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.
I felt I had everything that was relevant for starting a PhD. I had obtained a master’s degree, secured a supervising professor, the opportunity to work in their lab and funding from the university which all accumulated to a super exciting project.
I was very ambitious to get started with my PhD journey. I knew I would learn a lot and it would be challenging, which were two great motivations for me. In the first week, I had a meeting with my professor where we discussed the project and how we would begin. At the end of the meeting, he recommended that I apply for a PhD scholarship which was initially overwhelming. He told me that it would stand me in good stead for a scientific career and could imagine me as a scholarship holder.
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.
The PhD Place hosts a community of PGR students from all over the world. All views expressed are by the individual authors.