Doing a PhD: Six things I’ve learned

A few months ago I gave a keynote talk at my department’s 4th annual postgraduate psychology conference. This was a real pleasure (and a little surreal) as it was Jenny Taylor and I who set up the first of those annual events four years earlier. 

I was asked to do a talk on ‘my PhD journey’. This was terrifying daunting for two reasons.

Reason 1: Up until then I’d given lots of talk on lots of different aspects of my work but never given a talk about myself. Even where I’d talked of research challenges and even reflexivity, the presentation was always about my work and not about me.

Reason 2: My prospective audience was to include not only current postgraduates but prospective PhD students, current colleagues, mentors and my PhD supervisors; a consequence of returning to work in the department where I did my PhD.

Though apprehensive about talking about myself and doing so in front of my peers, I decided to embrace the challenge. I prefaced my talk with an explanation of how it would be an open, honest account of my experience rather than a sales pitch to attract PhD applicants. I also sourced some anonymous quotes from friends and colleagues about their experiences. The following is taken from the content of my talk titled “Doing a PhD: Six things I’ve learned” in the hope that others might learn from it.

Lesson 1 – Get involved in everything and anything*

 

I remember being told once by a senior academic that a PhD is more of “an apprenticeship in academia” than anything else. Though my PhD was full-time, I tried to squeeze in as many different academic experiences as possible (partly because I had difficulty saying no to opportunities). These included:

  • Research assistant opportunities
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Organising and chairing conferences
  • Open days and community days
  • Research networks
  • School initiatives
  • Teaching

*but remember to prioritise your PhD (not always easy!)

Lesson 2 – Engage in your field in different ways

Lesson 2

 

 

 

 

I separated out lessons one and two for a reason. As important as it is to get involved in activities in your school or the university more widely, it is equally important to get involved in your field. There may only be one or two academics in your department or university that are experts in the same specific thing that you are becoming an expert in. Find others like you. The internet is wonderful for this. Things I did or wish I had done:

  • Attended conferences
  • Published
  • Attended research meetings and events
  • Reviewed articles
  • Joined twitter chats
  • Followed and contributed to blogs
  • Read, read and read some more

Lesson 3 – Talk about your work and your ideas

Lesson 3

Yes, because conference presentations help to build your CV but talking about your work helps in so many ways. Talking about my work helped me to:

  • Make sense of my ideas, especially in the early days
  • Get feedback from others
  • Look at my work from a different perspective
  • Place my work in the context of my discipline
  • Meet other academics

Lesson 4 – Listen to your supervisor*

Lesson 4

Stress does weird and interesting things to us. When stressed, our supervisor’s constructive criticism can feel more cutting and we can take comments too personally or get overly defensive. Remember that your supervisor’s job is to help you grow as an academic and sometimes this means nudging you out of your comfort zone or requesting a fifth re-write of that chapter. Some things I learned:

  • Get feedback on your writing early
  • Expect them to challenge you
  • Communicate and meet regularly
  • Talk through your work and ideas

*but also be proactive and take initiative

Lesson 5 – Look after yourself

Lesson 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the course of my PhD I moved house five times, experienced a family bereavement, health issues and other general life stresses. I had to remind myself to:

  • Take breaks
  • Make times for the things I enjoy and the people I care about
  • Speak with other PhD students. They are a great source of support

“Life if what happens when you’re busy doing other things”

Lesson 6 – Enjoy it and celebrate successes – big and small!

 

Your PhD project is yours and yours alone and that sense of ownership (despite bringing pressure) is an amazing thing! Enjoy it, remind yourself of what you are doing and why and celebrate every little achievement. Things I celebrated included:

  • Finishing a chapter
  • Passing progression
  • Collecting my first piece of data
  • Finishing transcription
  • Getting my progress report
  • A successful meeting with project partners or my supervisor
  • Writing 500 words on a chapter I’d been struggling with
  • Organising my literature
  • Finishing my Appendixes

These were my lessons learned, feel free to share yours in the comments section…

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