I’m not sure about you but I always get the feeling that people who already have PhDs talk about their experiences as though they are reminiscing on a tragic accident and there’s often that glance of ‘knowing’ but not sharing when I ask questions or seek advice. It almost feels like having a PhD makes you part of some secret club that is never spoken about. But I am a stickler for details and I am lucky to work in academic research so I often ask the academics I work with for advice guidance and their thoughts on the PhD journey. They often share details I wish I had known sooner into my journey (2+ years into a part-time EdD) and I wanted to share some of these secrets with you all to open your eyes and let you know that it’s a good journey so long as you are in control.
- This is an apprenticeship to academia, it’s a learning curve and it’s ok not to know things and to make mistakes.
If you are anything like me, you’ll have started your PhD with ideas that there will be lots of guidance and help along the way and that people will reach out and offer help. How wrong I was. People are helpful and available, but they only know you want or need help if you actually reach out and tell them. This is your independent research journey and it’s up to you to plan, work and get things done. If you are lucky you may be part of a cohort of new starters that you can ask for advice. You might be like me and use Twitter to seek advice, guidance and tips, or you may simply ask your supervisor for some tips and guidance.
Think of it like starting a new job. You have processes, practices and habits to learn, some of which will be dictated by the realms of admin and university expectations, with many more being up to you to decide and form. You’ll start reading, you’ll question whether you are reading the right things, the right amount and in the right way.
- Organisation and practicality are key to succeeding – source tips and tricks to help you succeed!
One thing you will quickly learn is that success as a PhD student requires practical skills and knowledge of tools to help you along the way. But no one sits you down and says, here are the tools you might want to consider. It is, once again, up to you to ask questions and seek out methods that work for you and help you progress your research whilst keeping track of literature, citations, notes, appointments, deadlines, library return dates not to mention your social calendar and appointments. Spend some time in your early stages asking people tricks and tips that they use to stay ahead of the game and try things out. I tried 3 different referencing tools before settling for one I liked best. I also know that if it’s not in my phone calendar then it’s not getting done as I will forget about it. And, my love of stationery means I do like a nice notebook for writing things down, almost like a research diary. Your supervisor, your graduate school will have workshops to learn certain skills plus the library offer great help and advice, so do make time to use them.
- Break the project down into manageable chunks – yearly, monthly, weekly and even daily
The first year of my studies I wished that I was engaging in complex research and writing drafts of articles that I could consider publishing – I tend to think a few years ahead of where I am actually at – but my supervisor simply kept telling me to take time to read, write notes, become more proficient and fluent in the literature that I like and build my thoughts on their arguments and points of view. A friend a few years ahead of me in terms of their stage of PhD met me for a coffee and explained in more detail, the kind of things he was working on and it led me to ask questions in line with my job. I realised that I could apply the project management techniques in my day job to my PhD and I could portion my PhD into smaller manageable chunks with smaller objectives and goals. This really worked for my mindset as it enabled me to create to-do lists and check items off as I completed them. Take sections of the thesis, break them down into smaller tasks, set yourself deadlines for completing them and when you achieve them, tick them off with satisfaction. If you don’t make the deadline, reflect on why make some notes on why and move on. Learn from why you didn’t make a deadline and amend your approach going forward.
- Supervisors are on your side and will help, sympathise whilst encouraging and pushing you
There are a number of reasons academics want to supervise you and the most relevant reason is that they are interested in your research, whether that’s the broader area your research sits in or the intricate details of your actual research. Discuss your research with your supervisor, find out what their interests are and use that information to help you advance and learn from them. Supervisors may not always have the same perspective as you do. But don’t let that be off-putting as it can be a good thing and it can actually challenge your thinking helping you to build a stronger critical mind.
Be open and honest with your supervisor about what you are enjoying, struggling with, and even in terms of problems or issues outside of your studies. Universities want PhD students to succeed and there are plenty of experts on hand to help with a wide range of issues. It could be you need to attend some training, it could be that your supervisor recommends you chat with another academic who has expertise in a particular subject area, or it could be that there are formal practices in place that can allow you more time to achieve deadlines. Build up a trusting relationship and enjoy supervisory meetings as much as you can.
- The amount of admin work is significant and will take up a lot of time.
Research completed as part of a formal organisation such as a university requires considerable admin to ensure that it is all done with the best interests at heart and that participants as well as researchers are protected whilst conducting research. Quality of research is also important and in order to achieve qualifications, work has to be up to a certain standard.
Throughout your PhD journey, you will have regular admin processes to complete, from registering and re-registering each year, to completing progression reports, ethics applications, submitting extension deadline forms to also applying for funding and opportunities to present at conferences. At some points throughout the year, it almost feels like the PhD is one huge application form. Keep an admin folder clearly labelling all forms and applications and you may find that year on year the details remain the same and you can pretty much copy and paste, saving you time and your sanity.
- Enjoy the experience – get absorbed in the reading, fall down that rabbit hole, go on that writing retreat and push yourself to publish, present and promote your research.
Once you get started on your research, it’s easy to forget why you started this journey and simply get absorbed into the literature and writing. Lift your head up often and engage with the graduate school, your department events and activities and look for alternative opportunities to share details of your research with others and gain their perspective on your work.
My department has a monthly reading group where specific texts are shared for reading and discussion, I am also part of a weekly writing group where people are mute on a video call but writing for 15-minute sections and at the end, people have a coffee and a chat.
There will be both internal and external opportunities to present aspects of your research and to gain insight, opinions and thoughts from others. Take these opportunities and get your name and your research out there. Social media is a great way to engage in hashtag conversations and discussions and even start a blog documenting your PhD ups and downs.
At the end of the day, you started this journey for a reason, so remind yourself of that often, and when it gets tough, look at how far you’ve come and how well you are doing.