Sunday, October 30, 2011

Getting a PhD

The past two posts were about good and bad reasons for thinking you might want to get a PhD in translation studies. Here I want to write a bit more about what kind of person you should be in order to succeed in a PhD program.

I won’t lie to you. It is difficult to get a PhD and it takes a lot of effort, motivation, and perseverance, but if you are passionate and hard-working, you can probably manage it. You have to be willing to spend three or more years really focused on your topic and that means you have to choose a topic that you truly care about. It is easy to let yourself get swayed by what a supervisor suggests or wants or by a grant opportunity you spot (there are sometimes grants for people who agree to research a particular subject or agree to take on a certain job in exchange for having their PhD paid for), but I would personally recommend that you pick a topic you are fascinated by, or you will find your motivation dropping partway through the program.

You also have be able to work independently and to push yourself. You spend a lot of the time in a PhD program researching by yourself, reading and taking notes by yourself, writing up drafts by yourself, editing by yourself, and struggling by yourself. If you’re very sociable and can’t handle spending time on your own and/or if you find it hard to motivate yourself, then a PhD is not for you. If you can set goals and hunker down to make them happen, then you’d probably do well in a PhD program. A PhD is not like a BA, in that teachers won’t chase you to find out why you’re not attending seminars or turning in your work (or, okay, your supervisors will chase you a bit, but not as much as if you were an undergrad or a high school student). It’s all up to you to make sure things happen.

You also have to be the kind of person who can handle criticism. Your supervisors want to ensure that your work is as good as possible and that it will pass muster when it comes time for your defense/viva and for any possible publications. In most cases, they aren’t trying to be mean, but they may sound harsh (especially if you keep making the same mistakes and don’t seem to listen to what they are telling you). I’ve seen students cry over the criticism they get or go into a panicked spiral of self-doubt. That doesn’t help anything, although of course it’s okay to pity yourself a bit now and then. You have to learn how to hear what is useful in the feedback you get and to be able to brush yourself off, make changes, and carry on.

On the other hand, you have to believe in yourself and know how and when to defend your ideas or your way of writing. Your supervisors aren’t always right, even if they want you to think they are, and sometimes you have to tell them, “Thanks for the suggestion, but I think I’ll actually continue on in this way because…” or “I’m not so sure about that because…” You’re not always in the wrong and you have to know when to give in and when not to. You also have to learn how to defend your ideas and methods, as this is an important part of academia.

You also have to be fairly academic and interested in the theoretical side of things. You can’t just write a PhD thesis/dissertation on why you translate in a particular way or on suggestions for translators. While the practical aspect is essential and while there should be less of a practical-theoretical divide than there currently is, a PhD is pretty theoretical. I’ve talked to MA students who say they’re interested in doing a PhD, but “only if there’s no theory”. It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.

Mentioning the obvious, you have to know at least two languages. I’ve actually been contacted by people who’ve proposed that they study the translations of a particular author or book but without knowing the source language. Of course looking at target texts is essential, but that can’t be all you do. It’s not called “studying translations” but “translation studies” and there is a big difference there.

Ideally, you’d also be a translator yourself or at least have some experience translating. I’m sometimes surprised and dismayed by the number of people in translation studies who profess to be able to comment on what translators do but wouldn’t know how to translate themselves. An art critic has to know something about color and perspective and an expert in translation studies should know something – on a practical level – about words and context.

So, if you have many of the skills and qualities mentioned here and if you are interested in academia (whether for just a few years or for your entire career), why not apply to PhD programs? You sound like you could be a good candidate!

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about what you actually do in a PhD program in translation studies, so you might want to check that out for more information.


Anonymous said...

A very helpful post! I personally find it very difficult to get access to the research being done in a particular area of Translation Studies. The university libraries in my country tend to have more of introductory books. Very few journals of Translation Studies make their way into our libraries. It is difficult to check whether other people have already worked on your topic, without having access to related books and articles.

Thor May said...

Here's a short article that I've written on this topic, a little more darkly perhaps, and not specifically about a PhD in translation: "Why Write a PhD?" at

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you, Thor. I've read your article and think it's very well done and interesting.

Best wishes,

Stephania Eckstrom said...

It takes a lot of hard work and struggles just to get through with it. But studying is always worth it in the end. What you know will serve as tools for when you go out and practice your profession. But even then, you will continue to learn new things.