By Ian MacNeill |

Offering reflections on our PhD experience and tips for those who follow us down the doctoral path is, to my mind at least, one of the most valuable contributions that we as writers for Pubs and Publications can make.

Whilst I’m not quite finished my write up, I am very much in the endgame of my PhD (job news this Friday – cross your bits for me folks!) and I thought it would be useful to dedicate one my few remaining posts to offering some reflections on my time as a PhD candidate and a few pieces advice for those of you on the brink of starting your doctorate or are in the early stages.

Take (full!) advantage of your 1st year

I was recently asked in a job interview if there was anything I would do differently during my PhD, and whilst there are almost an infinite number of things I could have said, my response was that I should have taken more advantage of the time at my disposal in my 1st year and been more strategic with that time.

The 1st year of a PhD is a time for exploration where (mostly anyway) you are unencumbered by the pressures of looming submission deadlines, fellowship applications, or conducting fieldwork. My advice to 1st years PhDs is simple: go to as many seminars, meetings, summer schools, conferences etc as you can; immerse yourself in academic life and take advantage of your university community.

In terms of being strategic with your 1st year, this is the time when you can start to tick off some things that employers now (rightly or wrongly) expect PhD candidates to have experience of, that aren’t actually related to your PhD. Use this time to become involved with planning and supporting academic conferences/seminar series, publish a book review, or sit on departmental committees. Trust me, it is much easier to start ticking these things off at the start of your PhD journey than scrambling around at the end.

The importance of extra-curricular fun times

For many of us, PhDs can feel all-consuming and over time you can easily lose sight of almost everything that isn’t related to it. I cannot state this strongly enough: whether you continue a hobby you enjoyed before you started your doctorate or discover a new interest, carve out some time every week for something that you enjoy that is unrelated to your research. Doing so gives you distance from your research and helps to remind us that there is a world outside of your research and that, eventually, you will re-join it in a fuller fashion.

I get that it can be really hard to leave your research but staring at a screen for hours on end willing words to appear is far less efficient than taking some time away to do something you enjoy. More often than not, you’ll find that when you come back to your research you see things anew and bring fresh ideas.

Stay Active

I am a firm believer in the mantra that a healthy body creates a healthy mind. Recent research highlights the important of good mental health for doctoral candidates. As a cohort, we are highly susceptible to episodes of mental ill-health; rates of anxiety and depression are six time higher among PhD candidates than in the general population.

Research has indicated that as little as 10 minutes of physical activity can have a positive effect on your mental health and wellbeing. I would highly recommend timetabling some regular physical activity into your week. Over my PhD I have mainly used circuit training and powerlifting in an attempt to stay healthy, but you needn’t be as structured as this. Can you walk to your office? Is there a park you could visit at lunchtime?

It is never too early to start thinking about your next steps

3 or 4 years to complete a research project might seem like along time, and there will be times when you think it will never end, but somehow the end always seems to arrive sooner than you expect. You might start your PhD with an exact idea of where you want it to take you, but for many of us this is not the case or circumstances arise during your PhD that mean you have to deviate from your original plan. It is never too early to start thinking about where you want to go next after.

I went to a recent careers seminar and the key advice was to draw up a five-year plan with your intended goals and how you want to get there – while the process felt intimidating, I found that once I started to commit my goals to paper I could begin to think in more detail about how I was going to achieve them and any additional factors I might have to take into account.

For example, if there is an early career fellowship you are keen to pursue after you finish, do your research early. Aside from the competitiveness of these schemes, they normally have predetermined application cycles and start dates. You might find that while you have to complete your application before you submit your thesis, the fellowship does not start until 6 moths after your PhD funding ends. Can you build up savings to cover this or find a temporary job? By planning now you can begin to address these sorts of issues well in advance.

Start writing early and learn more about the writing process

One of the biggest challenges I faced during my PhD has been academic writing. Initially I was so daunted by the prospect of committing my thoughts to paper that I almost couldn’t do it, and what I did produce was substandard.

If you are struggling with academic witting, my advice would be to start writing about your research as soon as you can – after you’ve read a research paper why not a write up summary of it that distils its main points and strengths and weaknesses? Another recommendation I would have is to write for different audiences (like this wonderful blog) – academic writing is a skill in and of itself but being able to write about your research and associated experiences for different audiences is an incredibly helpful skill going forward. Another idea might be to become involved in the academic publishing process – seek out opportunities to be a peer reviewer or copy editor. It might sound weird, but when you see more senior academic making the same mistakes as you – like overly long sentences or even formatting errors – brings home the human side of the writing process, that is nearly never evident when you read published articles which have been through many revisions before being accepted.

Okay, so those are my 5 tips for a positive PhD experience. As always, I would love to hear from readers about any tips you might have, so please feel free to share them in the comments section below or via our social media accounts.

Images: Flickr.

Ian is currently in the final stages of writing up his PhD which explores the resettlement experiences of young prison leavers. He is the social media editor for Pubs and Pubs. You can follow him on Twitter