By Helen Johnson
On my first day as a PhD student I was overwhelmed. As a first generation student from A-level onwards I have been continually figuring out how university works – and a PhD was a whole new experience!
Looking back now, I’m not sure I fully understood what a PhD was, what was expected of a PhD student and the many other taken for granted nuances of becoming a doctor. Somehow, I am now four years in… so please allow this weary 4th year to offer some nuggets of advice to anyone starting a PhD this year.
- Remember you are a researcher in training, not a fully formed researcher.
Halfway through my PhD I felt pretty dumb and intimidated by all the papers I was reading and people I met – more so than I ever felt during my undergraduate and taught masters. I felt I knew more back then! I realised I was comparing my current work to academics who were 5, 8, 10 or more years ahead of me. In theory, the thesis is only a documentation of a learning exercise. It shows that you can meet a high level of research and during these 3-4 years you are a researcher in training. You become a fully-fledged ‘researcher’ on gaining your doctorate – so be a little gentler on yourself, you are still learning.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
PhDs are framed as the ultimate individual endeavour. While that is true, there is a difference between handholding and guidance. It is okay to be stuck, most of us are conducting our biggest instance of data collection to date and writing up our largest piece of work. We may need to grapple with big theories and at the end look to deliver an addition to academic thought. Things will go wrong, and you may want to change direction. That is okay! You should feel like you can ask for help with these simply to point you in the right direction. If you feel you can’t ask your supervisor, start to build relationships with other academics and students in your department and others outside of your university. Don’t struggle by yourself – you don’t get an extra degree for battling on by yourself
3. Celebrate the little successes
The PhD is a LONG time to be working on one project, no matter how much you enjoy the topic. Make sure you celebrate the little successes – you handed a chapter in? YAY! You went through and organised all your references? Go you, treat yourself to a nice coffee. You have hit your target word count for the day? Fantastic, shut down your PC and get on Netflix. Read one paper today? Thumbs up, that is one more step forward. Transcribed all your interviews? Well, that is a meal out in a restaurant for sure! The thing is, if you don’t celebrate the little stuff then it’ll be a long time until you feel like you are moving forward. Truthfully, you are making progress every day that you open a document, look at your data or read a paper.
4. Save a little bit of money each month
If you receive a stipend and/or take on teaching and you are able to, save a little bit of money every month. Most of us only get 3 years of funding and very few will finish within the 3 years. By doing this, you have a little bit of money to get through the final stage of your PhD if you are unable to work because you are writing up. It also means that if anything goes wrong, you have some money to fall back on. I did this from my first year and have been living off my stipend savings for fourth year. If this is not an option, search for hardship funding and other schemes online at the end of 2nd year. There are more than you think for 3rd and 4th year students in the UK.
5. The PhD does not define you
In a world that often defines people through their occupation, it can be hard to be anything other than the ‘PhD student’. However, you are more than that. You could be a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, an environmental activist, an artist, a friend, a football coach, a small business owner or anything other than a PhD student. Don’t forget these. At the end of the day, the PhD is only one part of the whole of who you are. So, don’t allow your whole life to be subsumed by the PhD.
6. Embrace change (if necessary)
I sincerely hope that your PhD goes as smoothly as possible. However, there may be times when you need to change things up a bit. Now, I’m the Queen of PhD changes – 3 different sets of supervisors and at least four changes to core theory used. I threw away everything I had written and started again at the end of the 3rd year. For me anyway, these changes were both thrust upon me or I decided to change. The message here is, if you feel you need to change. Trust your instincts. Whether this be supervisors, topic, theory, method or even university. Don’t make a snap decision but don’t put up with a situation that is detrimental to your mental health or academic progress. And when change is thrust upon you, just try to ride the wave and see where you go – remember there will always be people around to support you, so reach out if you need to.
7. Avoid the Overwork Olympics
In year two I was working in my office when another student asked my friends and I how many hours we worked yesterday. Bemused glances followed – what did it matter? It seemed this student wanted to compare working hours and normalise her 15-hour days. I’ve had academics tell me I should be working 12 hours a day; how I should feel ill. I’ve observed students who come into the office at 4pm and only leave at 7am the next day. Don’t get involved with the Overwork Olympics and its merry band of academic athletes. Look after yourself and take time off. Perhaps the best advice I can provide is to treat the PhD like a job, 9-5 Monday to Friday with the weekend off. And yes, you can have a weekend or at least one day off a week (minimum). Don’t worry, you’ll still get your PhD, and you’ll probably be less stressed to boot.
8. In your first month or two, pick up a generalised methods textbook
You know which ones I mean, the big chunky tomes that you use to provide the description of ‘semi-structured interviews’ with names like “Methods for Geographers” or “Qualitative Research”. These are actually fantastic at the start of your PhD for figuring out the practical side of the thesis – from basic research question design to structuring your dissertation. Honestly, I only took these out when writing my methodology, but I wish I had read them right at the start to help with planning.
9. Don’t punish yourself if you have an off day, week or even month
It happens to us all, and sometimes you need to listen to your body and take a break. However, if it is a planned workday, perhaps switch to easier tasks. A good thing to do is keep a list of little things that need to be done that don’t take much brainpower. These might be organising references, creating a contents page, cleaning your desk, sorting out books to take back the library or filing downloaded papers. Or if you can, take yourself away from your normal workspace and work somewhere else. These might not add much in the short-term but are important for saving time and effort in the long-term. However, if an issue is severe or lasts for longer than a month, please let your supervisor or someone you trust at the university know. You are not showing weakness and you are not inadequate as a student. People are generally a lot more understanding and forgiving than we give them credit for. Relating to this, take a suspension if you need it and are able to. A suspension may give you the time to realign your focus and come back refreshed. You are not a failure for taking time out.
10. Organise, organise, organise
I can’t stress this enough. Please, please, please figure out some organisation structure for yourself and your data. I am a notebook girl myself: I have a literature review notebook, analysis notebook, methods notebook, general notebooks years 1-4 and research diary. I have a spreadsheet that is my data collection outreach and monitoring system. My folders are split by chapter, ethics documents are with the methods and the literature file has papers organised by general theme. When I am working on a certain section, I can drag a folder out at a time to my desktop and avoid being overwhelmed. Now, I am pretty basic in this respect and I know others who organise papers with NVivo or Mendeley or create impressive searchable spreadsheets. The thing is, you will find your own way to organise your work, because at the end a PhD a lot of ‘stuff’ is created – both digital and physical! Evernote is also fantastic for organising all sorts and I used it a lot when undertaking netnography.
Promise me you’ll download a reference manager though? Even if you scrap it post-PhD, don’t be stubborn like I was. Download and get to grips in your first year and just store any potential paper in there. When it comes to writing up, all your references will be there, and you’ll be having a right jolly good time clicking ‘insert citation’ in Word.
Those are my 10 tips for new PhDs, just remember that the PhD journey is your journey and will be different from mine, from your peers’ and from your supervisors’. Own that journey, no-one has had a PhD like yours and that is something to be proud of.
Helen Johnson is the RGS PGF Committee’s Blog Co-ordinator and a PhD Candidate & Researcher at the University of Liverpool looking at video game development, creative labour, occupational community and digital.