We spoke to over 30 current and recently graduated PhD students and asked them what two things they wished they had known before they started their PhD that they know now. Unsurprisingly there was a great deal of overlap, so we anonymised and offer a summary of what they told us.
It’s a complex project not a degree
A PhD is not like any degree you have ever done before, abandon tried and trusted routines that got you a 1st for your Undergraduate and/or a Distinction at Masters by passing exams with aplomb. This is more of a complex project than a degree. Although it culminates in an “examination” there are no past papers and little scope for last minute cramming. Once you get over the fact it’s not about how clever you are, it’s about how organised you are, then you start to make real progress. Don’t for a minute think a book will tell you what to do; by definition, that book does not exist because you’re supposed to be discovering new things not rehearsing established things. Start by agreeing with your supervisor clear goals or milestones for each year of the PhD and put in place a timeline to completion. Every PhD is different but there are some high-level indicators that you are on track. Identify who is the best performing PhD student in your department, school, faculty, centre or institute. Find out how they work, what they focused on at each stage, where they work, etc. You will be stunned at how quickly days run past, so at the very beginning make sure you have a clear idea of what a literature review is because you can and should get started with that immediately. Most importantly, get your head around the strange juxtaposition of having lots of help out there whilst simultaneously trekking solo across the polar cap. Words of comfort aside, the PhD is your project and only you, as the student, can make it happen.
Be aware of how you are spending your time
Over the period of your PhD study, you will stumble into a heap of additional opportunities. Some will be hugely helpful to your thesis, some will be developmental for life post-PhD and others will simply be a distraction. Being able to discern which is which is vital. Even more important is the ability to recognise a few hours, days, weeks or months in that something really is a waste of time. Doing so will require some form of trauma … “but, but, I’ve spent [insert substantial period of time] on it.” Choose how you invest your time, don’t let others choose for you. And be willing to revisit your choices.
Don’t get it right, get it written
Learn to write again. If you think your writing is good, you are probably mistaken. The amount of writing necessary over the 3 years is considerable; it is not just the production of 80,000 – 100,000 words that is intimidating. It is the extent to which you are required to write, rewrite, revisit and periodically abandon. Don’t over think every step you need to take, but rather just get started on something. Recognise that writing is a form of thinking and compare your early drafts to the working sketches that an artist produces. They are helping you produce the finished artefact rather than wasting your time.
It can be hard and lonely
Before starting a PhD everyone tells you it’s a long, hard and lonely journey… believe them; this is not simply another PhD cliché. Often, when in your 3rd and final year, locked in write up, you can became a recluse. Days spent staring at a screen, poring over words that seem a poor proxy for the vague “thing” you have in your head whilst all the while worrying that it is never going to come together. This is the very nature of the PhD journey. True, success or failure ultimately rest with you alone but your friends, your peers, your family and, perhaps most importantly, your supervisor(s) will do everything in their power to help. Talking helps, asking for advice or proof reading helps, doing something completely different helps too but only in moderation. Trying to master a new sport, instrument, language or simply reorganise your filing system represent both a healthy distraction and an endless source of avoidance.
There is life after the PhD, plan what yours is going to be
Know what you are going to do when you finish. A PhD is often seen as an apprenticeship for academic life, but it is so much more. Get clear in your head what the outcome employers (academic and otherwise) might look from in your PhD and making sure you tick all the boxes throughout the 3 years. They almost certainly won’t be that interested in the specifics of your PhD topic but will be interested in your analytical skills, your ability to write/publish, your project management skills, etc. Think through how you, armed with a PhD completion, are going to look to a prospective employer and make that one of the reasons for selecting some opportunities over others (see point 2 above). Time goes by very quickly and the accumulation of experience can’t be faked overnight post-completion. If you’re going to pick up some teaching skills, some publications, some industry experience or source some funding you’ll need to make the time to do this en-route. Speak to your supervisor(s) regularly about you as well as your PhD.
Know what your contribution is going to be
The one thing you can usefully glean from all those exams you’ve already passed is that knowing the question in advance is a help. The key question for your PhD examination is “what contribution is this thesis making?” Be clear from the outset which body of theory to which you plan to make a contribution. This guides your literature reviewing and you should have started that on day 1 (see point 1 above). Be clear also that there are other forms of contribution, for example to practice and to methodology. Be wary of making grand claims in these areas. Theory comes first, always … unless you’re doing a professional doctorate. Being relevant and writing about some implications for practice is a good idea but in the category “nice to have” rather than your theoretical contribution which is “need to have.” And contributing to method is something that your supervisor might tell you is something that you should be doing after your PhD not during. Contribution rests of some fairly specific language. Practice writing sentences that say “this thesis extends /contradicts/ elaborates/ expands our understanding of X in the following Y ways”. You could write that on day 1 too. Then you can spend three years refining it.
Get a PhD not THE PhD.
Unless you are actually studying propulsion systems in an aeronautics department, your PhD is not rocket science! You are likely to feel exasperated and incapable at least once during the process; remember you are writing a thesis, not plotting a course to Venus. Have a very clear idea what a doctoral thesis entails… the acceptable levels of depth and scope… Go to library and have a look. Perfectionism is the enemy of the timely completion. Do not hold back from writing because you feel you or your research wasn’t ready. It won’t be good enough, but that’s why you get feedback! Try to develop precise research objectives, learn them by heart and do not add a single sentence that does not help you answer your research objectives. A PhD is not something that you can do divorced from your day to day existence, you will return to your thesis every day adding a new piece, just like an enormous puzzle or painting. The mistake too many students make is to realise part way through that their thesis is flawed and elect to start over. At some point you have to conclude that this thesis, the one that is nearly complete, could scrape a pass with all its flaws and then to commit wholeheartedly to finishing it. So long as it makes some plausible claim to contribution it should pass. Your supervisors will tell you if the flaws are substantive enough to abandon ship. If not, learn the life lessons, promise yourself that your first post-PhD project will be better and bash on to your first complete draft. For every truly ground breaking piece of PhD wonderment, there is a small mountain of PhD passes that were more workmanlike.
Know why you are doing it
Doing a PhD as a fallback plan or as your 2nd or 3rd choice is a bad idea, we have all seen people leave under those circumstances. You can only do it if you want to do it. There is no universally right reason for doing it, and your motivation can be personal to you, but just make sure you really want to do it. Stop thinking like a student Treat it like a job – the flexibility is nice, but it is a job. Structuring your day, setting writing targets is essential. Working full-time, 5 days a week is the minimum you should be doing and working means reading and writing, not playing online, making coffee, snacking, reading tangentially, dog walking or working for someone else. Yes, you need to keep on top of social media, build your online reputation and you will have teaching, marking, admin, etc., but that is all on top of your 35 hours a week. The sooner you stop kidding yourself that you are working on the PhD when you aren’t, the more likely you are to finish it.
Publish as you are going along
As you reach the end of the PhD process, the importance of developing a publishing portfolio, early becomes clear. Academic employers expect it, some of your peers have achieved it and you don’t want to discover that you should have started publishing much earlier. The road to publication is a long one, and can take 2 to 3 years in some top rank social science journals and that is from the point of submitting the first draft! Getting started on that process is essential for anyone seeking a career in academia post-PhD. Speak to your supervisors and seek their endorsement. Think about which journals and conferences would be good outlets for your research, and get to know them very well indeed. Going into your viva with parts of your thesis peer-reviewed and published will give you a serious confidence boost.
Know your place in academic life
Congratulations, you have reached the pinnacle of Higher Education, a god amongst students, and right back down at the bottom of the academic pecking order! That said, you have phenomenal potential and a very promising career and future in front of you. Your PhD is the first step in delivering that career so make it work for you! Don’t mess your supervisors around; they are not your boss, they don’t even have the final say over the academic standard of your work but their reputation is linked to your thesis. Stay in contact with them and don’t think that because they have not talked to you for a few weeks, they obviously don’t care about you or your thesis. It probably means that they have a lot going on so give them a nudge. If you’re stalking them or expecting them to do the work for you, they’ll tell you soon enough. They’ll have been through what you’re going through so they should empathise. They’ll also know whether you’re spending 35 hours a week on your PhD or 3.5 hours a month. Your supervisors probably long for the uninterrupted opportunity to concentrate fully on just one project rather than the blizzard of admin, teaching, funding applications, data gathering, student recruitment, revise and resubmits, marking, etc. Nag them if they are completely ignoring you, complain formally about them if nagging doesn’t work but always remember that the detailed feedback on your 30,000 word draft literature review is probably being done in those hours that run well beyond the 35 a week we’re all supposed to manage with.
Check list for your 1st 100 Days
Starting a PhD is very exciting but many students get distracted by the novelty of being a doctoral student. Like a president taking office or a new CEO in a company, your first 100 days are crucial in setting a precedent for your approach. As a guide, by day 100 you should have completed the following:
- Have read a finished PhD cover to cover and made notes, ask your supervisor for a recommendation. This example thesis should use a similar method to your intended method and be in a similar discipline to yours.
- Have written 10,000 words on a key area of literature (…only 100 words per day on average)
- Have a working abstract, aim and set of objectives written (these will of course evolve over time).
- Have received written and verbal feedback from your supervisor on those 10,000 words and your aim and objectives.
- Have a formatted (to your institution’s style) full working document of your thesis, with placeholder headings and subheadings, table of contents, list of references etc.
- Have discussed with your supervisor and thought out a strategy for a conference you will present your research at in year 2.
- Have scheduled meetings agreed with your supervisor at appropriate intervals for the first 6 months.
- Hit these targets and you will establish a productive and organised approach to nailing your PhD.