academics as a tutor, and being forced to change my mindset from that of a student to an expert, motivated me to finalise my thesis. I looked forward to the post-PhD academic life – and that became my goal.

Finally, reach out if you need it! 

I have learnt that some colleagues are more than happy to help, even if only by listening, even if they do not previously know you.

You can do it!


Engi Messih is a PhD candidate, having completed her doctoral thesis in December 2019 (currently under examination). Her dissertation presented a critique of the Australian double jeopardy exceptions. Her research entailed historical analysis, doctrinal research, and qualitative empirical work. It also involved a comparative analysis with the comparable laws in the United Kingdom. As such, her research areas are Criminal Law, Evidence Law, and comparative law. 

Engi is also a sessional academic at the La Trobe Law School. Her teaching commitments in semester 1, 2020 were Introduction to Business Law and Ethics, and Law of Business Association. She was previously a solicitor, practising in Family Law. 

She tweets from @EngiMessih.