In the UK system, the PhD is meant to take three years--it doesn't involve a taught component like the US system does, so it's just 3 years of independent research. In practice, the three year guideline commonly turns into 3 1/2, 4 years or even longer. I'm planning to submit mine 31 January 2014, which will be 3 years, 4 months--and objectively, I know that's completely normal and actually even quite good. But subjectively, well...I happen to know far too many people who were really impressive and finished faster. Tracey finished a couple of months before the 3 year mark and she's doing her book proposal (and she's 26), Gary finished in 3 years (and he was 24!), and Phil finished in 2 years (also just 24) and got 2 books out of his dissertation. Ugh. Since when did finishing in 3 1/3 years at the age of 28 sound so unimpressive?
There are two ways of looking at these people--you're either inspired by them or you're intimidated by them. My attitude varies depending on my mood. I'm aware of the downsides of being so successful in your career--the stress, sleepless nights, relationship difficulties, etc. At the same time, though, I've always had a thirst to prove myself. I've always wanted to be impressive.
Today I realised that Tracey, Gary, Phil and I all have something in common, actually--we're all from less-than-impressive places. Halifax, Bradford, Liverpool, Siloam Springs/Stanwood: all working-class places where going to university is not a given. And despite going into academia, all of us kept in touch with our roots and stayed down-to-earth.
This weekend, I applied to a postdoc at Oxford. Like the British Academy one that I applied for, it's competitive. Chances are, come January, I won't be invited to the second round in the process for either of them. But there's always hope. If I can make it out of Siloam, and if Tracey and Gary and Phil can transcend their northern industrial cities, then anything's possible.