Five important things to know about doing a PhD
It is not uncommon for students to stumble into a PhD without really understanding what doctoral study entails. This uncertainty can lead to problems later in the programme when candidates start to struggle to cope with the workload or to meet the unique demands of a PhD.
This article is for anyone who is thinking about pursuing a PhD but is still feeling unsure why they’re choosing this path or what will be expected of them. We discuss five key aspects of doctoral research that all applicants should consider carefully before embarking on a PhD.
Know your motivation
PhDs run for a substantial period of time – they can last anything from three to seven years (perhaps longer), depending on where you choose to study and whether you are doing the PhD full-time or part-time.
To stay the course, be sure of your motivation for doing the PhD. Whether it is because the qualification will help your career progression, because you enjoy academia and research, or simply because you are passionate about your proposed research subject. Being sure of why you are doing this PhD is one of the most crucial components to get you through the various ups and downs of the programme.
Journal your reasons for doing doctoral research or discuss them with someone who knows you well and is familiar with your experiences, goals and personality. Finding clarity around your motivation will help you stay focused and interested in your project across the years.
Your supervisor can make or break your PhD experience
It is well worth investing extra time to find the right supervisor/advisor for your PhD. This will be the person with whom you will have the most contact and who will be giving you the most guidance in your research, so it is vital that you find the right person for you.
While it might seem logical to look for an academic who is well known in your field, it is actually more important to find someone who is willing and able to give you the support that you need. A good supervisor is someone who is not only able to help your academic progress, but who also cares about you as a researcher and as a person. Do not overlook the importance of pastoral support and care – this aspect can be just as important to the development and success of your research as the practical, academic guidance.
It should be stressed that your supervisor’s genuine concern for your professional and personal progress is more important than their academic accolades. You don’t want to end up with someone who is very experienced and prestigious, but who is never available to meet you, has very poor communication skills, or is not interested in giving you adequate feedback and advice for your research.
PhD research is independent research
PhD programmes are conducted very differently from taught degrees. Although some PhD students may work within a research project with other researchers and PhD candidates (this is more common in the sciences), most doctoral candidates work independently and alone on their individual thesis.
It will be almost entirely up to you to plan your time, structure your work routine, and set and meet your own deadlines and goals. Your supervisor/advisor should give you support and guidance, and alert you to the most important milestones along the way (for example, when you should start data collection or when to prepare for periodic assessments/progression points), but you will need to manage actual day-to-day work.
Moving into this largely unstructured space can feel slightly disorienting for some, so it is helpful to reflect on your current work practices and think about what you might need to adjust for your own doctoral study. Commonly, PhD students take about six months to a year to settle into their own work rhythm, but rest assured you will eventually find a routine that works most productively for you.
The PhD journey can be lonely
Because each PhD thesis is unique, you are going to be the only person working on that particular project. You might have colleagues working in similar or overlapping areas, or even working on the same larger research project, but your specific thesis is unique only to you. This aloneness can sometimes be challenging if you don’t have many people around you to talk to about your topic or to discuss any issues that come up. Alternatively, some researchers find this independence very freeing and they enjoy having the space and free rein to direct their work without interference.
To highlight this aspect of the PhD is not to discourage or frighten you. Rather, we suggest that you start thinking about how to create the right community and friendships to support you to do your best work. For example, find out if you will have access to an office in your department so you can physically meet and socialise with other PhD students; or look up the activities available in your department/ university that allow you to network and build friendships.
The PhD is not just about the PhD
It is a mistake to go into the PhD planning only to work on your thesis. These few years provide excellent opportunities to discover and develop other skills, try new things, expand your professional portfolio and also, quite simply, to have fun.
Most universities today provide their PhD students with additional training opportunities, not just for academic skills but for your personal, professional and career development. You’ll have the chance to attend workshops, training sessions with experts (which can cost thousands of dollars if done independently) and join conferences to meet other researchers in your field.
Most universities usually also encourage their students to organise their own activities and events including, for example, workshops, public talks, departmental or subject-specific forums or small symposia, and networking socials.
These are all excellent opportunities to meet like-minded researchers, share your work, engage in stimulating conversations to improve your own research, and make connections for potential collaborations. These activities and events can also contribute significantly to helping you build a strong, healthy social network and community; this will provide vital support and friendship for you throughout the PhD and help your wellbeing in more ways than you can imagine.
You’ll have noticed that everything we have discussed so far is not directly about the PhD research or thesis itself. If you’re at a stage where you are thinking about pursuing a PhD, then you are more than likely to be academically capable and have all the skills, qualifications and intelligence needed to do the actual work well.
However, doctoral research is a holistic experience – in many cases, it is more important to invest time and energy to ensure that all the other parts of your life are also well and in balance. You are more likely to produce good research if you are happy, healthy and working under the most peaceful circumstances you can manage. Looking after yourself at all stages is the best thing you can do for your PhD.
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