After a year working in a museum, blogger Ellie has recently returned to her PhD study. After her first whirlwind month, she has sat down to share some of her experiences and tips on coming back to research after a break.
For most of 2022, I haven’t been a PhD student. I took temporary withdrawal in November 2021 and took on a year’s position at my research partner, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It was an incredible experience, and I learned a lot. When I returned to study in November this year, I was a little panicked, and a little worried.
People take temporary withdrawal for many different reasons, and for me it certainly was an incredible opportunity and a really positive experience. But sooner or later, we have to return to our research, which can be daunting. For me, I was actually wrapped up in a project of evaluation (my research area) that I was working on with the museum, so a lot of my attention went onto that for the first few weeks. I had a real buzz: evaluation work was what I loved doing most, and what I was best at, so it gave me a real boost of confidence early on and vindicated me in why I was doing this PhD in the first place. But after the bulk of this work was finished, I really settled into life as a research student.
Step One: Where am I?
This step was less of an existential crisis, more of a task of working out everything I’d done in my research so far. I was lucky in that I took withdrawal at a really neat point: the majority of my data was collected and analysed, and I wasn’t in the middle of anything. I took some time to refresh myself on what I had done previously, so I could get into the mindset of where I had left things. If you took withdrawal in different circumstances, where you may have had a lot less control over things, this step is vital in picking things back up and making sense of where you left it all.
Step Two: What is between now and a thesis?
Working out where I’d gotten up to was quickly followed by thinking about what else I needed to do to produce a thesis. I went over a thesis outline I’d planned my research around, adding in what I’d accomplished (chapters one and two) and what else I needed to do (chapters three and four). Then it was a case of planning what those outstanding tasks were: what other data did I need to collect and analyse; what time did I need to put aside to work on discussion elements of my research; what schedule did I need to work to? Working out all of this – where I currently was and where I needed to get to – gave me a real sense of gaining control of my work after so long away from it.
Step Three: Meeting with my supervisors
As I was preparing to go back to study, I set a meeting up with all my supervisors for soon after my return, so we could all get our heads back into my research. You have to remember, when you go on temporary withdrawal, your supervisors don’t just sit around waiting for you, pondering your project at every possible moment. They have lots of other things to do. So you shouldn’t expect them to know or remember everything about your research on your return. A meeting early on is a great opportunity to explore steps one and two (above) with them so they can get back up to speed and provide some welcome guidance about what you have planned. I left this meeting with a clear plan of action and a task to plan a rough month-by-month schedule of tasks so that my remaining eighteen months of funding didn’t go to waste.
Step Four: Start with the easy stuff
Disclaimer readers: this is something that I did not do.
I’d decided that my first task was to write a paper, which would be the basis of my second chapter. I thought I was killing two birds with one stone, and as I had just had a paper of my first chapter published, this felt like the right thing to do. I had worked with a lot of my research results on my placement year, so I didn’t feel like I was distant from it at all. But to sit down after just returning to study and setting out to write a research paper was difficult. I’m actually procrastinating by writing this blog post instead of working on the discussion section of that paper. It’s all been a lot harder than I thought it would be, that’s all. To work through material that I hadn’t seen in a while and put it into an academic format which I wasn’t used to yet. I’ll get through it I’m sure, but it’s looking like my first draft to a supervisor will come with the instructions ‘please sort through this mess.’
I implore you to start with something easier: read some papers, read through your own work, put together a summary of results, do some admin. Don’t start with the hardest thing.
If you are returning from study and would like support, there are several resources on the Library website just for postgraduate students. Take a look here. If you’d like to read more about temporary withdrawal, you can read more here.
What would your tips be for returning to study? Do you have any experiences you’d like to share? Let us know on twitter @researchex, on Instagram @warwicklibrary, or by emailing us at libraryblogs@warwick,ac.uk