Starting a PhD: 10 questions you daren’t ask, answered…

Let’s be frank, starting a PhD is a big deal. It’s a big chapter in your life, and while you may be feeling pretty cool about entering into your PhD you will undoubtedly in the back of your mind have doubts and questions. This blog seeks to draw some of those questions out.

There are lots blogs out there that focus on questions you should ask before starting a PhD. Stuff like “What do you want to do with your PhD? Do you need a PhD to get to do that? Can you afford to pay for it?” Etc. etc. This is all valuable stuff, but this is not one of those blogs. This blog assumes you are already committed to doing your PhD, have your bags packed and are ready to go!

As a way of inspiration for this blog, I spoke to some old PhD colleagues, to brainstorm some of the questions they had before they started their own PhD. I’ll be honest, we explored lots of questions together. You may laugh at some of those we came up with, but I think that’s the point. Here’s what we came up with:

Is doing a PhD being like being a member of staff or just a typical student?

Every institution will differ in terms of how PhD students are integrated into the department. I was lucky to be in a small department, and all PhD students were made to feel part of the furniture.

It’s important to recognise that you are still a student, but if your experience is anything like my own, you will find that student life is very different, and PhD life is more like being a member of staff. You may also find that undergraduates think of you more as a member of staff, especially if you are involved in teaching at some level.

Can I call academic staff by their first names?

Yes of course, it’s not Edwardian times! If someone requests you call them “Professor” or “Dr”, then it might pay to do so (but I doubt they will!).

Do I get an office/desk/PC?

Oh, yes! In most universities, PhD students are provided with a desk and a PC in a shared office. I found this pretty exciting, and while you may not admit it, I bet deep down you do too. All those years of undergrad and postgrad studies without a decent place to work, make this seem pretty special. Try saying it under your breath “I’m just heading to the office for a bit” – feels good doesn’t it! Don’t worry the novelty will wear off, but make the most of this happy feeling!

How many library books can I take out?

I could take out as many as I liked, for as long as I liked. Not sure if all institutions are the same, but if yours operates in the same way, it’s so good not having to worry about overdue library books. Try to leave some books for other people though! I have to admit I was a little greedy at times!

Will I have a close relationship with my supervisor?

Needless to say, every supervisor is different. Some will have over 20 PhD students, some will only have one or two. I was one of many, but I still had a very good relationship with my supervisor. I did not see him lots, but nor did I feel I needed to, but your needs may be different.

Always remember, your supervisor is human (or at least I’m assuming they are!), so if you need more help and support that you feel you are getting, make sure they know you have concerns about certain things and you really appreciate their support and wisdom. I can’t guarantee you will have a strong relationship with your supervisor, or that you will see lots of them, but you can do a great deal to make sure the relationship works for you.

Do I have to work in the department every day?  

I’ve never heard fixed rules on this, but do check with your institution. I would often work at home some days and come into the office on others. I did work for 3-4 months solidly from home in my final year, which was horrible as I began to feel very cut off from things. You might not realise it, but faces change quickly in academia, so when I came back to work in the shared office I did not know half the people in there. It took me a while to settle back into office life – so beware of cutting yourself off!

Can I date academic staff?

OK, this may sound like a strange question, but it’s sensible to know the answer… just in case you find yourself in this situation. Most universities have a policy on this, and it often goes something like this:

Members of staff are strongly discouraged from entering into a personal relationship with any student whom they are responsible for assessing, supervising, tutoring, mentoring, teaching or to whom they provide pastoral care or administrative and/or technical support” (thanks to Kings College, London for this example).

So, an intimate relationship between you and your supervisor would be “strongly discouraged”, but it’s not illegal (of course!) and it does happen (quite often actually!), but a relationship with a member of staff not involved in your PhD in any way is seen as acceptable. It’s good to keep an open mind and be aware of what the consequences of the relationships you enter into might be.

Do I have to teach?

No, not in most cases. But be brave and give it a go, if asked!

Am I clever enough to really do a PhD?

Yes, you are! Next question.

Do I have to finish in 3 years?

Few PhDs do, so keep on top of your finances for when the money runs out!

What should my email signature be?

Come on, you’re not a doctor yet! But it is useful to title yourself “PhD student” or “Doctorate student” if you are contacting other people in relation to your work.

Do I have to socialise with other staff outside of campus?

You don’t have to, but it is a good way of getting to know people and making yourself feel at home in the department. I should be honest, I did avoid certain social events, while others I grin and bared (like the departmental Xmas party), but everyone is different. Be yourself and do what you feel comfortable with – just try and not hurt people’s feelings in the process.

Do I have to act ‘grown-up’?

Just be you. Academics come in all shapes and sizes – some serious and some who like to have some fun.

Thanks to Tom, Jodie and Jason for helping me brainstorm questions we were never wise enough to ask at the start of our PhDs. If you have any other questions, let us know and we’ll do our best to answer them for you!

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