PhDiaries: 4 challenges I continue to encounter as PhD researcher

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Whether you may have just started your PhD or have been studying for a while, there will be many unexpected things you are having to get used to. No matter how far you are into your PhD, challenges are likely to come up more frequently than you might expect. Such challenges can leave us feeling frustrated, depleted and quite honestly lost and hopeless throughout the PhD journey. However, this does not mean that we can’t get through them or that our PhD will suddenly come to an end. This blog is a reflection on some of the challenges that I have and continue to encounter.

Balance between creative freedom and structure for getting the work done is ongoing

Recently, I watched a video on productivity apps and personally found it very relatable in terms of how they can be more unhelpful for me than I realised. What was difficult for me at the start of my PhD was working out when these kinds of tools are helpful and when they actually hinder my creative process.

For example, I love to free-write to get my interpretation of current literature onto a page, then go back, edit and add structure later. Similarly, when creating plans but I found myself in a thought pattern that “I must use a particular app or tool” and I cannot deviate from this for a task, or else I will fail or fall behind. As you already may know, research changes many times from what we originally expected to do. Life also happens, personally and professionally, and that’s okay.

Essentially, noticing when to give ourselves structure and when to allow ourselves more creative freedom in our work as we go along is something that you might come up against. From external pressures such as supervisor suggestions, deadlines and when comparing others’ ways of working, it can be hard to deviate from structures even if they don’t always work for you. This is not me saying don’t use productivity or work tracking tools, but I have learned it is more about continuing to notice if and when these are helpful throughout my working processes – and don’t beat yourself up if you pause or completely stop using them. The same creator of the first video, Andy Stapleton also has a YouTube playlist of his videos for recommended apps and tools for PhD students to use for this if you would like to check these out for yourselves.

Rest is important, but it is rare the noise goes away

I will never stop talking about the importance of rest and time away from your work to others…despite my tendency to fall into the trap of not taking breaks still! And, I have noticed that the noise around our ideas and research can be quite difficult to eradicate completely – like the times when you’re best ideas suddenly come to you in the shower! There is nothing wrong with this, but similar to the first challenge I mentioned, it can often be about noticing the noise and then managing it if it becomes a problem. When I take time away from my work, the cogs in my brain often continue to come up with ideas when I don’t plan to, and now I find that this is okay, but I know I do not have to take action on them immediately during my downtime.

Inter, multi, cross and trans disciplinary buzzwords

By now, I’m sure you will have heard these floating around throughout the research environment very often, as approaches to studying a problem across more than one subject area. I find that lots of people like these words in the research environment, yet it is very easy to overcomplicate something and lose sight of your project. Having a specific focus is usually the scope of a PhD. However, collaboration between multiple areas is something I have noticed more subjects making integral to their research practice. Unfortunately, this can make it easier for your work to be more confusing to others without your background knowledge. If others do find your work confusing, it can be taken to heart as if your ideas are wrong. What I have found is that while re-looking at some areas of work can be helpful, I’ve also found that experimenting with communicating your ideas in different ways (I.e. visual diagrams) can be great at demonstrating your thought patterns. And hang in there if it takes you time to grasp the point you are trying to communicate!

Creators of knowledge

Over the past year, this is one of the things that I have realized has caused me so much of my imposter syndrome. A PhD is still a training environment as a researcher. Nevertheless, it is both very scary and empowering knowing that you are in a position to influence and contribute to knowledge within an institution and wider audiences. This really has highlighted to me the importance of being aware of how you are interpreting literature and data as well as the voices of people who are not being heard within your field or narrative. This is all part of the story you are communicating in your work and it is always a great thing to recognize not only yours but others’ perspectives both inside and outside of the academic environment.

I can’t say I have figured out the answers to overcome these challenges within my circumstances (yet). However, I wanted to reflect on these to hopefully create a space for any of you reading this to do the same. You might not figure out how to resolve challenges within your PhD research as quickly as you would like, but you will at some point, it will happen.

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