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A Guide to Surviving a PhD

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Firstly, congratulations. Whether it’s for getting in to pursue your PhD or it’s the perseverance of pursuing this journey, you deserve a heartfelt ‘congratulations’. A little disclaimer; this guide is meant to give you a gentle heads up on what to really expect from a PhD if you’re starting out, and if you’re already somewhere along the road to let you know that you are not alone in this struggle. So, let’s get into this!

The work…

A PhD is a lot of work. If you’re starting out you’re probably thinking “yeah, yeah I know” – but seriously, it will probably be more work than you anticipate it to be. This is normal.

Tip 1: plan, plan, plan. Planning your work will allow you to prioritise tasks accordingly and, hopefully, ensure that deadlines don’t sneak up on you. Be sure to add-in some time contingencies because a PhD works with Murphy’s law, “anything that can go wrong will (most likely) go wrong”. Also expect your plan to change and morph as required.

Warning – there will be a lot of reading, usually not very exciting reading, which doesn’t subside the further along you go. The reading serves multiple purposes from making you aware of what is happening in your research area to helping you shape your ideas; if nothing more, it helps you to not unintentionally ‘reinvent the wheel’. You will have to go through a lot of papers; finding them is the first hurdle.

Tip 2: Google is your friend, sites like the Web of Science are a good source for scientific articles. No matter where you search, using keywords that encapsulate what you’re looking to find will be a good start.9

Tip 3: choose a referencing software as early as you can; this will help you keep track of (ideally) all the papers you read. I have found it useful to save papers in one central location but also under specific folders based on what aspect of my work they relate to. For instance, I have (and continue to grow) a large ‘Literature Review’ folder of relevant papers. The keyword there is relevant, your time is finite and precious. Reading a paper’s abstract and then the conclusion, and perhaps the discussion, usually gives a good idea of its relevance to your work or what you’re searching for.

Maximising your time and effort…

When I started my degree, I set myself working hours. This helped focus my mind and ensure that I could be as efficient as possible during the hours I am in the office. I have had varied success with this approach over the three years of my torture PhD. On the most part, setting myself finite work hours and a realistic to-do list made me more productive.

The take away here and Tip 4: find what works for you. Invest the time in trying a bunch of different setups and schedules to find what works best for you. However, also bear in mind that this will vary with changing demands as you progress through your degree. One of the few perks with doing a PhD is the flexibility it affords, both in work hours and usually also work location – so make the most of it.

Managing relationships…

Now to a somewhat touchy subject, your supervisor(s). They can either be your greatest ally or a great hindrance.

Tip 5: communication is key. Make sure all parties involved are on the same page both from the start and along the journey. This is your PhD, own it. Your supervisor(s) already has a doctorate so you getting yours in a timely and minimally stressful manner might not necessarily be at the top of their agenda. I’m not implying that you become pushy or hard to work with (remember you still need them on your side along this journey) but remain true to what you want and feel. You are unlikely to be productive and effective if you are unhappy, majorly stressed or feel unsupported.10

This brings me to Tip 6: it’s okay to ask for help. This is especially for those of us nearing the end of this journey. If you get stuck on something, reach out sooner rather than later. If you’re lucky, your supervisor(s) could be able to help or to at least point you in the direction of someone who can help. If not, reach out to colleagues, acquaintances and friends and see what comes from it. If all that fails, Google is your friend; there is a world full of knowledgeable people out there and yeah, some of them are nice and helpful – what do you have to lose?

Maintaining sanity…

A PhD is all encompassing and it can be a lonely journey, which is why it is good to step away from it on a regular basis.

Tip 7: there should be more to your life than your PhD. Make time to do things that are not remotely related to your work; be it a salsa class or regular movie nights with your friends. Stepping away will allow you to manage stress levels and come back to things feeling refreshed. Confession – this will get harder the closer you get to the end and you might even feel like life is passing you by as you toil away, but those times are also when you need it the most.

Tip 8: Invest in your relationships, these will stand you in good stead when you need a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on. You are not the only one going through this, talking to trusted colleagues and friends, especially those who are or have gone through a PhD, can be helpful. The university also has people you can talk to, from counsellors to well-being officers; reach out when things get a bit too hard to handle.

Final thoughts…

Tip 9: try and enjoy the journey; perhaps not the stress or deadlines, but definitely the flexibility, going to conferences/networking and the access to information, equipment, software and opportunities. I have found that the idea of becoming a ‘doctor’ is of little consolation with the mounting pressure of a pending submission, but the thought of freedom being within my reach spurs me on. Though on a serious note, a doctorate degree is by no means an easy feat, but people have survived. You wouldn’t have been accepted to pursue a PhD if they thought you were incapable of successfully completing it. There will be tough times (a lot of them) but these will also be times of learning and growth, rest assured knowing that, in all probability, you too will survive your PhD and thrive.

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