When you see someone who is submitting their PhD thesis, you wonder if you will ever get there, and how to survive the experience. This article gives you four tips about “how to get there”, particularly if you are an international PhD candidate, from a person who has just submitted her thesis.

In the month that preceded that marvellously unreal moment that was my thesis submission, the question I got asked more often was:

“What advice would you give to people who are still doing/beginning/considering a PhD?”

This got me thinking: what advice would have I liked to receive two-three years ago? I came up with four key-points, divided into two categories: “you”, and one “your PhD”, because (although we may forget it) they are not quite the same thing. My perspective is that of an Italian in Ireland, but most of my advice applies to everyone.

Let’s start with

YOU

ONE: You are planning to become an international student. Congrats! I still think it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Just remember that you are about to undertake something equal to a 24/7 job, and you are going to do it far away from home, in a place where all will seem strange, some days even wrong. So, look around yourself and enjoy your experience. It may be hard, but give yourself, and your new place, time.

Keep an open mind about the new culture you find yourself immersed in. Try a local sport (I tried rugby, and it was great!); attend events for postgraduates, if there are any, and perhaps a student society (I ended up founding the Victorian Society at NUI Galway in my second year … you never know!). Find your own key to the “feeling like home” feel. I am Italian, food is important in my culture, so for me it was finding the best Italian food places for when I felt homesick. However, I also tried local food and discovered some great new dishes.

Whatever you do, do not keep looking back and thinking (or saying out loud) how much “home is better than this terrible place”. This attitude will transpire and will not help you to make friends (to say the least). Also, it really will not help you to settle in your new life!

TWO (and this is for everyone): do not, I repeat, do not freak out before final year, semester 2. In those momentous days in which you get close to completion and people start asking “so, what’s next?”(obviously, they have no idea what that question does to your nerves…), you need all your wits about you. This cannot be if you have already stressed yourself beyond recognition by exacting constant over-performance from yourself.

Doing a PhD means you will manage your own work most of the time, so be the boss you would like to be working for. Set yourself reasonable goals and acknowledge your hard work at the end of the day. My technique is the to-do list: write it in the morning (2, max. 3 reasonable goals per day) and tick tasks as you complete them. You will actually see that you are performing the goals you set yourself, and it’s a good feeling, especially when you’re tempted to think that “you are not doing enough”.

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Image credits: Todd Dailey / CC BY-SA 2.0

And now,

YOUR PhD

I know this topic is huge, but frankly I think my two top pieces of advice are:

ONE: go to conferences. Conferences are the place to showcase your research, to receive feedback, and to meet people who work in the same area, so start from year 1. Here are a few tips on how to make the most from the conferences you will attend:

  • Do not read your slides, ever. Rehearse your speech and make sure it fits the required time – it’s a matter of etiquette. It is also the secret of a great presentation, and will help you cope with unforeseen issues (e.g. if the previous speaker overruns their time and you need to compress your speech).
  • While PowerPoint is, undeniably, an excellent tool, in my first year I discovered Prezi. The concept is similar to PowerPoint, but instead of “sliding” it “zooms”, which I find keeps the audience more alert. Plus, it makes your presentation really spectacular. Have a go at it!
  • Before the conference is over, reach out to the organizers, introduce yourself, and thank them for organizing the conference. They surely have put a huge amount of work in it, and they will appreciate it. It will also be a chance to get to know them better, which may lead to further collaborations. I am the current Membership Secretary of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association, of which I was a member since year 1, and the chief reason why I am is that I mustered up my courage and told the committee I would have liked to get involved. It was really unusual for me to stick my neck on the line in that way, but I did it and I definitely do not regret it. Which leads to my next point…

TWO: when you go to conferences, network! Networking is a huge part of your PhD. It enhances your publication, collaboration, and (therefore) career opportunities.

If, like me, you are not an English native speaker, this may be really stressful. If you miss a few words, or you have to ask a person to repeat what they said, you feel dumb. In general, you may feel shy and stick with your peers for fear of saying something dull in front of senior academics. At my first conference, I found that this type of behaviour held me back in building new contacts, so in my second year I decided that networking would be one of my goals. Here are a few things that I learned:

  • The trick is to stop thinking that you must either sound super-smart or keep silent.
  • Remember that the best way to start a conversation is keeping it simple: a passing comment on the day/tea/last panel (be nice!), or even just “Hi! I’m (add your name)” is often enough.
  • If there is a conference dinner, attend it! It’s worth saving some money to book a place, if you can. At the conference dinner people relax and have a chat while enjoying their food and, being Italian, I have a rock-solid trust in the bonding powers of food.
  • Invest in a packet of personalized business cards. You can order them online for a very reasonable price and, instead of having your email address scribbled on a piece of paper that might be lost, your new contacts will have your business card, a very nice reminder of your pleasant conversation.
  • Remember to write your new contacts an email as soon as you get back home: re-state that it was nice to meet them, and that you hope to stay in touch. Keep it simple, keep it genuine, and reserve the same treatment to both your seniors and your peers. You’ll be surprised by the extent your network will reach!

I would like to conclude with a message to all of you who are still working on their project, whether you are close to submission or not:

IT CAN BE DONE. YOU ARE DOING GREAT. YOU WILL BE ALL RIGHT.

What advice would you give to people who are starting or are in the middle of their PhD? And, if you are an international student, what advice would you give to people who are thinking about starting a PhD abroad?

Anna Gasperini is a PhD candidate at NUI Galway, Ireland, where she has just submitted a thesis on medicine, ethics, and monstrosity in Victorian popular fiction. She is the current Membership Secretary of the UK-based Victorian Popular Fiction Association (VPFA), and she is interested in popular culture, medical humanities, and adaptation. She is also terribly fond of Terry Pratchett books and cooking. Tweets @AnnaGDreadful.

For more on Anna’s publications and conference papers, see her Academia profile.