Getting Started with your PhD – Webinar Summary
jobs.ac.uk partnered up with Dr Petra Boynton, Research Consultant and Social Psychologist, to bring you an exclusive webinar on ‘Getting started with your PhD’.
Embarking on a PhD is an exciting time, but there may be many questions you’d like answers to but aren’t sure who to ask. In this session Petra covers some of the most common questions PhD candidates have, including what to expect from your supervisor, milestones in the first year of your PhD, addressing your training needs, managing your time, and how to look after your safety and wellbeing.
- Petra suggests writing a letter to yourself or make a recording, documenting reflections you are going to discuss with your supervisor.
- Why you want to do a PhD,
- Your current circumstances,
- Your commitments,
- Potential barriers or difficulties,
- Your feedback needs.
2. Keep a diary.
You may already be required to keep a formal diary documenting your progress and when you meet with your supervisor. An informal diary that documents your journey and how you are feeling in the moment is beneficial as you may forget, and it will provide you with context when looking back. This is especially important if you choose to become a supervisor in the future like Petra explained, as she was able to look back and realise the struggles she went through, and it bolstered her empathy for her doctoral students.
What should I expect from a PhD?
Every university, PhD programme and student is different. However, it is important to know what your institution expects from you. Look into regulations and the specific resources provided by the doctoral programme.
Expectations are a key point of stress for students, not knowing where to go for help, thinking no one will help or that you should know this already. It is important to check any questions and confirm with your supervisor.
You are expected to be an independent learner, a PhD is a partially guided programme. Depending on the type of PhD you may have more supervision i.e. lab work, or you could be left to research autonomously. Therefore, it is critical to express your feedback needs and know what you are supposed to be doing, and if you don’t know, keep asking!
What should a PhD be like?
It should be a positive experience, enjoyable and confidence building. It should extend your knowledge and skills, opening you up to future opportunities.
It should not be detrimental to your mental or physical health. This is why it is important to build a support system around you so if you do experience difficulties you receive support and understanding from your programme/supervisor.
There may be periods where you have to give more time to your PhD but that does not mean no free time, or you must disconnect from relationships. If you are made to feel the PhD should be all consuming by your supervisor, that is an issue with them and please report to the programme as they are supervising your incorrectly.
Suffering is not a badge of honour, as it was once believed to be. The best skill you can learn early on in your PhD is how to not overburden yourself.
What should I expect from my supervisor?
They should get to know you and begin to understand your research question, bringing in their expertise. Ideally, you will have more than one supervisor to support you throughout the programme.
Your supervisor is going to question and challenge you. Sometimes even disagree with you. However, it should all be presented in a constructive, non-confrontational format.
You will meet with your supervisor regularly. This regularity will change throughout the programme due to what you are doing at the time.
Your supervisor is not there to hold your hand or be on call 24/7, you are expected to come up with and think through ideas before bringing them back to discuss with your supervisor.
Your graduate school plays a similar role to your supervisor, they will organise your training, explain regulations, signpost support and give you targets.
Important to note, while your supervisor and graduate school are there to offer you support to get through your PhD, they are not a therapist. This is not to say do not express issues to your supervisor, they will be able to point you in the direction of support and cannot help you if you do not ask.
How can I manage my time?
Keep a calendar/diary.
Block out periods of –
- any other obligations.
You can have a shared calendar with your supervisor or alert them when you are unavailable.
Identify your training needs, the doctoral office and library will be able to assist.
Create a study schedule, everyone’s approach is different but important to be somewhat flexible. A schedule is a great way to keep yourself on track, know what is coming up and keep yourself accountable.
Many people work backwards from the end of the year, and document what it is going to take to get them to that point whether there is an assessment, presentation, meeting or upgrade.
Give yourself more time than you think it will take, if it happens you do not need all that time you can either take a break or do something else.
If anything goes wrong, not keeping up to formal or your own deadlines etc., tell your supervisor immediately.
Scheduling the more exciting parts of the PhD between the mundane is a great way to keep motivated and have something to look forward to.
Where you can get help
- The library,
- Study skills department (if there is one),
- The international office (if you are an international student),
- The disability office,
- The welfare office – counselling, pastoral care etc.,
- The funding office,
- Professional bodies – postgraduate societies,
- Peer-support, mentoring, buddy-programmes.
What level of feedback should I get from my supervisor on data collection?
As the PhD progresses the feedback will be less and less, as you are evolving and learning this skill. Using the example of a questionnaire, the first meeting with your supervisor about it they will likely have a lot of notes, the second time you will have taken that feedback on board and maybe done some training and there will be less feedback as you are on the right track.
If you are continuously being told how to do the basics on data collection there is a breakdown of communication between you and your supervisor. You need to be clear with your training needs.
In presenting my 1st year research plan, how much information should I present in my experiments and deliveries?
It is a learning process; you have a broad idea of what you want to do but you’re not sure how to get there. Your research plan is where you document your learning, experiments, observations, and training. Your idea will develop and might change a few months in.
How to counter a fear of doing experiments, considering my projects were mostly online due to COVID.
Acknowledge the skills you did gain from online learning. Your literature reviewing, working your online connections, online group work and agile working.
There are some programmes that give extra lab time and training. Ask for training if this is not the case. Look into summer schools or weekend programmes.
This is not a deficit on your part, it is due to the pandemic, so you should not be scared because you haven’t done it.
It is also important to note just because you have done something once doesn’t mean you are to know it off by heart, ask for more training if needed.
I did my masters more than a decade ago, I’m not sure what to do? Where can I get assistance on what research topics to look into?
Look out for advertised PhDs – jobs.ac.uk, LinkedIn, general social media and professional bodies. This will provide you with a topic and you can purse an area you are interested in without coming up with the research question.
If you don’t have a scholarship and. Bursary and need to work part time or full time, is it possible to do a PhD? How much live classes do we have per week?
Although it is possible, it is difficult. It is much easier to do a funded PhD.
Live classes are not a big part of the PhD programme. While there are the meetings with your supervisor and perhaps online or offline lab time/class, it is more about self-discipline and independent study. This can be challenging when working part-time. Record keeping is vital as it will help you remember as you jump from your job to your PhD.
You cannot do a full-time PhD and work full-time. Even on compressed hours it is exhausting, and you will burn out. An option may be to do a part-time PhD on compressed hours or have time off from work for study. Academically a PhD is a huge jump from undergraduate where you may have been able to juggle full-time work.
I’m in my early 30s and feel a bit embarrassed in my age compared to everyone else. Any tips on how to turn age to your advantage?
With age comes life experience and skills. Think of the positives that your age brings. You will find a range of ages in doctoral programmes, unlike undergraduate. People pursue PhDs at all stages of life.
A PhD is not a competition and not about your age, it is a milestone for you so focus on that.
What are the key skills you could advise someone who hasn’t done academic research in a while?
- Read up on research methods,
- Attend webinars and talks,
- YouTube videos,
- Open University.
Make note of any research methods you are not confident in; you can have training your first year of your PhD. It is a learning experience and you do not need to know it all from the start.
Is the PhD a learning process or a real contribution to academic work?
It is both. There is a lot of pressure in certain fields to publish and “change the world” with your research but it is key to remember a PhD is a learning experience, you are learning to be a researcher. There are so many skills you need to learn and things to understand. At the end of a PhD, you will have a thesis, it may or may not get published and that is okay.
Social media can be a great tool, use it with care. You can connect with people in similar situations and like-minded people. Find resources, like this webinar. Be aware of people promoting destructive mindsets and negativity. Stay away from essay mills and plagiarism.
Meet the Host
Dr Petra Boynton is a Social Psychologist who supports universities, charities, research organisations and government departments to undertake and use research in inclusive, accessible, ethical and safe ways. With a key focus on mental health and wellbeing. Petra’s self-help books for scholars include, The Research Companion: a practical guide for the social sciences, health and development (2nd Ed, 2016) and Being Well In Academia: ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected (2020) – a practical and supportive mental health guide for students and staff; both Routlege.