I can’t do this.
I really can’t do this.
No, hang on, maybe I can.
No, I definitely can’t do this. I absolutely can’t. There’s no way.
Oh, I did it.
My PhD is beyond doubt one of the hardest, most rewarding, confidence-sapping, confidence-boosting, brutal and uplifting academic challenges I have ever faced. The progression from the neatly defined, taught modules of an undergraduate or masters degree to the student-led study required for a PhD is vast. Vast, but absolutely achievable. Simply being accepted onto a PhD programme should give you the confidence that academics believe that you are capable of embarking on such a challenge - and this should remain firmly lodged in your mind as you navigate the academic wilderness ahead.
You may find yourself reading a paper, determined to make sense of it all - but as you read on you realise it’s no longer written in English - it’s morphed into a whole new language, and you’re not yet fluent. You begin veering off, researching terms and theories you aren't familiar with. Suddenly you find yourself reading about some obscure topic, totally unrelated to your original search. How did I get here? What was I looking up? Back to paper 1. And so it goes on…! Before you know it, you’ve fallen so deep into the ‘rabbit hole of elusive expertise’ you don’t know which way is up. If this sounds like you, then WELCOME!
Tip: organise your research papers from day one - markup key publications and summarise the findings. Plan out your study day the night before and set realistic, achievable goals - you’ll feel more productive, in control, and be less likely to procrastinate.
Self-doubt has played a large role in my PhD journey so far. The well-known imposter syndrome manages to rear its critical head at any given opportunity. However, given this phenomenon is written about so extensively, provides evidence (and comfort, perhaps) that it is far more common than might be confessed. Indeed, conversations with colleagues indicate that it is not just us PhD students who might fall prey. One way I deal with these symptoms is to simply accept them. You can’t and won’t possibly know it all. There will always and forever be more to learn. Surely this in itself is why we have embarked on a PhD in the first place? To learn, become experts in our targeted field and then keep on learning…
Tip: explain your research to a friend or family member and encourage them to quiz you on your ideas - this will quickly and clearly flag the bits you are perhaps less certain of and you may want to focus your time on.
Downtime is crucial when tackling a PhD. It is often so easy to become so absorbed in your research that your perspective becomes warped. You may find yourself living and breathing your PhD, perhaps to the detriment of your own health. Taking time out to reconnect with your hobbies, with friends and family, with nature, are key ways to step back, recalibrate and recharge your batteries. And remember: DON’T FEEL GUILTY for doing so! PhD study can be isolating so you might want to try joining PhD forums. Additionally, get contact details of other students at networking events and conferences - it’s likely they’re feeling the same and would welcome a connection too!
Tip: plan at least one activity you enjoy each day to help you step out of PhD land (I recommend a family-pack of celebrations and back to back reruns of Fawlty Towers).
At first you may wonder what the ‘typical’ dynamic is between a PhD student and supervisory team (I did), but I’m not sure there is a ‘typical’. Reliability, clear communication and action plans are a really helpful way to stay on track and keep everyone up to speed on your progress.
Tip: plan ahead for your team meetings; their time is precious and knowledge vast so you’ll get more out of the meeting if you have clear questions/ideas to present to them for discussion. Most of all, try to develop your own voice - you may feel like the junior but your ideas and opinions are equally as valid!
N.B: A special thanks to my two wonderfully supportive supervisors; Professor Tom Dickins and Dr Mark Coulson!
My take-home message is to embrace the PhD experience. It definitely won’t always be smooth-sailing, it’s going to be tough. But challenges make overcoming them that much sweeter. View your studies as a training programme; you’re learning to master your trade. You will get there but you need to be your biggest supporter.
And chocolate. Chocolate helps.