Surviving a PhD – 10 Top Tips

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CC BY 2.0 via Sam Churchill

I was awarded my PhD in January this year following a successful viva in November 2011, so thought I would try and summarise my experiences over the last 3-4 years and see if I could come up with some key points of advice from start to finish…

Tip 1 – Academics need you: Most are keen to speak to any potential student who has a good research idea as a good record of successful PhD supervisions is essential to build a successful academic career. Don’t be afraid to approach a potential supervisor directly. There were not any suitable advertised studentships in the are which I live (and I did not want to move as I have a young family here),  so I decided I needed to make my own opportunity. I developed a rudimentary research proposal and emailed every academic I could identify in my local region whose research interests seemed to fit. In the end I worked up a proposal with Newcastle University which we submitted for an ESRC 1+3 studentship in the open competition (I was awarded the scholarship but did not take it up, instead I opted to study via a different route – more on that in a subsequent post – but I thought the advice may be useful).

Tip 2 – Its YOUR PhD – Take ownership: Whether the research idea is your own, or you have been appointed to research a topic as an advertised position, YOU are the one working day and night and living the research. Whilst your supervisors will have opinions or perhaps an agenda which will shape the direction of your research, It is YOU alone who will have to defend it in the viva. I have spoken to many PhD researchers who felt that their research was not their own and they were merely doing the bidding of their supervisor. The result can be mixed – some drop out as the lack of control leads to a lack of interest or focus, some work day and night to please their supervisory team and burn out, many are successfully awarded their PhDs but feel that they are a sham as their work was not entirely their own.

Tip 3 – Write up as you are going: I am always amazed when I speak to PhD students who are in the third year and entering their ”writing up stage” and tell me that they havent written more than a few thousand words. They feel daunted and overwhelmed by the huge task of meeting that 40-80,000 plus word count (depending on the discipline). “But you must have the literature review almost completed at least?” I say – but many just have pages and pages of notes. I had written complete drafts of my Introduction, Background, Literature Review, Methodology and Scoping Study by the Midpoint of my PhD – 18 months since I began. Sure, I would have to update and re-draft these sections – some of them extensively, but the knowledge that I had written about 40,000 words of what became a 90,000 document was of great comfort to me. I could also then pass these sections off to my supervisors for review whilst I embarked on my data analysis.

Tip 4 – Love to Hate your Thesis: You will at some point hate your thesis, trust me…This is OK, its normal – most people seem to go through it at some point – usually about two-thirds of the way through. This is completely normal and to be expected. Don’t panic, take a break – yes a break. PhD students need a holiday too, even if its just a break from the research to do something different. When you return your brain will have sorted out some of the problems you are struggling with on its own.

Tip 5 – Finished is better than perfect: I am a perfectionist by nature – but I have had to learn over the last few years the finished is better than perfect. Perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are lucky enough to reach the mythical land of perfection (which only exists in your own head), it is still highly likely that readers, and more importantly, examiners will find fault. This is what examiners are paid to do. The same advice applies to writing papers too. This leads into Tip 6 below…

Tip 6 – The written Thesis is just part of the PhD: The majority of PhDs have some form of wording on the fist page which states something like the document is “submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy” . Spot the keyword? “partial”. Before and during the viva the examiners will be considering many criteria in addition to the thesis such as the administration of the PhD, your training record,  publications and impact activities to name a few. The point is, the Thesis does not have to be – nor is expected to be – perfect. The examiners will always have an opinion on how you have presented the results or the approach you took. You will not know what this opinion is until you put the work in front of them – so don’t try to second guess but ensure that you can defend why you took a certain approach as opposed to another. You made the decision (see Tip 2) based on the evidence in front of you at the time and you are the expert in this subject. So defend.

Tip 7 – Enjoy the Viva!: No, really. This is your chance to comunicate your research, your passion, to at least two leading academics – sounds scary, but they will be genuinely interested in what you have done. Most examiners want to pass a student – despite the horror stories that are popular amongst PhD students. The truth is in the majority of cases they will have already made a decision about whether to pass you or not. You can read about my viva experience and top viva survival tips here.

Tip 8 – Have a plan for life post PhD: By this I dont mean start looking for a job etc…although of course this is important – more how are you going to fill the void? And it is a void. You will have been immersed in a particular subject and culture for at least 3 years, probably more. Once you have completed any changes demanded post viva and submitted the final completed thesis – the silence is deafening…

Tip 9 – It is worth it: Completing the PhD, for me at least, was an anti-climax. There were no trumpets or angels, no being carried through the university on the shoulders of my peers, no huge pay-rise or immediate offers of employment, not even any champagne (although there was, strangely, many flavours of Schnapps..). However 6 months on from the viva and corrections it feels worth it. Its a validation of your research skills and prowess., you feel a little more authoritative when speaking to peers or students (although inside you know that you are not any smarter that before), and you have survived – almost mentally intact….

Tip 10– Ignore tips 1-9: In the words of Richard Butterworth,

The only way to find out how to do a PhD is to do one. Therefore all advice is useless…

Alex Hope is Dr. Sustainable. This was originally posted on his personal blog.

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