On my Facebook page, it popped up that I had passed my PhD viva 6 years ago this week. I undertook my PhD in a slightly unusual way, as I did it as part of the National Institute for Health Research Doctoral Fellowship scheme. This meant that I undertook a PhD 50% of the time as part of my day job in Infection Prevention and Control. It also meant that I didn’t start my PhD until I was 30 and, although I was linked to an academic department, I was not really embedded within one. I was pretty much in a team of one. This has its advantages but it also meant that I didn’t really have the peer support of being in a department with lots of PhD students. It also meant that it was hard to benchmark whether I was doing OK. For people who are also undertaking a PhD without lots of peer support, or are thinking of doing one, I thought I would use this blog post to talk about some of the things I wish I had known.
Project Manage Yourself
A PhD is the biggest single project that most people will ever manage on their own as a continuous piece of work. It feels like a huge undertaking and it can often feel overwhelming. Like any project, therefore, it benefits from being split into more manageably-sized chunks. This can feel difficult when you don’t yet have a feel for where you need to end up. It’s often helpful to think of it in three main themes and to set targets for each of them:
- Project milestones i.e. literature review, initial data collection, key project themes.
- Personal objectives i.e. developing communication skills, developing teaching skills, adapting to academic and scientific culture.
- Professional objectives i.e. building networks, learning techniques.
Use these objectives and milestones to create a working document. Know that it is a working document and that everything will shift and change. This shouldn’t be a millstone: it should be something where you tick off the components you’ve achieved so that in the dark days, when you forget what progress you have made, you have something that reminds you of how far you have come. It can also be a really useful tool to help you re-focus when you have a lot of options or things available to you. Use it to prioritise and to decide whether your choices are moving you towards your goals.
Actively Manage Your Relationship with Your Supervisor
Not everyone has a great relationship with their supervisor: some people have supervisors who will take them for cake and a pick-me-up, others have a supervisor who they don’t see for months at a time or who may appear overly critical. Whatever your relationship with your supervisor, there are some things worth considering early on in your PhD:
- Understand the context – Unfortunately for you, most PhD supervisors do not have supervision as their main job. In healthcare, this is mostly their clinical work; even in academia it’s often the need to apply for funding for their group and publications for their progression. If you can understand the drivers on your supervisor’s time then you will be better able to work with them.
- Be clear about your needs – I would always advise developing a learning agreement with your supervisor very early on in your relationship/project. Everyone learns in different ways and your supervisor is not a mind reader. By developing a learning agreement, you and your supervisor can work out what works best for you both. Do you want regular contact, or does micromanagement drive you mad? What’s the best way to communicate? Email? Face to face? Phone? How often will you sit down and have a project review meeting? What information will they expect you to have? Do their aims for you align with your goals?
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Understand that a PhD is an apprenticeship in research: you don’t need all the answers. It may turn our that your supervisor may not be the best person to answer all of your questions, some of them may be too technical, or they may not be available enough to assist. Despite that, they should still be your first port of call and should be able to signpost you to assistance if they can’t provide it themselves.
Find Your Tribe and Learn to Speak their Language
The last bullet point brings me onto this point. For many many reasons you will need more than your supervisor to get you through a PhD. You may be like I was and pretty much alone, or you may be surrounded by other PhDs. Whatever your circumstances you will need to find support. You won’t be able to ask your supervisor every time you need to order lab books or where the pipette tips are stored – sadly, they are unlikely to know.
Getting out and attending lab meetings, or other teaching, can be a great way to not only meet people but also to develop the subject specific language you’ll need to succeed. If, like I was, you’re alone, then your funders will hopefully be able to signpost you to other people on similar schemes, and don’t forget about your postgraduate tutor (you should have one) who may be able to make connections for you across departments/buildings. If you are doing a PhD and are part of a professional group (or even if not), social media is often your friend. There are lots of good twitter accounts that can be a valuable source of information.
Do Your Homework
Every University has different processes and management expectations. It is worth understanding early on what these are and what you need to do about them. Is there an electronic log? How many lectures etc. outside of your PhD do you need to attend? What evidence do you need to collate? Do you need supervisors to sign off for specific things? My supervisors didn’t know any of these things and it proved crucial for me to not only be aware of them but to understand how to traverse them. This is especially true if you also have an external funder to satisfy and returns that are expected.
Take the time to learn your cultural norms and consider what authorship order is normal for the subject area. How often are you expected to present? How can you involve public engagement in your work? Are you expected to apply for further funding and to whom?
Learn Your Process
Not everyone works the same way. My amazing colleague, Melisa, will tell you that we often do our best work when just talking through ideas over lunch. This means that my lab book often has many serviettes stuck into it, waiting to be written up. Many people carry notebooks (Mel does) but, for me, this has just ended up the way it works: I can then write it up neatly and in a structured way – that additional process helps me.
Talking of lab books, make sure you have them and that you keep them. Have a structured way of recording information so that you make sure you have everything down and don’t miss crucial details which were blatantly obvious at the time. I can promise you that when you come to look at them three years down the line you will have no idea what that obvious information was. I also colour code mine for different types of work (viruses = purple headers, bacteria = green etc.) because it helps when you’re flicking through years of books towards the end.
It’s also worth knowing what your writing process involves. For a long time I beat myself up for not being able to get on and write straight away. I would berate myself for prevarication as I would tend to cook, run or even, god forbid, clean rather than start to type. Then, after about three days, I would sit down and I would write something like a paper in full. It took me forever to realise this was my process. I would spend time percolating things over, deciding my story, thinking about structure, even if I wasn’t specifically thinking I was processing in the back of my mind. It was all still work and made my writing more efficient and so I have learned to accept that writing is not JUST sitting in front of a computer screen. It’s everything that leads up to those words.
I also want to quickly note here that my process is not going to be the same as yours. You will find your own, but be aware of it and learn to be comfortable with it.
Finally, Give Yourself a Break
All projects are different, and not all subjects are the same. Although I talked earlier about benchmarking you really do need to bear this in mind. Use benchmarking to help you, not break you. You are on your own journey and it will be different from everyone else’s. Also be aware that there are some things that seem to happen to everyone, like the second year slump. No one told me about this and I struggled for ages thinking it was really abnormal. I finally confessed and was told that it happens to just about everyone. The second year slump is where you are far enough into your PhD to have a good feeling for where you need to end up and of the work involved, but you are too far from the end to have really started ticking off the achievement boxes and it all stills feels far away and overwhelming. The second year slump can happen at different times to different people, especially if you’re part-time, but this is just one example of knowing that this is a learning process and sometimes you just have to go with it.
All opinions in this blog are my own