There are a few staples of PhD life. A laptop. An extension cable. Books. Articles. Coffee. Instant noodles. You get the picture. After using Paperpile for the last six months, I’m adding it to the list.
Before Paperpile, I had never used a reference manager before. Well, I’d tried to, but they always seemed a bit too difficult to get the hang of and I struggled to make them a part of my workflow. The truth is, for the longest time I have done all my references by hand. I used to swear by it – that doing your referencing manually was the only way to ensure it would be done properly. Neatly. I’d spend hours writing them all up: surname, initials, date. Repeating the same laborious process again and again, page after page. Perhaps even worse, I would leave my referencing until after I’d finished.
You’ve decided you want to further your study following your undergraduate or masters. You’ve searched the plethora of PhDs available and have submitted your applications, but what next? How do you prepare for that all important interview?
Read my Top Tips for Interview Prep.
I have a really nice office this semester. It is beautiful. It has a tiny anteroom past the door – enough space to store the shoes that are too uncomfortable to wear when I’m walking around campus and three of the four coats I’ve brought from home in preparation for the unpredictable Massachusetts weather. Beyond the anteroom is an L-shaped mahogany stained desk with a Nespresso machine. I’ve always wanted one of those. They are, however, too extravagant when I have my old reliable carafe-style coffee maker. Beyond the desk is a gray couch with leather footstools, and at my feet is a blue shag area rug. On the walls are real paintings. Years' worth of lovingly collected books line the walls – I can almost map the semesters of classes taught in their organization.
This is not my office. It’s a temporary office, on loan to me courtesy of a professor on sabbatical. My temporary office while I teach my temporary class and am, temporarily, a professor. I love this space. It’s the most comfortable space I have had on campus in the five years I have been a graduate student. But the office, just like the life it represents, is not my own. It’s just temporary.
It has been two years since I successfully completed my Ph.D. My thesis, entitled "Well-being and romantic relationships in Andalusian adolescents" explored both topics from the Positive Psychology approach, focusing on this developmental period. During those years I learned a lot, but I also went through some very difficult times. That's why I realized that looking back, there are many things I wish I’d known before starting my Ph. D. path which would have helped me to make the most of the experience.
Here I go through some of my top tips in the hope that they will be useful to you:
1. Doing a Ph.D. is not easy and takes years of effort and dedication. At first, you will probably find yourself wondering what on earth it is you are doing. Take it easy, don’t think you have to learn everything at once. You have a lot to learn, and you are not going to do it in a day, a week, or a month (or even a year). Knowledge is not acquired quickly. Patience and perseverance are your greatest allies. One step at a time. One day at a time. Go at your own pace. Don't compare yourself to anyone. Everyone is different, has a different life, different resources, and different qualities. Don't want to be like anyone else. Be yourself.
To an extent, living with a chronic illness and doing a PhD share quite a few similarities. Both require a lot of self-discipline. Both can be hard work some days. But ultimately, they both teach you a lot about yourself. They teach you your strengths, your weaknesses, your limits, and that you’ve always got that little more in your tank to keep going. I’m not here to say I am an all-knowing sage. I want to acknowledge that everyone has their own PhD journey, and people with chronic illnesses have their own unique journeys too. I’m just a PhD student, sharing his journey about dealing with both at the same time. I hope that my story reaches or connects with even one person. To that person, I want you to know that whilst it’s hard, you’ve not only got this, but you’re going to be super proud of yourself when you come out the other side.
Doing a PhD is about so much more than the thesis you produce at the end that lets you proudly utter the words “Actually, it’s doctor.”
But at some point, you’ve got to take the ideas, doodles, scrawls and sketches and turn them into a thesis. When I got to that point, I wasn’t bowled over by the support available. After a while, you want to move from “everyone’s different!” and “there’s no one way to write up!” to “no, really, please tell me: how on Earth do I go about this?”
Don’t get me wrong – there is no one way to write up, and there’s almost certainly not a single best way. But this blog is my writing-up “write-up” which I hope, at best, might help others find what works for them (and, at worst, might help them rule out one option as a horrifying exercise in academic masochism.) Now that I’ve written it up, it sounds even more ambitious than it did when I first devised it – but I promise this worked for me.
I loathe the phrase ‘publish or perish’.
As if we weren’t all under enough pressure, academics seem to relish adding life-and-death metaphors into the mix. Admittedly, ‘publish or perish’ serves to underline the importance of publishing in academia – and it is important - but this popular soundbite gives you no advice about how to go about it.
Towards the end of my PhD, I felt the pressure to publish mounting and mounting, but found limited advice about how to survive (let alone thrive) in this strange new and seemingly hostile environment. That’s where I hope this blog post might come in. The tidbits below stem from personal experience, but I hope they might prove helpful to others as they prepare to send their thesis and its insights into the big, bad world.
Your supervisor can profoundly influence the progress of your PhD, as well as your own personal wellbeing. A supportive, helpful, and welcoming supervisor can make all the difference and help fuel your passion for academia. Conquering your PhD will not be easy, but having a supportive mentor to guide you through this difficult journey will make everything more enjoyable.
You can’t risk losing your enthusiasm. Lack of support and high expectations towards your progression can damage your mental health and lead you, in the most extreme cases, to give up your dream of achieving a PhD. I was very lucky. Not only did I have an extremely competent, professional, and capable supervisor, but also a valuable, helpful, and understanding person who never made me feel alone by offering advice, friendship, and support. Here's what I learned from him.