Doing a PhD can be one crazy ride and there’ll be things you learn along the way that you wished you knew about right at the start if only to make the ride feel a bit smoother. Jenny Mak shares some things that she wished she knew.
Looking back at the entire stretch of my PhD, it feels like I’ve been on one of those exhilarating simulator rides that you’d find at an amusement park. You know, those jerky contraptions that set you off a virtual underground railway track or space flight at an unpredictable pace, so you might be trundling steadily along the tracks at one point feeling fine and the next moment find yourself hanging upside down! Every PhD experience is unique, of course. But in hindsight, this is what I wished I knew at the very beginning. (Check out Maria’s insightful post for more reflections on the same topic.)
#1: Don’t underestimate the amount of work and time you need for your PhD
A PhD takes a lot of work and you need every second of those 3-4 years for it. You need time to explore your topic and read up on related research, to define your parameters, to write and rewrite your chapters after getting feedback, to clarify to yourself over and over what your original contribution to your field is, and so on. You also need to allow for days when the ideas just aren’t coming together, when you find yourself procrastinating, when you fall sick, feel tired or uninspired. If you have other responsibilities and activities alongside it (job, family, conferences, teaching), those take time and energy too. Starting on your thesis early and developing effective project management skills will help keep you on track.
#2: Use your university’s resources to the fullest
In another post, I’ve suggested that switching our mindset to think of ourselves as PhD researchers, instead of just as students, can positively affect how you go about your doctoral project. The word ‘researcher’ reminds us that we’re not just doing another degree, but that the PhD is also an important building block for our careers, in academia or otherwise. Your university will have numerous resources that can help you buff up that CV alongside your PhD—please use them without reservation. Funding for workshops/conferences/initiatives, collaborative projects that you can participate in, skills training, career advice, professional teaching certification, public engagement activities, mentorship opportunities … the list goes on. This is the time and place to develop yourself academically and professionally.
#3: There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing a PhD
I sometimes fall into the mental trap of assuming that there’s an ideal way of doing something, and my PhD was no exception. I’d notice fellow students’ successes—getting journal articles accepted, being invited to speak at conferences, winning thesis prizes and teaching awards, being associated with well-known academics in their field—and would try to figure out what they were doing ‘right’ and how I could learn from them. This isn’t a wrong mentality in itself, but when taken to the extreme, when you start obsessing about what you’re doing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to the point that you find yourself scared to take risks in your research, to make mistakes and fail, that’s when it can be counter-productive. The fact is that things never turn out as we expect them to, but that’s how we as PhD researchers evolve and push the boundaries of what we investigate. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do your PhD, there’s just your way, and that’s enough.
These are some things I’ve learnt in the course of my PhD. I hope that they can serve as a heads up if you’re just starting yours, or as continuing motivation and gentle reminders if you’re deep into the process. Doing a PhD will challenge you in countless ways, often pushing you past your comfort zone, but it will also take you to unexpected places—physically, emotionally, psychologically. Hold tight and enjoy the ride!
What stage are you at in your PhD and how would you describe your experience so far? What have you learnt along the way that might have helped you if you knew them earlier? How have you applied what you’ve learnt to your PhD and/or other projects? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is an Early Career researcher in English and Comparative Literature, having just completed her PhD at Warwick. Her research looked at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary literature. She also writes creatively (short stories, poetry, theatre, film) and has a background in journalism, publishing, and sports training. You can find her on Twitter.