As a PhD student you are expected to be constantly learning. Be it through your own thesis work, reading papers, or listening to lectures, you are expected to remain up to date and current on all aspects of your area of interest. This means that you are constantly expected to learn. That is your one big job.
Right here on Collegelearners, you can rest assured to obtain relevant information on how to live as a PhD student, perks of being a PhD student, what is it like being a PhD student, amongst others. Be sure to surf through our catalog for ample information on related topics.
Traditionally, a PhD involves three to four years of full-time study in which the student completes a substantial piece of original research presented as a thesis or dissertation. Some PhD programs accept a portfolio of published papers, while some countries require coursework to be submitted as well.
What To Know Before Starting Your PhD Program
Congratulations! You’ve made it through the first weeks of your Ph.D. program. Right now, it might not feel that different from your undergrad experience. But the full-time research immersion that is soon to come, as well as the independence and required self-direction, will likely be a major adjustment. To help you make the transition, we asked current Ph.D. students and postdocs what they wished they had known about grad school when they started. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
I came into a neuroscience program with no background in neuroscience, and I was scared that I was going to get kicked out because the department figured out that I didn’t know anything about it. So I never asked my mentor questions. Whenever he was talking about his research and what I’d be doing with my project, if I was confused about something, I would spend hours looking online trying to figure it out instead of just asking him because I didn’t want him to think I was stupid.
But my mentor is really persistent. He would constantly quiz me on certain topics, and it would be obvious if I knew the answer or not, so he’d say, “It’s OK to ask questions. You need to ask questions.” One day, I told him that I was scared to ask questions, and he said, “Oh my gosh, you don’t need to be scared.” There’s so much information that you can’t know every little detail all the time. So it’s OK to not know, and it’s actually better to ask questions.
Planning is key
I’m pretty excitable scientifically, and when inspiration strikes, it’s always been my first instinct to drop everything, run into lab, and test out my new idea. During my first few years of grad school, I would elatedly set up a 24-hour experiment at 8 p.m., not fully grasping that the experiment would require hours of purification and analysis as soon as it finished. I was repeatedly committing myself to late nights at work while large periods of my normal workday were spent waiting for the experiment to finish and looking for things to do. Realizing this led me to consider what would happen if I waited until the following morning to set up these studies. I put this question to the test and happily found that the purification that used to keep me late at night fit neatly into a slow time in my workday before lunch.
I now have a series of questions that I ask myself to help me take a step back and get the most out of my time at the bench. These include the following: How long will this experiment take? How long will the steps after take? Can they wait until the following day? More importantly, I reclaimed my evenings. Now, while I still get that same excitement when I have a new idea, I’ve learned how to follow it up without sacrificing my time outside of work.
Take care of yourself
The expectations for graduate students aren’t as clear as they are for undergraduates, and there aren’t any “right” answers. You have to develop interesting questions and then try to answer them yourself—hopefully with good input from your committee—and that takes a long time. It can be easy to get discouraged when things aren’t going well, because your sense of personhood can get tied up in your research accomplishments. Though you might feel vulnerable, if you talk to your peers, you’ll likely find that they open up in return about times they’ve struggled. I think everyone has thought about quitting at one point or another, even the hotshot professors in your department.
Also, give yourself time to pursue nonwork-related activities. I play roller derby, and it completely distracts me from upcoming deadlines, frustrating meetings, or anything else that’s bothering me. By reframing my workouts as productive because they reset my mental stamina, I don’t feel guilty about not spending all day in front of my computer.
Don’t take experimental failures personally
Every time an experiment failed, I felt like it was my fault: “I must have done something wrong, and I’m wasting everyone’s time and money.” It wasn’t until my third or fourth year, when I was putting together an article for publication, that I looked back at all of the work that we had to do to get to that point. I saw how many failed experiments there were, but then eventually we developed a new strategy and new procedures that produced the results we were looking for and analyzed the variables we wanted. I realized, “Oh, not all of those failures were my fault. It wasn’t me screwing up the science, it was the science being more complicated than we had anticipated.” After that, I learned to not dwell on the fact that I was going to have to do an experiment again.
And talk to your adviser about failure. There’s the fear that they’ll say, “Obviously you’re just a terrible scientist and you shouldn’t be here,” but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you would imagine. They want you to do well. It’s OK when things fail. You just have to learn from it and take something useful from it.
Mentoring styles aren’t always an optimal fit
I didn’t know there were so many different types of mentors—that some people were more hands on and some were more hands off—and you have to find a good fit. My mentor is very supportive, very much “you drive your own project,” and I am very lucky that we get along and I don’t feel like he hates everything that I do. But he’s so hands-off that I feel like I’m fumbling a lot. I would like a little bit more guidance and conversations of “Let’s sit down and talk about the details and the science behind your project.” Going into my thesis proposal, I feel like I don’t know some of the things that I would have gotten had I used him as a sounding board more. But I didn’t have the idea at the time to bounce ideas off him. I feel like I needed him to start it, and then my brain would have started working—but he wanted me to start it.
But at the same time, I’m growing immensely. Even while stumbling through this proposal I’m like, “Oh, I’m starting to make sense of things.” I’m figuring out protocols and techniques and learning how to talk to people who know more than I do. My one friend who has a hands-on mentor worries that she’s not independent enough for a postdoc; I’m not going to have that worry. All mentor-mentee relationships have strengths and weaknesses, and it would have been helpful if I had been more aware of the different styles of mentoring and if they work with how I learn best.
Remember that you are good enough to be in grad school
Grad school can be terrible for mental health. You have an intellectually challenging job of doing good science, with the additional pressures of teaching and finding funding. Add in personal stresses such as being in a new place or being away from your extended family, and doing it all on a budget less than what you’d have at a part-time job, and it is exhausting. All of this makes it easy to think we’re not good at science, not good at academics, or overall just not good enough.
So, it’s important to do whatever you need to do to get over impostor syndrome. Have a good cheerleader—such as your partner, a friend, or a family member—to remind you that you’re smart, motivated, and hard-working. Accept the compliment because it is true. And remind yourself that everyone is “faking it until they make it.” Some people are just better at making themselves sound like they know everything. But any excellent academic will attest that they know very little compared with how much is actually out there to know!
Advice for New PhD Students: Your Research Career is a Long Game
Starting a PhD program really is embarking on a journey — and this is an exciting time of year, when there are so many people tying their shoes tight and getting ready to run. I recently tweeted a piece of advice about organizing your readings, but have been thinking since then about how even this very practical thing relates to something that is far more philosophical: your research career is a longer journey than your PhD.
This year I am starting year 5 (!) of my faculty job at University of Colorado, and I am co-directing our grad program in Information Science. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wish I’d known at the start of my PhD and what I learned along the way. And I’ve realized that something that impacted the way I saw things was that I didn’t often think about the long game.
You shouldn’t be reading a paper so you can cite it in a paper now; you should read it like you might be citing it for the next 20 years. You shouldn’t write a paper just so you can get accepted for that one conference; you should write it like it could be the start of a whole research trajectory. You shouldn’t take a class to tick off a requirement; you should learn things that will change the way you see the world forever. And you shouldn’t compare yourself to everyone else around you in this moment, because everyone’s career is different and takes a different path over time. I’ve tried to distill these thoughts into some specific pieces of advice, some practical and some abstract!
Read papers like you’re going to be citing them for the next 20 years. This is a piece of advice that I would give myself if I could go back in time: choose a citation manager (e.g., Zotero, Mendeley, a spreadsheet you make yourself, whatever!) and keep track of every paper you read. Ideally, have a few notes about why it’s important. Ten years from now when (like me) you’re trying to remember that thing you read once, you will be very grateful to your brilliant PhD student self whose organizational prowess would pay off for the rest of their career. And in the short term, it will make every lit review you have to write so much easier.
Of course you don’t know everything yet! That’s okay. Within the first year of your PhD (maybe the first week), you will have an experience where you are talking with a group of people who seem like they know so much more than you. Maybe they are other students in your class. Maybe they’re senior PhD students in your lab. Maybe they’re a group of researchers standing around at a conference. But you will feel like a complete imposter who could never know as much as they know. I actually remember this experience very clearly for myself. During my first year, in a lab meeting we were talking about the qualifying exams that 2nd year students had just completed. My advisor told all of us the question she had written for the exam, and asked us how we would have answered. It had absolutely no idea. And as I listened to the really smart answers that more senior PhD students were giving, I thought I will never be able to learn all these things. Guess what? You’re wrong. You will. Those students were all in your position once. And so was I! In fact, I still feel this way sometimes. Everyone has imposter syndrome. (For more on this, read this Mister Rogers fanfiction I wrote. 😉 ) Of course, the flip side of this is that of course you don’t know anything yet, so you need to be willing to learn. And listen. Which means you don’t have to pretend to know everything. You’ll learn more if you ask questions!
If you feel like an outsider, know that you won’t always be. Another early memory of my PhD was being at once of my first conferences (CSCW) and I was mostly following around my labmates who were nearing the ends of their PhDs. I remember being completely awed and thinking “How do they know everyone?!” It was really intimidating; I’m not shy exactly, but I have a lot of trouble integrating myself into groups of people I don’t know, and I found conferences very overwhelming for this reason. I couldn’t imagine a world in which I was as comfortable with this huge group of people as my labmates were. And then… a few years later, at my last conference as a PhD student (also CSCW), when I was the oldest student, the first year student in my lab asked me, “Casey… how do you know everyone?” A few years later when I saw her at a conference, I thought, “Wow, now she knows everyone.” It takes time to integrate into a community, whether that’s at your university or in your research discipline. And also, it doesn’t require attending a ton of conferences; it’s amazing how well-connected we can be through social media these days!
You can, and should, have a life outside of your PhD. At the end of every year, I post a list of the favorite fiction books I read that year. After one of these posts, a PhD student asked me on Twitter, “How on earth do you have time to read?!” And I thought, of course I have time to read. I love reading. It is a thing that I use my free time to do. But… if you don’t have any free time at all, there is something wrong. We all have other things in our lives that we love — whether there’s family, or reading, or exercising, or traveling, or dungeons & dragons. Of course you’ll be busy, and you will most likely have to sacrifice things (I still haven’t finished a novel, sigh…) but you should absolutely have time for yourself, you just might have to prioritize what you use it for. There also tends to be a very unsteady rhythm to a PhD. Sometimes you will have more time, and sometimes you’re on a deadline and will be completely miserable for a week. But you should not be eating, sleeping, and breathing nothing but PhD. Keep yourself healthy.
Don’t compare yourself to others. This is such a critical piece of advice, and one that I know can be so, so difficult to take to heart. But remember: everyone’s research, PhD situation, and personal circumstances are different. It took me six years to finish my PhD. One reason was that I was slow to start on my research trajectory (and didn’t really start publishing until more than halfway through); another is that I was in a bad car accident the summer after my fourth year, and missed almost an entire semester. Maybe it seems like everyone else is publishing more or faster than you. Maybe the kind of work they do is faster. Maybe they’re working on projects that were already underway. Maybe they have more collaborators. Maybe they are funded to work on that project but you are also teaching or doing unrelated research as well. There are a thousand reasons why what you do is unique to you. And there will always be something that you feel inadequate in. But there is also something else that others look up to you for.
Try to think about long-term impact, not numbers. In academia we are prone to bean counting. How many papers have you published? What’s your H index? In the computer science world where we publish on conference cycles, we’re particularly prone to “my lab has N papers this year!” And this can feel particularly critical during your PhD because you have a finite amount of time before you finish and go on the job market. There is a longer conversation I could have here (maybe the subject of another blog post) about incentive structures in academia and how I worry that bean counting can result in all kinds of bad practices, but the point here is: No one’s going to remember how many papers you had in X conference that one year. And most people aren’t looking at your citation count on your google scholar page. What they might know instead is the kind of work that you do and what kind of impact it’s had or could have. My CV when I was on the job market was not impressive; I had two first-author publications about my own work. But one of those had won a best paper award, and they were in an area that was emerging and no one else was really delving into yet. Now, I’m not suggesting that publishing doesn’t matter; it definitely can, depending on what kind of job you’re hoping for afterwards. And you will face bean counters during your career. But if all you’re thinking about is making sure you have N papers at X conference, you’re not thinking about the long-term trajectory and impact of your work. I also think that taking the time to engage in public scholarship around your work is important, and this is writing that helps you have impact, but doesn’t give you more beans.
Remember that you will have more time to do more things. A critique I often see in dissertation proposals is “do less!” It’s pretty common for a student to propose doing a career’s worth of work in a dissertation. It’s also easy to get distracted by all the research projects you want to do! Research is exciting, and we have new ideas all the time. Ideas that seem urgent! But you’re playing the long game. After you finish your PhD, assuming that you embark on a career where you will continue to do research, you will be able to do more projects and to diversify your work. (And if you’re like me, you’ll be lucky enough to have amazing PhD students who diversify your work even more!) There will come a time when it’s important for you to have dissertation tunnel vision and to stop chasing shiny ideas. But after you’re done, you can start imagining what your entire career can be, and not just five years of it.
And finally, talk to your mentors and get them to help you with just this kind of thing. It can sometimes be hard to have this longterm perspective on your own work. I hope that for most of you this will be your PhD advisor, who should be your first and best advocate. For others, you might rely more on senior students in your program or on mentors elsewhere at your university or in your field. I encourage you to find these people! At least for me, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is collaborating with and mentoring my own PhD students and helping others who seek my advice as well.
10 Biggest Struggles of PhD Students
Doing a PhD is an incredibly daunting task. Normally at least 3 years, there are some challenges that you are almost certainly going to have to face. Below we look at some of the biggest (and most common) problems that PhD students encounter. If you are considering a PhD, or just beginning one, advanced awareness of these stresses may help you overcome them if you ever have to make their acquaintance (don’t worry, we have our fingers crossed). Plus, knowing that they are frequently experienced and nothing out of the ordinary will hopefully provide you with some comfort. Okay, let’s begin.
One of the most common problems for PhD students is the feeling of isolation. PhD candidates often work alone, having few, or sometimes no other people on their project, this while friends may be working in offices and in teams, enjoying a far more social side to the 9-5. Predictably, this can lead to loneliness, lack of motivation, and the fear that no one understands, or can relate to the problems you are experiencing. As an antidote to this, it is advisable to make an effort to get into contact with other graduate students. There are many ways of doing this, for instance, through journal clubs, conferences, or networking. Being in contact with other PhD students will give you someone to talk to, moan to, and will help alleviate these disruptive and negative feelings. Simply breaking up the rountine(/monotony) of studying can do you a whole world of good!
With looming deadlines, large scale projects, and a huge amount of personal investment, a PhD can be extremely stressful. This is compounded by the fact that everything is always riding on you and you alone, making the highs higher and the lows, well, let’s not go there. It has been found that PhD students have high levels of mental disorders – likely related to high levels of stress they have to endure. For this reason, it is imperative that one finds healthy ways to decompress, whether through exercise, meditation, arts, or anything else. Any university worth its salt will also have mental health services which can be sought if things get particularly difficult. Regardless of how bad you’re feeling, its always helpful to talk it through with someone. No problem is too small.
3. Conflict with your supervisor
Another common problem can be issues arising between PhD students and their supervisors. Supervisors are part-boss, part-mentor, and occassional friend. It’s an odd combination, the balance of which, sometimes can be hard to maintain. When disagreements surface, and of course, over 3 years it is only natural that they will, some students can feel that they have to defer immediately to the wishes of the more senior and experienced supervisor. Again, here a supportive network of PhD students around you, can help navigate these challenges. Also, familiarity with the faculty in a broader sense (which is encouraged) will allow you to canvass more opinion, maybe helping you clear up a point of particular contention. Who knows, maybe you were right all along!
4. Funding issues
Most PhD students rely on external funding to support themselves while studying. Unfortunately, this too can be a source of concern. Funding can, at times, be insecure. It has been known, for example, for funding to be reduced while still in the middle of the PhD. This is a precarious position to be left in and it can be extremely stressful to secure new funding. Ideally, supervisors should be on hand to help with this. One should never think twice about approaching them for advice, it’s what they are there for. Still, it’s also recommended that students ensure that they are financially secure themselves, or at least have some money tied over in case of emergency.
5. Time management
So much to do, so little time to do it! This is probably the mantra of our age… Learning when to jump at new opportunities and when to say no to extra tasks is a skill which every academic should develop if they are to avoid going mad. This can be honed by knowing how to prioritise. What is absolutely essential that I finish today? What, at a push, could I postpone till tomorrow? Setting out enough time in your day to fulfil these tasks will help this process and enable you to, when necessary, say ‘nope, I literally do not have the time for that’. Rather obviously, it helps to be organised and to calendar your appointments carefully. And rememeber, it is better to do a few things well, than a number of things badly.
6. Work/life balance
It sometimes seems like PhD students are expected to study all the time; to be in the office every weekend and to work late every day. But this is not sustainable; you also need time for hobbies, friends, and family in order to function at peak level. This may seem a really obvious point to make, and yet, many students still suffer from the effects of having an incredibly lop-sided schedule. Students should always remember: making time for activities outside of the PhD is vital for long-term success. A healthy social life, regular exercise, and cultural activities will be stimulating, fun, and are likely to make you happier. Happiness is the end goal of everything; it should be valued.
7. Lack of institutional support
Some universities are better than others at supporting PhD students. The best universities have extensive programs for helping them, through mentoring, workshops, and social events, while at other universities students are left to fend for themselves. Graduate schools can be helpful here, as they are geared towards meeting the specific needs of PhDs. Try to find out what kind of support is offered by your institution – there may be more than you think!
8. Lack of personal support
Another challenge for PhD students is dealing with a lack of personal support. Friends, partners, and family members may not understand the worth of a PhD, and may not be supportive of the choice to pursue one. Many a PhD student has been distressed by a well-meaning relative asking when they will be finished with their PhD and get a real job. This is another reason to get in contact with other PhD students, who can understand your stresses you are experiecning and give you the support you need. Sharing these commonalities also helps to make light of them – ‘God, my brother was asking again when I would…’
9. Concerns about the future
In addition to worrying about their current projects, many PhD students feel concerned about their future too. In this uncertain job market, and academic jobs being intensely competitive, there is no guarantee that getting a PhD will lead to a desirable job (we hope it will!). That said, research does show that having a PhD under your belt hugely increases your chances of not only getting a job, but also being paid better, and enjoying greater job satisfaction. To help ensure you get to enjoy all of these benefits, it’s sensible to start the job hunt early. Remember, too, all the transferable skills you develop during your PhD could also help you to get an industry job, if you feel you have had enough of academia.
10. Problems with motivation
Finally, with a PhD typically taking at least three years (at the very least), it’s hard for anyone to maintain motivation throughout their whole project. Feeling fed up, bored, or dissatisfied with one’s project is a very common experience! When things are not going so well, and motivation is low, you should consider giving yourself a break. A few days, or even a week away from your project can sometimes be really helpful, allowing you to come back to your project invigorated and able to look at it from a fresh perspective. Maybe you see something that before you had missed? Or even better, maybe you realise that the work you’ve done is actually a whole lot better than you had previously thought. THIS can be brilliantly motivating. Plus, you probably desrved a break anyway!
Five Things Successful PhD students Refuse To Do
hen my first year as a PhD student became a daily grind of going to several classes a day and learning endless new experiments and procedures in the lab, I looked around for inspiration from older and more successful students.
What were they doing differently? I eventually realised that the high-achieving postgrads all had one thing in common: refusal. Here are five things they simply refused to do:
1. Feel like a failure
Like most other students, I started my PhD as one of the smartest kids in college. But in graduate school, everyone was smart. I was no longer special – I was normal. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to just being a fish. I came to realise that a lot of students felt like failures. Some of them were able to shake this feeling. But others went on to develop mental illnesses. One student, whom I knew personally, ended up taking his own life after just one year.
Feeling like a failure as a PhD student is a serious issue. Studies and reports increasingly show that mental illness is on the rise in academia. One of the biggest reasons that it’s rising is because many academics are perfectionists and are not willing to accept failure as part the process of learning. Many of them are also unwilling to reach out to other students or faculty for help. Instead, they isolate themselves and work harder and harder until something snaps.
Successful PhD students aren’t perfectionists and they refuse to isolate themselves. These students realise that failing is the fastest way to learn.
They’re not ashamed to say, “I don’t know.” They’re also not ashamed to ask for help, especially when they’re facing very real problems like depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Admitting that you don’t know something or asking for help is not defeat, it’s success.
The key is to allow for failure without feeling like a failure. If you do start feeling like a failure, don’t isolate yourself. Instead, reach out. Ask for help and allow others to support you.
2. Feel out of control
It’s easy to feel out of control as a postgraduate student. Our adviser controlled us in the lab, reviewers controlled which of our articles would get published, and our thesis committees controlled when we could graduate. The ball seemed to perpetually be in someone else’s court. But this was just a matter of our perspective.
The truth is, you always have control over your life. Take back control by making something happen for yourself. Start a blog or take up a new hobby. Too many postgrads feel as if they can’t do anything but show up to the lab and grind out experiments, or sit at their desk and look busy so their advisers don’t get angry. This is ridiculous.
It’s your life. Go live it. You’ll be more productive with a side project than if you just wait around waiting for permission to publish and graduate.
3. See themselves as employees
One of the biggest paradoxes in postgraduate study is that students are trained both to be highly innovative and to respect academic tradition. How can you push the cutting edge while being confined by a large and powerful system?
Likewise, how can you create or build anything at all on a zero-hours contract where you can be let go at anytime?
The hard truth is that the current academic environment is very unstable right now. It’s not longer a safe haven for people who just want pay rent, look after their families, and attend a few conferences every year.
However, while security and opportunity may be lacking in academia at the moment, it’s flourishing everywhere else. In the first six months of 2013, over 90,000 new ventures were created in the UK, a 3.4% increase on 2012. Many academics have formed their own companies or collaborated with successful startup businesses while continuing to work in academia. All it takes is an idea and a little networking to start opening up new streams of income for yourself.
Never forget that you’re an innovator – a creator. Refuse to become dependent on the system you’re in. Too many postgraduates are trained to think that there is only one way to secure a paycheck every month. So they settle for full-time research scientist positions or mid-level jobs in corporate R&D departments without ever taking on anything else.
Scientists make great entrepreneurs. Very few people get the chance to be trained specifically in innovation. But you do. Use this to your advantage.
4. Stress about getting published
Publications carry a lot of value in academia, but this is slowly changing. People are realising that it doesn’t make sense for a few gatekeepers to control which content has the biggest impact. Why should the owners of the one or two biggest journals get to decide the fate of your scientific career, or even the fate of science in general? It doesn’t make sense. Too many postgraduate students work themselves to exhaustion trying to add a couple of papers to their CV so they can one day get tenure.
Working hard for a crowning achievement like being published in a high-impact journal is fine. The key is to keep some perspective. Realise that publishing in a second-tier or open-source journal is something to be proud of and realise that you can always publish in the future, from industry or otherwise.
Your goal during postgrad study should be to build your knowledge base and your network, nothing else. The truth is you don’t need to publish a Nature paper during your postgrad to get your PhD. You don’t even have to publish a first-author paper to graduate if you don’t want to. Stop chasing this kind of approval and open yourself up to the many opportunities for learning and connecting that are happening all around you.
5. Turn their back on business opportunities
A university is a business and it needs to secure funding to survive. Successful PhD students know this and, as a result, value business training. They go to conferences and introduce themselves to business professionals at the vendors’ show. They take business classes, join business and entrepreneurship meetup groups, and work to establish an online presence.
Don’t wait until you’re about to defend your thesis to start developing your business skills. Do it now. Refuse to be left behind.
Successful students spend at least half of their time connecting with as many other people as possible, while also taking time to follow up with their network consistently.
Some simple but effective ways to do this include talking to presenters after seminars and reaching out online to other academic authors. Find their email addresses and tell them what you liked about their article or ask them an insightful question. Then follow up with them every couple of weeks until you establish a strong connection.
Five Things PhD Students Should Plan For The New Year
The new year is upon us, which means so are new year’s resolutions. Whether 2018 was full of blessings or you’re happy it is in the rearview mirror, 2019 is a clean slate — one that’s full of potential. Hoping to make the best of it as a PhD student? Prioritize these five tasks to get the year off to a promising start.
1. Reevaluate your goals (and whether you’re on track to reach them).
A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. But how do you know whether you’re progressing on schedule if you don’t stop to assess where you are every now and then?
Of her commitment to sharing her list of goals with her advisor in her first semester and reviewing it regularly, PhD student Melissa Boone writes, “Goals are like the grand to-do list; they keep you on track with all of the requirements AND the unspoken expectations of you as a doctoral student. Plus, you show your advisor early on that you are taking charge of your career, and that will impress them.”
2. Build time off into your schedule.
If you are entering the new year raring to go with your research, you are also putting yourself in danger of a common PhD problem: burnout. Rather than charging into 2019 at top speed, pace yourself.
This starts with arranging your schedule to include critical downtime. From taking a yoga class to having coffee with a friend, these activities are not a waste of time, they are an investment in your health, wellness, and ability to sustain the rigorous PhD pace.
3. Think about starting a company.
While this one isn’t for everyone, it’s an exciting option for many PhD students — especially given academia’s incredibly tight job market.
A different way of thinking about it? Why work for someone else when you can work for yourself? Plus, what PhD student wouldn’t be happy to create a new stream of income? All of this is possible when you start a company while still in graduate school.
4. Attend a conference.
Whether you love them or hate them, there is no denying that conferences add value to a PhD student’s personal and professional life.
Unfortunately, many graduate students are so busy with research and fieldwork that they think they can’t afford to get away. The reality is that time is never going to make itself. Choose one or two big conferences in your field and commit to attending it. Your work will still be waiting for you when the conference is over, but you will return home with winning combination of confidence and contacts — both of which can help you succeed as a PhD student as well as in your career.
5. Enjoy the moment. (No, really!)
Okay, so when you hear the word ‘PhD’, fun may not exactly be the first thing that comes to mind. But the truth is that your PhD years are special in their own way. Stopping to smell the proverbial flowers every once in a while can help you appreciate this unique time in your life.
Doctoral student Samantha Jones said of her resolution to focus more on the present during her grad school days, “It’s all too easy to forget the many wonderful things happening around me. Yes, I’ll need to work hard to prepare for the future, but I don’t want to miss out by not enjoying these remaining, albeit intense, moments as a graduate student. Staying present will also mean trying to keep an open mind when it comes to my career, knowing that it’s OK to change my mind and maybe head in a direction that leads me to a job I don’t expect.”
PhD Students – 10 Simple Pieces of Advice
I’m seeing lots of PhD students starting out on their journey right now, as well as plenty in the middle, and some towards the end. So I thought I’d put together a few thoughts about the process:
1. Look after yourselves
The most important one right at the start. You are doing a PhD, but it shouldn’t define who you are. I made the mistake of becoming consumed by it, and it took its toll on my health. Be engaged and committed, but remember to live your life too.
2. Forge a good relationship with your supervisors, early on
Make sure you know what they expect from you, and what you should expect from them. Will your meetings be weekly/monthly? Will they read your work regularly? Agree on the working relationship early on.
3. Get some teaching experience if you can
I was lucky enough to be on a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, so I taught extensively, but if you’re self-funded, ask to take some seminars or a module. It adds so much to an academic CV having some experience in the classroom.
4. Make sure you present at conferences, even if it’s just one
I went slightly mad and presented at about 20 during my PhD, which probably contributed towards point #1 above, but they are a wonderful opportunity to network and get feedback on your early research.
5. Apply for small research grants, even if it’s “only” travel costs
With the conferences mentioned above, some of them were in far-reaching places. By applying for small grants of £200-300, not only did it help me financially, but looks good on your CV receiving funding.
I only came out of my PhD with one book chapter, which I was very proud of, but perhaps I could have done more. However, I keep referring back to point 1. I’d argue it’s more important to finish your PhD healthily than put undue stress on publishing too.
7. Have a Plan B to an academic career
Again – thus far – I’ve been lucky enough to stay in academia, but many don’t. I think universities could be far more honest to new PhD students about their career prospects in academia. Make sure it’s not your only plan. Have a few ideas.
8. Exercise and eat healthily
Sometimes, when I felt crushed by pressure, I went for a 20-30 minute brisk walk around campus. Hearing the birds sing, or watching the sun set, somehow put things back into perspective. Can’t say I ate healthily – but I do recommend it for others!
9. Take breaks
Again, this helps with point #1 above. You will be more productive if you take a week off and get back to it, than working 15 hour days every day. At Christmas especially, have time off. Families and friends need you, and you need them during a PhD.
10. Appreciate how far you’ve come
There’s so much talk about PhDs losing value, but don’t pay any attention to that. I was extremely proud on day 1 of my PhD for even being there, and so should you be. It’s a life-changing experience. Embrace it and enjoy it. Good luck!
Six Things Every PhD Student Should Refuse to Do in Order to Be Successful
There are several things a PhD student must do to in order to succeed. There are also things a student must not do if he or she wants to be successful. Here are six things you should avoid.
Suppose you have performed a reaction several times and cannot get the yield above 60%. Having a low opinion of your lab skill, your advisor tells you to write up the result for publication but change the yield to 75%. Would you do it? You shouldn’t. Perhaps you could mollify him with the neutral description, “in good yield,” but don’t fudge the data. If nobody is able to reproduce your work, your reputation will suffer. Don’t start out a career this way.
This seems obvious but every year there are cases of formerly acclaimed PhD students brought down by revelations of faked research. Some of these cases seem pathological, evidence of an underlying mental illness, but plenty of students with demanding advisors are tempted to make up some good news in return for a respite. Resist the temptation; the consequences will be dire.
No research program is smooth sailing. When you venture out into the unknown there are sure to be reefs and storms and changes of direction. Learning how to overcome problems is part of the PhD program. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman considered it the most important part of doctoral training. At a restaurant I once opened a fortune cookie that read, “You will gain great satisfaction in overcoming difficulties.” This prophesy is the ideal if not always the reality of a PhD program.
Fear Public Speaking
The most common fear the average person has is speaking in front of an audience. The best way to overcome this fear is to force yourself to speak in public. I know since this is a problem I had early in my career. Start small, asking questions in class or responding to questions. Join a Toastmasters group. It’s helpful and it’s fun. I joined one group and two years later I belonged to three, was entering speech contests, and occasionally won them.
In grad school you largely set your own work schedule. Procrastination is a habit that will add a year to your time in grad school, if it doesn’t keep you from getting a degree. “Drive thy business,” said Benjamin Franklin, “Or it will drive thee.”
Treat Grad School Like Work or College
Graduate school is not a 9-5 job where you can succeed by putting in your eight hours. And it’s not like college where the main thrust is absorbing current knowledge. In a dissertation you must advance knowledge in a field, and that is a challenge. For some such as myself, grad school was akin to a monastic existence. Others find ways to balance research and private life. But grad school is a unique experience and one has to accept this and adapt.