There’s plenty we don’t know heading into a PhD, and still lots we don’t know once it’s done. But there are some things which, with hindsight, would have been reassuring to know in advance…
By Pierre Botcherby
It was only when I agreed to write about ‘things I wish I’d known’ that I realised how little I’d thought about doing a PhD before applying. I don’t think I knew all that much about them and I’m not sure that it bothered me too much. I just knew that I was interested by my topic and that, having enjoyed researching it for my Masters, I wanted to carry on a while longer.
‘What I wish I’d known’ is also a hard question because, overall, my PhD experience was very positive, so I don’t have many ‘what if’s’ when I look back on it. For the most part, I just took it as it came, with no grand plan, and it worked out pretty well; I’m still doing the same now with life after the PhD.
That said, I probably should have been more aware of what a thesis – of what thesis research – is, beyond it being a long piece of writing! I might have had a clearer idea from the start about what I wanted to achieve with my research, although I like to think that not being attached to a particular outcome made me more open-minded towards what the research was throwing at me.
I think, in general, it would be good if people (including myself) were more aware of how the thesis itself is only a small part of the PhD; as I’ve written about previously, it’s a far richer and wider experience. Similarly, I wish we could dispel the myth around PhD loneliness: my positive experience of Warwick is in no small part due to the good friends I’ve made and the sense of community I’ve felt throughout. I know this won’t be everyone’s experience and that, for some, the PhD is quite lonely – but I feel like it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when you’re repeatedly told that this might be the case.
Everyone’s PhD experience is different, and the above paragraphs are just one bloke’s opinion. To get a more rounded take, I asked some fellow PGRs what they wished they’d known before starting the PhD:
- The importance of finding a supervisor you trust and will enjoy working with. You will spend a lot of time with them, and they will have an influence on your work. It’s important to develop a positive and constructive relationship with them, for the sake of your thesis and your own wellbeing.
- That they wouldn’t be alone or lonely, and that they’d make friends. This came up several times, with the caveat that developing a good support network, particularly in a new place, can be challenging – but that it is vital to the PhD experience.
- That even if you’re not socially lonely, you can feel academically lonely at times. It can be hard to find people (other than your supervisor) to talk to about your research, so it’s important to build networks in your department or at conferences of people working on similar topics.
- Ways for keeping yourself motivated. 3 or 4 years is a long time, and enthusiasm for your work will naturally peak and trough. In addition to having networks of friends and fellow researchers, playing sport was suggested for motivation: it has mental and physical health benefits, not least in terms of relieving stress, and it can be a good way of meeting new people or developing closer friendships with fellow PGRs.
- That they needed a better laptop. I could say the same, given the aged, creaking machines I used to do my thesis! The last thing you need are IT issues slowing your work down or, even, causing you to lose your research.
- That the career prospects for after the PhD are quite bleak.
Hopefully – the final point aside – a reassuring list. Maybe one thing we’d all like to know before we start is the answer to our research question, although that might take the fun out of the research! In any case, you probably won’t realise you didn’t know these things until you do know them (or, at least, until the situation arises where you need to know them): ‘I know that now, I didn’t know that then…’.
 Those of you who read my blog on Vivas may have spotted that this is the next line of the Nicolas Cage/Jack Singer ‘straight flush’ quote. Cards (!) on the table, in my head the line was ‘I know that now, I didn’t know that then’, which would have worked better for the post title and would be a better line for the film.  I did get the line in eventually.
What did you wish you had known when starting your PhD? And if you’re new, what questions could other students help answer? Leave us a comment below, tweet us @researchex or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Header Image: Kind and Curious