When you embark upon a PhD journey, it is very easy for your mind to run before your data collection can even crawl. The moment you secure a place to research, you find yourself thinking, “I know it’ll be a long slog… I should probably wait a whole WEEK before I put in that ethics application to really get it right!” Ha, if only! But, the development of the PhD, from its needy infancy, through its troublesome teens, is a valuable process at every stage.
I am now moving towards the write-up of my first draft, and as such am reviewing my reflective diary… not the happiest of reading! The most common refrain from my first two years is incredulity that this research is just not growing up; disappointment that the Literature Review must be completed before data collection can even be contemplated, dismay that I must amend my ethics application before it can be approved, and concern that participants are not lining up outside my office, desperate to sign up. I can chuckle at my naivety now, but I can still remember the fear and worry which overtook me each time I felt my progress had stalled, the concern that my work simply hadn’t been ‘raised right’ and now, nothing could be done.
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.
I spent more time trying to craft an exciting intro than writing the main article itself. I was torn between two choices: (1) make the intro as spicy as the habanero pepper that features in most of my recipes, or (2) make it as cool as the lemonade I reach for to quench the capsaicin-induced furnace in my mouth from option 1. I couldn’t decide, so the intro was to be that which you just read.
The only thing I love more than eating food is the art of cooking itself. Immersing myself in the aura of mixing and matching, experimenting, failing, and ultimately whipping up something quite tantalizing has made me come alive. As a doctoral candidate in molecular virology, I spend most of my time conducting wet lab experiments. Consciously, however, I do carve out time to swap the cell culture hood for the ambiance of a steaming stove, the stack of cell culture dishes for pans and pots, and the pack of Pasteur pipettes for a set of iridescent knives.
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.
How Being Rejected from Harvard Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me By Marco T. P. Gontijo
My name is Marco. I am 26 years old and a first-year PhD student in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University. I am not going to lie, at first being rejected from Harvard was devastating; however, this rejection was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. In this article, I will share my journey in applying to PhD programs in the US as a Brazilian student.
Let’s begin with a little bit of context. First, I majored in Food Engineering at the Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil, and during this time, I also studied Biotechnology in France. I did one year of courses, and an internship, at the University of Lorraine, where I finished at the top of my class, and I was approved for three fully funded master’s programs. After that, I decided to pursue a masters in Genetics and Molecular Biology at the State University of Campinas, Brazil. However, despite studying at top universities and having +5 years of research experience, and five published articles at the time, I was still rejected from Harvard University.
I shall warn you now that this will be personal and it might not be useful to a general audience; but hey, we all think we are going through something unique when many of us are actually going through the same experiences, so who knows!
My PhD journey started out at the Indian Institute of Roorkee in 2018 under Dr. Partha Pratim Roy. I was happy that I would get to work on an EEG (a device capable of reading electrical signals generated by our brain), as I have always wanted to work in AI and build Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), and starting with the brain looked promising.
I never met anyone who grew up wanting to be a careers adviser. I meet plenty of people with an ‘I had a terrible careers adviser who said I should be a fork-lift truck driver/ flower arranger/ circus performer’ story, but as for anyone who came straight out of school or university with their heart set on a career in careers… we’re yet to cross paths.
In fact, it took me a bit of time to find my way into this line of work. I was towards the end of the first year of my PhD when a bit of part-time work in my university’s student recruitment office and a spot of volunteering for an art gallery started to show me what post-PhD life could look like beyond academia. By the time my thesis submission came around, I was fully reconciled with the feeling that I’d taken academic research as far as I wanted to, and it was time to turn my hand (and my researcher brain) to something else. I didn’t even apply for academic jobs, even though a little voice still gnawed away in the back of my mind that this was something I ‘ought to do’. I was preparing to leave academia, not through the burn-out and disillusion that follows so many academic job hunts; instead, I had this deep-seated belief that academic research and teaching just weren’t the greatest uses of my ‘best bits,’ and I was eager to see what else I could throw myself into.
My name is Marika Strano, I am 28 years old, and I am a first year PhD student in English Literature at Swansea University. It is very difficult for me to write this article and to make light of my “journey” as a PhD student because I don’t want to lie to you, it is not easy being a PhD student. The admissions process is even more difficult for international students, and my experience was no exception. So, let's start from the beginning.
Pursuing A Research PhD Is Like Launching Your Own Start-Up Business By Steven Zhou
Did that title confuse you? Most of you are probably wondering how in the world pursuing a PhD in a research field is anything like launching a start-up. After all, academia is not exactly known for being entrepreneurial: it’s slower, more bureaucratic, and a lot more risk averse. It is likely you are pursuing a PhD to conduct research rather than starting a business but for me I worked in a start-up business before beginning my PhD in a research-intensive psychology program and have found there are overlapping skills and mindsets between being successful in a PhD and in launching a start-up.
I share these in the hope that they help other students find their own “success”, whatever that may look like and perhaps prepare future students for some of the unexpected challenges they may face when starting a PhD.
If you had told me when I was growing up that one day, I’d have a PhD, I would have told you that was not my goal at all. I had other plans: I wanted to be a deejay. Today, that’s not unusual; there are many female deejays on the radio and an equal number of female announcers on TV. But when I was growing up in the 1950s, society still had not changed, and gender roles in the media were very traditional. That meant the announcers and deejays were men, usually white, and preferably with deep voices, and women were either receptionists or secretaries or switchboard operators (yes, switchboards were still a thing), or they hosted a so-called “women’s show,” where they discussed food, family, and fashion. I never wanted to do a women’s show. I wanted to play the hits and cheer people up, which is what my favorite deejays did for me.
I never realized the lack of female deejays was because we weren’t welcome in that role; I thought women just hadn’t applied, and I decided to rectify that by joining my college radio station. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when the program director told me that girls couldn’t be on the air. (Evidently, girls didn’t sound good. Or so he said, even though no girls had ever been allowed on the air.) To make a long story short, it took me four years before I was given the opportunity I had long sought: in my senior year, I finally became the first female deejay in the station’s history.
March 16th 2022. This is definitely one of the most significant dates of my life. It is the day I passed my PhD with minor corrections! While a lot has happened in the past four and a half years leading to this day (*cough pandemic*), I must say that the week before my viva was certainly the most stressful period of my PhD.
When the date was confirmed, I was told by my supervisor to start preparing about a week before the actual big scary viva. And yes, I really called it that. If anyone knows me, they’ll know that I’m an anxious person and that waiting two months for the viva would be unbearable. Thankfully, when the date was confirmed I was already employed, so my mind was pre-occupied. In the weeks leading up to my viva however, I could feel my stress levels slowly creeping up; I knew that I had to finish all of my projects at work before my annual leave to go “full-blast” on my viva preparation. In the evenings, I would google ‘how to prepare for PhD viva’ and search for ‘common questions asked in a PhD viva’. Although this might seem rather trivial, it did help my anxiety levels as it allowed me to plan what to expect for the viva itself. And then it came to the actual week before the “big day”.
To-Do: Write A Thesis - Reflecting On My PhD Experience So Far & Advice For New PhD Students By Gemma Rides
On my first day as a PhD student, I grabbed my favourite coffee from Starbucks, sat down in my office, grabbed my new notepad and pen, and wrote…
To-do: Write a thesis
Now, for someone that thrives off colour coding, planning, and ticking off to-do lists, the realisation that I could not cross this task off my list for the next 4 years was more than daunting. Slightly worried, I decided to read and re-read every single handbook, document and book that had been given to me for my PhD induction, hoping for some insight into what I needed to actually do. After a week of reading, I was even more confused than when I started. What do you mean I need to ‘upgrade’ from an MPhil to a PhD? I need to consider ethics, recruitment, training and annual reviews? And what was this terrifying viva?
Floundering First Steps: The First Month Of Starting A PhD By Olivia Eve Arkley
I started my PhD, very unceremoniously on a random Tuesday, March 1st to be exact. However, I have just started the next 4 years of my life.
Beginning a PhD seems daunting at the best of times and during the (hopefully) last leg of a pandemic is even scarier, but this is what I had planned and worked towards for years. Achieving both a BA and MA in Archaeology, graduating from both during varying lockdown restrictions, I purposefully looked to see this passion through to the very end, but I had almost no idea what to do. A little fish in a limitless ocean. I was aware of my research project; I had a good proposal to continue my exploration of the archaeological analysis of human sacrifice that I had begun in my Undergraduate dissertation. While I knew what to do with my topic, I had no idea how a PhD worked daily. Meetings with supervisors and school directors over zoom revealed that my day-to-day tasks were writing the thesis and improving myself as a professional.
How My Faith In God Convinced Me To Never Give Up And To Pursue Further Education By D. Gabriel Cruz
Calling all prospective doctoral students (even if you have only ever had the smallest inclination or thought about pursuing a doctorate’s degree), listen up, please! What you are about to embark upon is a reading of the motivating, encouraging, and inspiring true facts of my doctoral pursuit. A story that I hope will bring you one step closer to solidifying the answer of yes; yes, I will seek out a post-graduate degree or yes, I will make a new goal of going to school for a doctoral degree. By no means should my true facts scare you off (that is definitely not my intention at all) but rather I want to give you the nudge you need to take in order to have ‘Dr.’ in front or ‘Ph.D.’ behind your beautiful name.
Keep in mind that if you dive deeper into this great cause (e.g., by posting my story I am hoping others may gain insight and learn from it), you can surmise that I am practicing how to be vulnerable and better my writing skills. This is in the hopes that a small-town boy’s decision to write and post a part of his life for all the world to see will empower each one of you to think about doing the same.
All views expressed are by the individual authors.