Embarking on your PhD journey is often solitary, challenging and overwhelming. Some students, however, find the process liberating, fulfilling and academically stimulating. When I embarked on my PhD journey I was certainly unaware of what was ahead: the precision of academic writing; the solitary process; the importance of the supervision team; my capabilities; and, the amount of reading and redrafting. Although most institutions insist on a few days of mandatory preparation training, knowing what to expect in advance could be considerably helpful. I’m pleased to share a collection of podcasts from Dr Arun Ulahannan & Dr Julia Gauly, a husband and wife team who passed their PhDs in 2020 and who offer tips and advice on the practical things they learned during their PhD studies, things they wish they’d known before they embarked on 4 years of in-depth research.
You can also see our collection of vlogs from PhD students at various stages of their research, who share their experiences to help you decide if a PhD is for you.
There are several reasons why people embark on a PhD journey, but there are two which I consider particularly important. Firstly, there should be a topic or theory that motivates your curiosity and secondly, there must be an interest in research and adding to knowledge. Personally, I was interested in a topic for a number of years and realised that if I could fill a gap in the knowledge I would be able to create a positive impact on thousands of lives.
Top Points to consider:
- Be aware that this is an exciting yet challenging academic journey.
Remember that this is a long road that will be challenging yet fulfilling. As your PhD journey develops, you will become more comfortable with the process and everything that it offers.
- Build a good relationship with your supervision team.
You are now part of a research team and having reliable supervisors is vital. If there are any difficulties, even if they seem minor, address these as soon as possible. Supervisors can be extremely busy but they have a duty to guide you along this academic road. Have regular meetings and consistent correspondence via email, skype, telephone or over coffee.
- It is ok not to feel motivated all the time throughout the journey.
You will not be motivated throughout the whole process. In fact, there will be many occasions when you feel like giving up. That is a normal part of the journey. During these times, remember self-care and take some time out to reignite your energy.
We all do it but bear in mind that procrastination will only delay you in many strides in your research.
- Set and commit to deadlines.
It is vital that your supervision team, along with you, set clear objectives and deadlines. Stick to these.
- Take criticism- this will make your research stronger.
You will receive criticism– lots of it. Take note and receive it willingly as this will only make your research stronger.
- Take breaks during the day and meet with other researchers.
As the PhD can be such a solitary process, it is worth building up a network of research friends where you can share experiences, gain support and generally feel connected.
- Read, read, read.
This is vital, especially within the first six months. Papers, books, journals, articles- anything that is recent and relevant to your research.
- Allow yourself time to develop and solidify your academic writing.
Do not be harsh on your initial attempts of academic writing. As the journey develops this will progress naturally.
- Have a clear vision of the research area.
Although passion, knowledge and enthusiasm are vital, you must have a clear outline of how you see your research journey progressing: the big question should always be at the forefront of your mind.
Although the assessment and exam stages can be daunting, they offer you the opportunity to prepare, plan and practice which in turn will consolidate your own understanding of your research.
- Draft, redraft and make it your best.
One redraft is never enough. Be prepared to redraft chapters, tables, and even sentence structure several times. Always aim to showcase your very best work.
- Set a clear question and sub-questions that will guide you in your research journey.
The questions will guide you through the research. However, bear in mind, that as the research progresses, the questions continually change. In fact, I know quite a few PhD candidates who changed their main question the day before their viva!
- Attend seminars and courses.
While it is beneficial to attend courses it is worth noting that not all courses will be relevant to you.
- Attend conferences and share your research findings.
Although this can be quite frightening for some, participating in conferences provides excellent networking opportunities and offer good practice at speaking and coherently organising and presenting your material.
- Perfectionism can be debilitating.
While it is great to present your absolute best work, it is also important to NOT be a perfectionist during your research journey. This can hugely delay progress and upset your focus and clarity.
- Be gentle with yourself and mark landmarks with celebrations.
Chapter completions, initial assessments, 100-day viva, conference presentation, positive feedback from supervision teams are all worth celebrating. Recognise your progress, achievements and advancements in knowledge.
- Be able to succinctly tell others in a few sentences what your research is about.
Many people from all types of backgrounds will ask you about your research. Be able to share this in a few sentences: what/why/how.
Embarking on PhD research, although challenging with many ups and downs, can be a highly rewarding process that will offer new opportunities and exciting advancements. With focus, determination, self-belief and hard work, you will not only develop as an academic but will reap the benefits of skills advancement in areas such as speaking, writing, presenting, refining, networking, and debating. Enjoy the creative journey and all the stimulation and challenge that it brings with it.
Find your PhD here