Ah yes, the PhD. The pinnacle of academic achievement, meaning that you can now have your bank statements and ASOS orders addressed to you as Dr. Aside from prolonging your education for a minimum of three more years in order to delay full immersion into the adult world, a PhD is one of the most exciting and challenging things you are ever likely to do. Whilst the doctorate is not for everyone, those who have a genuine love and passion for research in their chosen topic will find it highly fulfilling. However, from experience there is not much out there in the way of help for those just getting started or for those still considering whether it is the right choice for them. That being said, here are my top 10 pieces of advice for aspiring doctoral students.
1. Love your topic
First and foremost, you have to love what you are researching. You will be eating, sleeping and breathing this topic for the next 3-8 years. It isn’t like undergraduate or postgraduate masters levels where if you don’t like a module then you will only be studying it for one semester; this is now your only area of research. Many find the change from multiple modules and a dissertation to just a singular thesis jarring, because you can’t move onto another topic if you’ve had enough of working on one. My advice would be to do your research carefully. Some universities offer funded PhD’s that they want research into. Whilst this is great money-wise (we will get to that later), it’s not always fulfilling, as you are being guided by someone constantly. I find these work best for science-based subjects, where there is a definitive hypothesis and aim. However, with more humanity or art-based subjects, choosing your own area of research is arguably the better option as it allows you to be dynamic in your research and structure it yourself. In this case, I would advise picking a topic you have a genuine interest in. You have to be able to want to pick up a book or watch a documentary about it for fun, or else you will be bored senseless. That’s not to say there won’t be times where you are fed up with your topic, you just have to have a genuine and non-superficial interest in your subject area.
2. Love your university
Picking universities for a PhD is not the same as picking a university for undergrad. The statistics you want to be looking at aren’t based around bars and clubs, but more student experience and flexibility. Take the time to read the reviews, reach out to both former and current students (we don’t mind taking the time to talk to you, honest!), and go for a visit. Make sure that it fits in with your life and that you really enjoy the place, because you will be spending a good portion of your time there, and probably not in halls playing beer pong with your mates.
3. Money, money, money
This tends to be the major reason people think PhDs are unattainable. However, that is not the case at all. While finances aren’t great, you can certainly work with the situation. There are instances of funded PhDs, both in the aforementioned sense of someone wants you to research a particular topic, and through grants from various places you can apply for. Different places want to give different grants of different sizes to different students studying different subjects. For example, whilst pharmaceutical grants might be large as the research is widely desired, funding for history is rather more scarce. That doesn’t mean to say it’s not out there, you just have to keep your eyes peeled. Your university and supervisors can advise you on where to look for potential funding. Other than this, you are still eligible for a student loan, which doesn’t amount to much but it will cover your tuition fees with a bit extra, which is better than nothing. Unfortunately, a lot of PhD students, myself included, do have to self-fund. This is not the end of the world. There is often this bleak perception in academia that self-funding a PhD is a waste of money and that you are left desolate for a few years. Whilst admittedly, I don’t have the most frivolous lifestyle, I see this PhD as a real investment in my future. It will allow for me to have the higher income later down the line, and I refuse to be bitter and resentful at the fact I have to pay that bit extra now. I manage it by doing my PhD part-time and I would advise anyone to do the same. I will break it down for you:
A full-time PhD means that the thesis can be submitted anywhere between 1-3 years. Over these maximum 3 years, you pay your tuition (for arguments sake, let’s say its 30,000 pounds). However, if you find you need extra time because of personal circumstances or because your topic has evolved (which believe me, it will), then you end up having to pay extra tuition on top of that 30,000 to extent your course for up to a further 5 years,
A part-time PhD means that the thesis can be submitted anywhere between 3-8 years. Over these maximum 8 years, you pay your 30,000 tuition (meaning lower yearly payments), and you have the freedom for your topic to dynamically change and the time allowance for life to get in the way. It also means you can work as well. I have a full time job to supplement my student loan allowing me the freedom to socialize, travel, and still study.
Chances are you will have to self-fund to some degree. However, don’t let finances be the reason you don’t do the PhD. It is entirely possible.
4. Know your own work schedule and habits
How do you work best? I know it’s a broad question, but it’s one you will learn to answer pretty quickly. Those of you who work best ‘under pressure’ and therefore wrote your undergraduate dissertation the night before it was due and still got a 2:1, click away now. This is not your time to shine. It is physically impossible to cram your whole thesis and the research that goes with it into a couple of weeks of frenzied work. PhDs require years of chipping away and ideas and thought and research. This is a process that is most enjoyable when you know how to work to your advantage. As someone who has both autism and ADD, this was a tricky one for me to figure out. I thought at one point I worked best in short bursts, doing my work little and often. However, I found my brain became preoccupied with menial 5 minute tasks and creating to-do lists than conducting actual deep work. I then tried to play to my autistic traits, and set up an identical weekly routine to try to train my brain into going into deep work mode at the same time every week. This also didn’t work for me as appointments, work and general life often got in the way, and I didn’t leave any room for maneuver. However, it finally clicked when I decided to plan out everything else I had that week, see where the gaps were and fit my research in there. I dedicate approximately 6 hours per week to deep work around my PhD, and I’ve found this to work well for me. I also try to do at least one 5 minute task relating to my PhD everyday in order to keep it at the forefront of my mind, whether that be reading a page of a book, or checking my emails. It took me a while to figure out what worked best for me, and that’s ok. Supervisors expect this to be the case, especially during your first year of study. I promise you, once you’ve had your eureka moment, the process becomes a lot easier. But please don’t force anything. Your brain will make it very clear if it is unhappy with a working pattern, so listen to it and change things up.
5. Have a good relationship with your supervisor(s)
This is so important. Your supervisor or supervisors are the people who oversee your topic, and provide you with advice, feedback and guidance. They will be with you throughout your whole PhD journey so it is vital you get along. They will often be someone who is an expert in your field of research in order to provide you with the best advice, so you will have a good idea who they are by reading about their previous research on their university page. Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to them beforehand. They are just as eager to have a good relationship with you. If it is clear that you don’t vibe well off each other (as is human nature; not everyone gets along), then don’t be scared to change supervisors. It’s your academic qualification and you don’t want to be held back by something as important as a supervisor. In many cases, it is preferable to have multiple supervisors. I, for example, have three. My head supervisor (Dr George) is young, enthusiastic, cheery and has a range of research overlap with my topic. My second supervisor (Dr Laura) is slightly older and more experienced, has knowledge to offer outside the box of my topic, but still very much in interest, and is very good at paying attention to close details in my work, such as references. My third supervisor (Dr Clare) is highly experienced, wise, and again outside my topic, but is able to offer valuable insight. She isn’t afraid to tell me when she knows I’ve not produced my best work. This dynamic works perfectly for me as everyone always has something different and valuable to say and having multiple people to talk to keeps conflict to a minimum. It is tremendously important to have the correct support for you when undertaking your thesis.
6. You are never too old
This sounds ridiculous I know, but the amount of times I have been discussing my research with someone older than me and they have said they wish they’d have done their PhD but thought they were too old, well it’s heart-breaking. To put age into perspective, I am currently 25, and I am the youngest person at my university currently studying their PhD, the oldest being in their mid-70s. If you want to study your PhD, age should be the last barrier. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, your contribution to academia and your research is valued and wanted. You never know what might come of it and what your potential is, so don’t have any regrets.
7. It’s ok not to know
This is such a big piece of advice, but not one that is spoken about much. It’s ok to say ‘I don’t know,’ especially when you don’t know. The misconception and pressure when doing a PhD is to know everything there is to know about your chosen topic, and yes, whilst you are in the process of becoming an expert on that topic, it is impossible to know everything. I was once speaking to a group about my research and someone asked me something I didn’t know the answer to. I had two choices: I could wing it, or I could be honest. I was honest and said I didn’t know. Truthfully, I think that person respected me a lot more for being blatantly honest than making something up on the spot. And remember, if anyone does ridicule you for not knowing something, there are things they don’t know either, and they have major insecurities. Leave them to it and focus on people who want to engage in worthwhile and constructive conversation about your research.
8. Immerse yourself in seminars, conferences and societies
The life of a PhD student is admittedly a lonely one at times. Often its just you, your research, your space and that’s it. No lectures to socialize in, no seminars to participate in, just you. This leads to a large proportion of PhD students becoming isolated and lonely. This is why it’s so important to engage with your university. Whilst you may be the only one who knows about your research, there are others who are in the same boat with their respective research. Bond with them over the shared endless nights trying to find one sentence in a 400 page book, or the cool new coffee shop down the road that has the perfect window seat for an afternoon of writing. Your university will also put on a wide range of conferences and seminars, and should hopefully have a doctoral school society. Go to these to network and meet new people. They are incredibly daunting at first, but the connections I’ve made are invaluable, both socially and academic, and I promise you that everyone at these events is lovely and helpful.
9. Stop expecting it to look like how you think it will look
This is what I call ‘Elle Woods Syndrome.’ We’ve all seen Legally Blonde with Elle Woods absolutely bossing her law degree in her cute little heels and pristine hair. This couldn’t be further from the reality of academia unfortunately. You will soon make the swift transition from heels to flats, from pencil skirts to jogging bottoms. And that’s ok. PhDs aren’t won or lost over a motivational montage. They require years of unglamorous and painstaking work. However, it will all be worth it when we can put the cute dresses and heels on for graduation.
10. Be confident within yourself.
Finally and most importantly. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. How can you expect anyone else to be confident in your work if you aren’t even confident yourself? Yes, there will be instances where you may be uncertain about some of your work, or even unsure if you are going in the right direction. But remember, that throughout all of that, you absolutely have a right to be there. Imposter syndrome gets the best of us sometimes, but you are doing great. My undergraduate supervisor once said to me, “Don’t ever put your own work down. There are plenty of people in academia who will criticize your work, that’s part and parcel of the discipline, but don’t deride your own work.”
Just to reiterate, a PhD is not something to be undertaken lightly. It is genuinely one of the hardest things I have ever done, and probably ever will do. However, I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s such a rewarding process which is teaching me so much about myself and is expanding my mind to it’s limit, proving that I am capable of a lot. I would advise anyone who is considering doing one to just do it. As women especially, we are capable of so much and our aspiring minds have the power to change the world.