Starting a PhD? Some Thoughts

The new academic year is here. For PhD students, starting advice can be scary. Every supervisor has their own idea about how things really work, often either as a positive affirmation that however they were treated as a PhD student was the single right way to treat PhD students, or else as an absolute rejection of that experience. Every field is different. The mountain to climb can look pretty intimidating, standing at the bottom and contemplating the ascent.

Worse still, the internet is full of opinion pieces about how it’s just not worth taking on a PhD, the academic job market is just too hard to crack (unlike other job markets), and, worringly, there are ever higher levels of depression and anxiety among PhD students.  You are going to need a lot of help out there and I hope that you find it. Certainly don’t try and do this all by yourself.

For the last few years, I have given a little welcome talk at St Andrews’ cross-faculty induction events for new PhD students. This is some of the advice I have given:

1)         Have a life! It is easy to let a doctoral project take over all the nooks and crannies of your day. Don’t underestimate the value of regular working hours and proper downtime. Not only can you achieve more rested than strung out, your subconscious needs the time to process ideas and problems effectively.

2)         Go to research seminars and job presentations – it is always worth your time to see the profession in action, and it is always worth your time being part of a community.

3)         Practice a snappy two-line sales pitch for your PhD for social situations (including conferences!) If you start ‘well, it’s complicated…’, ‘it’s not very interesting…’ or ‘you wouldn’t really understand…’, you’ve probably lost. Learn to articulate the value in your work and your field it undoubtedly has.

4)         Be prepared to slim down your project to finish in good time. Draw up plans, regularly. Be sensible about any debt you are building up (preferably none!).

5)         Remember that the goal is to get the degree, not to transform the field. As one wise colleague said to me when I was a grad student: ‘this is your first word, not your last’. Even if you don’t want to go into academia, there is time later to polish everything up for public consumption. And, hey, one senior colleague in Chemistry once casually reckoned that 99.9% of doctoral research, if not all research, is not paradigm shifting, but most of it is still useful.

6)         Beware of displacement activities disguised as career development! It is easy to become convinced that academic futures hinge on doing lots of teaching, organising lots of conferences, and making a name through blogging or twitter. In practice, hiring committees tend to give more weight to timely completion and publications. Getting the balance right is important.

7)         But despite the last few points, make sure you take time to go on intellectual and actual journeys – your work will always be better for having a bit of perspective. And you never know when that thing that wasn’t relevant to your research might turn out to be useful.

8)         Listen to criticism and advice, even if it’s hard to take sometimes. Beware of echo chambers. Beware of people who claim to have all the answers(!)

9)         Be kind. Always be kind.

(NB Some of this follows on from a previous blogpost about applying for PhDs, here.)