Six pieces of advice about doing a PhD

Now that I am nearing the end of my PhD funding period, I thought I might as well pass on some of the ‘wisdom’ I have gained throughout the process. This post is for anybody out there who is embarking upon a PhD, or is thinking about starting one. So, in no order of importance, and with no specific theme, these are just some things that I think are worth considering:

  1. Carry a notepad everywhere you go to jot down relevant thoughts.

A large part of the PhD process involves thinking, and quite often this thinking doesn’t happen in favourable circumstances (i.e. when you are sitting at your desk working on the thing you are having thoughts about). To this end, it is handy to have a jotter of some kind where you can record random thoughts about your project. Otherwise you will almost certainly forget them. (Extra note: use the notebook exclusively for this purpose, and review what you have written at semi-regular intervals).

2. Additional activities are good, but don’t do too many.

The likelihood is that you will have a number of opportunities to do some extra work during the PhD process, both paid and unpaid. This could be teaching, demonstrating, student rep work, workshop/conference organising, other research work etc. etc.

Becoming involved in other projects will improve your CV, your transferable skills, take you out of your comfort zone, help you to create new professional contacts, and possibly give you some much needed perspective on your actual PhD. However, these activities soon add up, and even seemingly small contributions can become time-consuming. So be selective about what you do. If you are asked to participate in something, ask for some time to mull it over, and don’t be scared to turn things down if you feel you are becoming stretched, or are neglecting your research.


3. Anticipate and embrace criticism

Being subjected to criticism of any kind can be difficult to stomach. However, as a researcher and scientist you not only have to accept criticism, but you must also learn to embrace it. Your work will be open to scrutiny from your supervisors, peers, and the wider academic community. And it doesn’t matter how good it is, people will always pick holes in it. Reviewing and taking on board this criticism is one of the best ways to improve your work. As such, you need reevaluate your attitude towards it – it’s a valid part of the process (peer review is actually critical to the existence of the scientific community) that is crucial for your career development.

4. You aren’t an expert, yet.

It is important to remember that you are a fledgeling academic researcher, and that your PhD is an apprenticeship. You could become an expert in your discipline and skilled as a researcher. However, this process could take years or even decades. So don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t get overly stressed about what others think of your work. Equally, it is important to exercise some humility – listen to advice from your supervisors and those with more experience.

5. Take ownership of your work.

Despite sounding contradictory to point 4, it is also important to remember that your research has genuine merit. And the fact you have been accepted onto a doctoral programme means that you have demonstrated the skill set that is required to one day become a fully fledged academic. So whilst you should expect criticism and pay heed to advice from supervisors, don’t be scared to stamp your own personality and individuality on your project. Independent thought is sacred.

6. Stay productive and keep the faith.

There will be times during your PhD when you doubt yourself (for a myriad of reasons), and it can be debilitating. But during those times, force yourself to just keep doing something and make use of everyday*. Keep putting one step in front of the other, even if you don’t know where it is taking you. Keep an eye on the big picture, but don’t allow yourself to be consumed by it – continuous steady work and perseverance will see you through in the end.

* mental/physical health issues notwithstanding.


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