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Starting a PhD – what is it really like?

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Is a PhD difficult? If I got a penny for every time I was asked that question I would be rich.

To answer: everything is achievable with effort and hard work. However, I believe there is a more important question to to ask when thinking of starting a PhD – “how does a PhD differ from what I’ve done before?” 

Whilst each PhD project is unique, there are some commonly often-overlooked things that can overwhelm any new PhD student. Here are a few pointers to help you avoid the classic pitfalls and get off to a great start.

1. Understanding the setup of a PhD course

I begin by stating the obvious: this isn’t the traditional lecture / exam academic format you are familiar with. Although there are certain milestones you have to reach, when and how you reach them are entirely up to you.

Now just because there are no mandatory lectures or exams this does not mean there is no learning to be done. You are expected to take charge and attend training courses or workshops that will benefit you and your research.

This raises another important question “how do I know which courses to attend? Well, there are 3 types of people when it comes to training courses:

  • Person 1: “I will attend absolutely everything on the training catalogue because more courses=more progress.” NO! Please do not be that person. Not everything on the training course applies to your PhD and some things are not always relevant to you when you’re just beginning.
  • Person 2: “Bingo! No mandatory classes, I will not attend anything and only focus on doing my research”. Once again NO! Please do not be that person.
  • Person 3: “I will attend some of these courses that are relevant to me at the moment. Courses that focus on: conducting a review, critically analyzing the literature, academic writing, how to search for literature and what to expect from your transfer / first year viva.” YES! Strive to be that person.

2. What to expect from your supervisor

The student-supervisor relationship is KEY to any PhD student’s success! Simply put, if you do not understand the basic dynamics of the student-supervisor relationship, well… you’re going to have a hard time.

There are two important things you should acknowledge from the get-go:

  1. Supervisors are there to guide you, but this does not mean they will be there for you 24/7 on demand. Hence, they may not answer your emails instantly or they may not always be free to meet with you. This does not mean they have abandoned you.

  2. With great supervision comes some criticism. Yes, supervisors may be critical of your work because they want your PhD project to be of the highest standard. So please leave your ego behind and accept some criticism instead of forming some conspiracy that your supervisor is out to get you (trust me I have heard a lot of these conspiracies).

3. Do not be afraid to ask for help

ASK ASK ASK ASK! As I mentioned earlier, PhD courses do not follow a specific syllabus. Hence, information specific to your PhD project is not widespread.

One of the most valuable assets to a newly starting PhD student is “word of mouth”. Talk to and ask other PhD colleagues who may be able to provide you with advice and information from their experiences. This can save you a lot of time and effort when in doubt.

4. Things will not go exactly as planned

Almost EVERYTHING about your PhD is subject to change! Yes you read that correctly.

The reality is that it’s extremely rare for PhD projects go exactly as planned. So do not be surprised if amendments are made once you start your PhD. More importantly, do not panic if your PhD is not progressing the same time intervals you anticipated.

Remember, you have supervisors/co-supervisors and academic advisors/tutors who are monitoring your project to make sure everything is on track.


Take home message

 Doing a PhD differs substantially from any other academic endeavour. Nonetheless, being realistic, preparing for setbacks, taking charge of your project and using all the tools available come a long way to making this journey smoother and easier.

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