If Only I’d Known! Three PhD Tips

Hello all! I’m joining Heather on the ‘Real Life PhD Student’ blog, and hope to bring an Arts & Humanities perspective to her revealing ruminations on the doctoral life.

With summer coming, the academic cycle turns to reflection and planning. It’s time for our annual reviews, we’re surrounded by end-of-year assessments (if we’re not marking them, our supervisors are!), and the eerie quiet in the libraries and cafés means that yet another year group have ventured into The Real World. So it seems appropriate to consider what I’ve learned (so far!) about doing a PhD.

A few things I wish I’d known when I began:

Make the most of every opportunity. In fact, make opportunities.

At the end of your three (or four…or…) years, your thesis will be examined. Those 90,000-ish precision-crafted words will be scrutinised by the leading thinkers in your field; hopefully you became closely acquainted with the finer points of your chosen lofty theory, not just the dregs of the cafetière. But this vision of the viva as the finish line obscures the fact that there is so much more available to you. Use the flexibility of a PhD schedule to develop other valuable skills: volunteer, teach, network, go to conferences, organise conferences, engage with your department’s research activities, read around, write around, develop your critical vocabulary, learn a language…

Leave your desk occasionally

Don’t let the PhD consume you. If you spend every waking hour hunched over a book/laptop/lab bench your work will suffer, not to mention your general well-being (for starters, you’ll notice a sharp decline in the number of sleeping hours). To learn how to structure your argument, don’t you need to see how things fit together in the world? To recognise the potential impact of your research, don’t you need to be connected to the reality of people’s lives? If the vanishing point of your horizon is no further than the edge of campus, you’ll never be able to bounce back when your journal article is rejected/conference application is turned down/supervisor returns your beloved chapter covered in red squiggly lines (whether this is more painful on ‘track changes’ or by hand I haven’t yet decided). A little bit of perspective does you good.

Get used to feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing

Ahh, the feeling will follow you like a lovable pup. The transition between a taught Master’s and a PhD is bigger than you realise, and the unsettling sense that someone hasn’t told you the very thing you need to know is really quite normal. It’s the fact of not knowing everything that drives your research: nurture the ability to just get on with it.

And you, dear reader? If you stumbled across a time-machine, what advice would you give your fresh-faced self?

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About Nicola Abram

I'm researching black British women's theatre, based at the University of Reading. I'm looking forward to swapping my mortarboard for one of those floppy velvet hats!

6 Responses to If Only I’d Known! Three PhD Tips

  1. Kerri says:

    I’m still writing my master’s thesis and am not sure I’ll want to go on to a PhD, but I could definitely give my younger self some advice:

    1. Figure out much earlier in program what I want to write my thesis on. I chose an area of expertise in which I’d had absolutely no training and no critical background and only six hours of coursework to go. I ended up having to beg for an independent study, then twist another class painfully in the direction I wanted it to go. Even with that, I’ve had to spend about a year on sabbatical doing research and building background, with my committee assigning even more readings as I go.

    2. Related to #1: Take courses with profs that have similar research interests to mine. Since I didn’t figure out my thesis topic till the end, I found myself wanting two profs on my committee whom I’d never even met, much less taken a class with. At least I managed to get one of them.

    3. Don’t talk to ANYONE about my thesis. People who’ve never written a thesis do NOT get it and have no interest in understanding it better, and people who’ve already finished can be insufferable. I swear, if ONE MORE PERSON tells me, “The best thesis is a done thesis,” I’ll have an aneurysm. Likewise the question, “So, are you almost done?” Trust me — when I’m done, EVERYONE will know. I’ll have my party hat on and a margarita in hand.

  2. Ben says:

    Very, very good advices! I’m in my 1st of 4 years and I think indeed a PhD is about opportunities, leaving your desk sometime (and more generally I’d say having a life outside your PhD), and unfortunately a few times the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing at all.

  3. Gemma says:

    So, you’re in your final undergraduate year and confident that a Ph.D. is the next best step for you. When you start to investigate the options more closely, it can feel like the world is your oyster: for as many areas of research there are, the same if not more choices for Ph.D. project are available to you. Choosing which of these you will enjoy the most is a very challenging decision, and it will also have a great deal of influence on the options open to you after the Ph.D. Here are 3 bits of advice that I would offer, based on what I have picked up from 4 years as a Ph.D. student:-

    1 – Be flexible in location: there is a relatively unspoken rule that you shouldn’t do your Ph.D. at the University where you also undertook your undergraduate studies. If you are interested in a career in science, than you follow the project that most appeals to you, rather than the location e.g. your comfort zone. It initiates a process that as scientists you will likely have to embrace, and that is the requirement to move regularly for work – especially nowadays when competition for positions is high. For example, you do your undergraduate degree in one location (takes 3-5 years), your Ph.D. in another (3-4 years), your first postdoctoral position (2-3 years), your second postdoctoral position (2-3 years). After the second postdoc, you may be offered a more permanent position within that same department, or again you may apply for a permenent academic (teaching/research) position elsewhere. Of course there are options at every stage to leave academia and enter industry (pharmaceutical companies, etc), but again, usually you will have to relocate for these. Hopping around different Universities/Institutes within the U.K. (speaking as a British student) is fine, it doesn’t need to be international.

    2 – We all know what a difference a teacher can have on our appreciation (or dislike) for a particular subject, and this may influence your choice in Ph.D. research topic. All I can say to you, having reached the other end of the Ph.D., is that if you enjoy science, please keep an open-mind. It’s a bit like food: you think you don’t like a particular vegetable until someone prepares it for you in a new way. Science is exactly the same: if you see a project that you love the sound of but it includes an element that you disliked at uni, don’t disregard it entirely. Do a little bit of research first, you may find that it appeals to you afterall.

    3 – It is difficult to know after your undergraduate degree the area of research you ultimately want to work in – there’s a lot of exciting research across a broad spectrum of topics. However, your choice of Ph.D. can very much determine what options are available to you afterwards, in terms of subject area. This was one of the biggest surprises (and disappointments) for me. In the past, it used to be that students could quite easily hop subject area – particularly if their boss had some good academic connections. Nowadays, most likely due to the competition for vacancies, postdoctoral positions require multiple specific technical skills, and then list further desirable skills and often requirement for experience in particular model organisms. I chose to work with baker’s yeast during my Ph.D, and it is now very difficult to find a postdoctoral position working with mammalian cells or other higher eukaryotes that don’t require prior in-depth experience with those models. If you embrace your Ph.D. project, you can develop it to encompass valuable skills that you know will be useful to you when applying for work after the Ph.D. I have learnt that you have to think ahead if you want a career in science: and this is a common interview question after your Ph.D.: ‘where do you want to be in 5 years/10 years?’. Start thinking during your Ph.D. about what scientific questions you want to address in your career, and you will then have time to incorporate or learn these skills during your Ph.D. project – this will help you to secure a desirable job at the end.

    Good luck with the next steps, doing a Ph.D. is one of the most enjoyable scientific experiences you can have!

  4. Karen Mcaulay says:

    I started a PhD in 1981 – didn’t finish that one – and successfully completed a PhD part-time, on a totally different subject, in 2009. If you ask me what I wish I’d known first time round, it goes like this:- (1) Don’t change subject between Masters and PhD unless you’re prepared for the whole postgraduate experience to take that bit longer. (2) If you’re initially unsettled as a postgraduate, recognise that you’re readjusting to a new level, a new way of working, and quite possibly a new environment with new people. Don’t assume that the subject doesn’t suit you – it’s more likely just a question of settling in. (3) Unless you have superhuman powers, don’t start another postgrad course before you’ve finished your PhD. If you run out of funding, try to find part-time work, and grit your teeth to get the thesis finished. (Or look forward to the unexpected joy of having another chance many years later!)

  5. Victoria says:

    If only my Summer were devoted to “reflection and planning”. I’m tackling a funded Arts PhD with 3 children aged 5-13yrs: my exhausting Summer will be filled with combined anxiety and resentment about failing to make adequate progress. For me, instead of leaving my desk occasionally, it’ll be a case of finding my desk occasionally, – very occasionally.

    • Nicola Abram says:

      Thanks, all, for taking the time to reply: pleased to meet you, loyal readers!

      Kerri, here’s to that margarita!

      Karen, great advice! Good to hear from someone on the Other Side, it always gives me hope! If I’d known how unsettling it would be to start a new topic (and discipline) at PhD level I might have made some different decisions myself, but then I would have missed out on a fascinating subject and a real self-development learning curve. Swings and roundabouts I guess!

      Victoria, you make an excellent point – it’s good to be reminded that PhD students come in all different shapes, sizes, backgrounds and experiences. So though summer might be hectic with trying to entertain (or is it contain?) your children, I bet you’re brilliant at multi-tasking and working hard in the snatched moments. This is perhaps the beauty of doctoral research, in that you can create a working schedule that fits you and your family, and isn’t dictated by the academic seasons. All the best with it!

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