Advice for doing a PhD

 

Recently on Twitter I asked “If you could give only one piece of advice to a PhD student what would it be?” and I received lots of useful advice from the twittersphere. Might tweet spread further than I ever anticipated. I received 48 responses over all.

You can view the tweet above but I thought it might be worthwhile to summarise the tweets here. As a result, this post will be quite short as I think most of the tweets speak for themselves, so have a look at the thread!

Overall, it seemed to me the most common advice is:

  • Keep a work life balance, take your holidays and look after yourself.
  • It will be harder than you think.
  • It is a slow process, embrace the skills you learn along the way and it is your process. Don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Be organised and start writing early. Don’t assume you will remember everything from the start of your PhD at the end, having a system helps.

Here are some of the key tweets I liked:

I encourage you to read through the thread. It provides insightful advice from people who have been there before.

My own advice would be, don’t compare. I wish I had known this at the start of my PhD. I remember meeting someone in the sciences and following them on Twitter. They are about a year ahead of me in their journey, and were already teaching and publishing. I immediately felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Never mind that this person was doing experiments, so had results to share, and that they were a year ahead of me. My brain chose to ignore these facts. Remind yourself every time you compare, that it is actually impossible to compare your journey, even in the same field.

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The time question

The very first day of my PhD I googled “how much time is enough to spend on a phd”. . A quick search revealed conflicting answers, some saying 9-5 Monday to Friday, others suggesting 12-15 hour days and weekends as a minimum. I have a tendency to overcommit myself, so I chose to listen to the 12-15 days and weekends advice.

In the beginning of my PhD I loathed workshops and social events. I honestly felt that if I wasn’t reading or writing, I was wasting my time. I had a very loud ticking clock in my head that constantly reminded me I was not doing enough. As a result, I would take readings home and sit on the couch while my housemates watched television in the same room. I would guiltily be drawn into the shows they were watching, all the while clutching my journal article and a pen in my hand. I would work on Saturdays and Sundays, trying desperately to keep my concentration while my family and friends attended fun events without me.

To an outsider this is obviously not sustainable. I was pretty stressed and miserable, I felt like I was constantly working and achieving nothing. In part, I was. By forcing myself to follow what I had read online, the ’12-15 hour days and weekends’ I was doing myself more harm than good. I was being less productive because I was tired and not getting any rest. Whenever I was working I was achieving less because I was exhausted. My scholarship says I can’t work more than 8 hours of paid work, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. This is the guideline I now like to work with. I try to be working as though my PhD is a fulltime job, 9-5 Monday to Friday with sometimes 8 hours of paid work thrown in. For me working now means reading, thinking, workshops, social events within the faculty, meetings, student events and writing. While I am working my focus is to make the most of the hours I have during the day. As a result, I am less stressed and have a work-life balance.

I won’t lie, sometimes I work weekends or stay past 6pm. But this is when I want to and only when I know I am not compromising my physical and mental health. I don’t stay because I feel like I have to.

 

 

My 9 month anniversary

The 1st of May marked my 9 month anniversary of beginning my PhD journey. I haven’t been posting as much as I would like because I have been deep in preparation for my confirmation. I also partly felt that I couldn’t share this blog with anyone. I thought it was a bit personal, maybe too real about the PhD journey, would people not approve of what I posted? Would potential students find it?

On reflection, I don’t think my blog is too personal. I think it identifies the feelings I had in the first six months of my PhD. Feelings that are completely normal.

The main feeling I experienced in the last nine months, but mostly the first six of my candidature, was uncertainty. It is important to understand that you may feel this too and it is normal. It is normal because you have never been through this process before. You are learning and for the first time a lot of the project is only about you. Yes, you have supervisors but they will be guiding you, not driving every decision. Once you learn that it is okay to not know everything, you will be happier.

 

Uncertainty

A PhD is a massive undertaking. In the first four months, I have experienced doubt, unhappiness, anxiety and dread. But I have also experienced happiness, pride and satisfaction. I have definitely had days where I felt completely unqualified to be enrolled in a PhD, let alone the recipient of a scholarship (hello, imposter syndrome).

I realised yesterday, my feelings of anxiety weren’t necessarily about my own knowledge or skill level. Instead, they were stemming from my old friend, uncertainty. I have experienced many levels of uncertainty in the last four months. I was uncertain about research direction, reading, theory and more generally, what to do. This uncertainty paralysed me. I had some days where I did not get any work done. None, at all.

This to me was shameful. I felt like a failure. Why did I find it so hard to get started on work? The answer lay in the fact that I did not have a plan. The answer was that uncertainty scared me.

 

A topic at last! Or in other words, a lifeboat in the ocean of uncertainity

The whole month of September I was lost. I was lost in the sea of literature. I feel unmotivated and lazy. I felt that no matter what I read, it wasn’t enough. This, coupled with the uncertainty of not knowing what to write about, paralysed me.

Before September, I had already written  3000 words of a draft for one of my chapters. How many did I write in September?  0.

I did write some words in September as I have an annotated bibliography and rough drafts in Scrivener. But I did not write any real words that will eventually contribute to my thesis. This is because I was stuck in an ocean of possibility. I had dug deeper into my literature view and felt I was going around in circles. Every topic I read was uninteresting or had already a small amount of research. I didn’t know where I would fit.

Now, I have absolutely no advice on how to remove yourself from this paralysing position. For me, it happened randomly, on a Tuesday two weeks ago whilst trying to organise my thoughts in a mindmap. I suddenly looked up and I knew! The happiness that flooded through me was intense. I just wanted to share this, so anybody else doing a frantic google on ‘how to choose a PhD topic’ doesn’t feel as alone.

This uncertainty will pass. You WILL find a topic. You were allowed entry to the program because YOU are worthy.

 

The learning phase

I started my RHD journey with noble ideas about efficiency, resources and knowledge. I thought, this is simple. I’ll simply search the literature, write some things and submit my ethics approval! This will go swimmingly! In reality, it has been a month and I am realizing I was a little naive.

Firstly, I learnt that process that universities take their time, as every request has to pass through the bureaucracy. As a result this month has not been the most productive month.

Secondly, I have learnt some things about myself. The Pomodoro technique does not work for me. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me as Super ADD Mom points out, it doesn’t always work for people with ADD/ADHD. This has meant instead I make myself a rule, I read one article and then I can have a break. Only a short break, but it isn’t constrained by time limits, so I don’t feel disappointed to be half way through reading an news article when my ‘break’ timer finishes. I also like the method of working through a whole article before taking a break because I find that I tend to hyper focus on a task, and find it hard to get back into if I have to pause.

Thirdly, I have found that it is close to impossible for me to work electronically. I need to print articles or I just cannot retain the information I read. Printed, I can work through an article in less than an hour. Electronically, it can take me up to three hours. I am not sure why, but it just doesn’t work.

And lastly, I have found that on a topic I thought would be relatively small there is still quite a lot of research. I am finding that while there tends to be very little written after 2014, there is still a fair amount to work through. I am finding that what I have read is just a drop in a very wide pool. Definitely not something I expected when I started!

Is there anything you have found to be surprising about your journey? Comment below!

Is it ‘enough’?

After my first week as a PhD candidate I have one main, completely overwhelming, feeling. It is an uncertainty I have never felt before. It is possible that I have never felt this before because I came straight from undergraduate honours. Whilst undertaking my honours, I did feel a sense of urgency. But I never stressed if I didn’t think I hadn’t read ‘enough’.

That is this weeks struggle. The idea of how much work a day is ‘enough’. What constitutes good progress? How much should I be writing? How much should I be reading? How many workshops should I attend? Have I wasted my week?

I have the feeling that I will never know when ‘enough’ is. I wish I could say that I was comforted by this prospect. If anyone is reading I would love to know how you judge ‘enough’.