Four top tips for making the most of your PhD
by Jamie Khoo, PhD student, University of York
The PhD can often feel overwhelming to researchers who are just starting the journey. For example, many new PhD students often worry about getting everything done on time and finding ways of juggling the multiple responsibilities expected of them.
Importantly, managing the mental and emotional aspects of the PhD are just as crucial for the wellbeing and success of your research, and can sometimes feel more difficult to address than the practical elements of your work.
Rest assured that you don’t have to know how to handle everything from the very beginning. The PhD process will change and evolve over the years, and you will discover your own unique way of working and balancing your commitments. However, to get you started, here are four tips to help you make the most of your PhD journey.
1. Honour your own work rhythm
While some PhD programmes require that candidates adhere to specific hours with their department or research team, many doctoral researchers are encouraged to manage their own time and work independently. However, because you don’t attend scheduled classes like most students or have working hours like a full-time job, the unstructured time can be daunting.
Spend the first few months of your PhD finding a work rhythm that works best for you. This could mean sticking to a set number of hours every day, or working around your mood and energy levels. Work out if you’re a morning person or a night owl, and which times of the day are most productive for you. It is important not to compare your working rhythm with others – what works for them may not work for you.
Once you have found and settled into your optimal work rhythm, allow yourself room for change. It is perfectly normal for different stages of the PhD to require different work patterns – be flexible to accommodating these changing needs and understand that having a schedule that works only for you is totally okay.
2. Build a clear relationship with your supervisor
It is not an exaggeration to say that your relationship with your supervisor can make all the difference to your PhD. Build an effective, supportive relationship by establishing from the very beginning what you hope to achieve during your doctoral study.
Spend some time in your first year determining your research goals, your optimum ways of working, and what support you will need. Then, where possible, speak openly and clearly with your supervisor(s) to establish how you will work together over the next few years. For example, discuss how often you would like to meet, what kind of work you should aim to produce for each meeting and what kind of support, guidance and feedback you hope to get from them. You might specify that you work better with deadlines and assignments, and would like to submit regular writing assignments to them for feedback, or that you prefer working remotely via email.
These early discussions will prove pivotal for managing expectations and creating a solid foundational working structure you know you can return to and rely on.
3. Keep writing
Start writing as early on in your PhD as you can. Often, these pieces of work may not make it into your final thesis, but they will contribute towards developing your thought processes and opening up new directions and ideas for your research.
For many PhD students, just getting started with the writing process is often a hurdle. Break your tasks down by writing small sections at a time – for example, you might begin by writing a response to an article or book you have enjoyed reading, or a summary of a few key ideas that you are currently working with. You could keep a research journal to write down notes about ideas as they arise, or to reflect upon each stage of your research.
Although these do not feel like big, substantial pieces of work, they are still useful for developing ideas and you may find it helpful to return to this work later when you are writing a chapter or article. Importantly, don’t worry about things like grammar and spelling, or about creating a ‘perfect’ piece of work. You can always get help for these parts, such as with the editing services offered by Charlesworth Author Services. It is more important to get your thoughts down and keep your ideas flowing!
4. Do other things
While you may feel obliged to work constantly on your PhD, one of the best things you can do for your research is actually to spend time away from it. Spending time on other academic or social activity can often provide important moments for developing broader skills, insight and experience that can be brought back into your PhD.
For example, you could present parts of your research at conferences or volunteer to organise symposiums and workshops in an area related to your work. Convene or join reading groups or research forums to meet others in your field – these gatherings provide valuable opportunities to discover new research or methods, exchange ideas, ask questions and get feedback about your work. You’ll return to your research refreshed with new thoughts and perspectives.
Lastly, find time for fun things completely unrelated to your research. Get regular exercise and make room in your schedule for your hobbies, even if it’s just going to the movies or meeting friends for coffee. This mental and physical rest is very important for sustaining your energy and motivation.