By: Krysten Blackstone |
I went into my PhD with slightly rose-tinted glasses in regards to the size of the adjustment that was ahead of me. While I knew the academic side of things would be different, I did not expect to be very far out of my comfort zone beyond that. I have done my degrees one after the other, at the same University, in a city I love, with excellent supervisors, a solid group of friends, and a wonderfully flexible part time job. All of that combined meant that it could not possibly be that hard to adapt to my PhD, right?
Below, is the advice I wished I had, the advice I got, and the advice I got, but ignored.
My first piece of advice: Don’t ignore advice.
Find a space that you work well in early on in the semester. I need a structured environment and rock n’ roll to be productive; some people need a café and earplugs. Ultimately, where you work best doesn’t matter, just be realistic about where that is, and find it as early in the year as you can. I have spent a lot of time ‘studying’ in coffee shops and my house, knowing full-well I’m incapable of working in either.
With the PhD comes an academic independence that is different from your Undergrad and maybe even your Masters. This was the biggest adjustment for me, by far. The lack of official deadlines, to someone who prides herself on her colour-coded diary, prompted a *minor* adjustment. (*Minor here to mean significant or substantial).
The advice we are given relating to planning the PhD is always something along the lines of ‘set realistic goals for yourself’. On principle this is solid advice, realistic deadlines are key to achieving any successful task, but it is missing a follow through. By all means, set the realistic goals, but be sure you follow through with them. With this lack of official deadlines, you have the ability to push the due date back, and back, and back. As tempting as that can be, don’t. You won’t ever get a ‘free’ month with the PhD, there is always something to do, and the pile of work that emerges from pushing back deadlines is not worth it.
Make a very conscious effort to bond with your cohort, within the first few months of the PhD. This was something I was warned about, and just figured it would happen organically somehow; for some cohorts it may – for mine it didn’t. It wasn’t until just before Christmas that my group spent time together outside of an academic setting.
With a defined 4 years to complete the PhD, each year is very different. First year and second year are miles apart, and first and third are further. Within your cohort, while everyone works at different paces, and to different schedules, you are all working through the same things. That support, and understanding is really helpful.
Students further along in their PhD will be some of the best sources of information available to you. They were in your position in the not-so-distant-past, and are often more than happy to talk about it. Just be careful not to play the comparison game. Always remember that you are in vastly different stages of the PhD, what is expected of them is not, presently, expected of you.
Most universities will have research seminars that students are encouraged to go. If you have such an opportunity, utilize it. In general, I have found them to be one of the most useful parts of my PhD. Seminars tend to be a meeting ground for academics and students in your department, and often from other universities. Going to them, gives you contacts and contact hours, in a degree where contact hours can be almost non-existent. In general, I have also noticed that my ability to comment on overall structures and arguments of work not related to my field of study has grown significantly.
I love teaching. However, it would be remiss of me not to point out the extreme amount of time it consumes. If at all possible, avoid teaching in your first year, definitely avoid it for the first semester. As rewarding, and important as teaching during your PhD is, it has the potential to be a vacuum that sucks up all hours of your day. First year is a difficult adjustment enough, without adding the pressure and workload of running second-year tutorials. If you do teach in your first year, choose one day and one day only for preparation. I teach on a Tuesday and prepare on a Monday; which means by Tuesday at 6, when my last class finishes, I force myself to be done with tutoring work until the following week.
I am now seven months into my PhD, and I have adjusted (as much as one can) – it just took longer than I anticipated. Most of all, what I wish I had been told, is that so much of the first year is about that very thing: the adjustment. It is about finding your footing, and working within your new environment so that you can be as productive as possible. The best advice I can give you is to embrace this period and use it to find exactly what works best for you.
Krysten Blackstone is a first year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a Pubs and Publications Committee Member. You can find her on twitter.
Image 1: Flikr, Image 2: Pexels, Image 3: Pixabay.