My PhD is now officially over! The 3rd and final year was extremely busy, what with finishing writing up my thesis while simultaneously applying for post-doc funding. This didn’t leave me with much energy for writing blog posts so now that it’s all done and dusted (I passed my viva with no corrections and secured some amazing funding for a 4-year research project!) I thought I would post one final entry on this blog before moving on to post-doc life.
I genuinely really enjoyed the time I spent doing my PhD but I am aware that not everyone does. I guess I was extremely lucky in a number of ways but here are some of my thoughts on what you can do to try to have a positive and successful experience. Just to note that my PhD was in the UK, in science (child psychiatry & genetics) and my plan was to carry on working in academia afterwards so my PhD experiences and the advice below might not apply to other situations.
Make PhD friends
This might seem a bit obvious, but you can’t underestimate the importance of having a strong social network while doing your PhD. It’s particularly nice to have friends who are also doing PhDs, especially a few who are a step or two ahead of you. While your specific topic is likely to be fairly unique (even niche) within your research group, some of the methodology you will be using and background literature is likely to overlap with what your colleagues are familiar with. They may have already overcome the problems, issues and obstacles that you come across and asking for their advice and help could save you hours of confusion and futile googling! What’s more, regularly offering to help your colleagues (e.g. by proof-reading some of their work) can create the positive and supportive environment necessary to make PhD life easier and more pleasant for everyone. If you don’t have any colleagues nearby doing PhDs, you could consider attending any available postgraduate social events that might help you meet other PhD students.
Your supervisors are there to help
Senior researchers are busy people so it might be useful to have more than one official supervisor to turn to for advice. Every supervisor-student relationship is different, so depending on the person, you might need to initiate contact and make an effort to book in regular meetings. I found that weekly or fortnightly meetings worked best in my first year, with less frequent meetings afterwards. I’ve also previously written a post about the possible benefits and pitfalls of socialising with your supervisors (probably my most read post ever!). You might also find it useful to have an independent mentor – you could speak to your supervisors or postgraduate office to see if there is a possibility of being assigned a mentor, just so you have another experienced researcher to turn to for advice.
Find the right work environment
I treated my PhD as a real job (minimum 9am-5pm Mon-Fri), which meant I paced myself well with my work and got a lot of work done every month. I found it essential to have a consistent work routine, surrounded by colleagues who were working at the same time and also to have clear boundaries between work time and home/relaxing time.
Seek out interesting events
It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for local and national courses, summer schools and seminars and pick the most relevant and interesting ones to attend. You will definitely need to learn how to use a reference manager (I thoroughly recommend Mendeley, which is free and really easy to use) and at least a couple of statistical packages (I really recommend Stata to be one of these). I also suggest getting familiar well ahead of time with how to write long documents in Word or whatever software you will be writing your thesis in – one of the most useful courses I went on during my entire PhD was the one that taught me how to use Word Styles, insert figure captions, tables of contents, section breaks etc. Most courses have discounts (or are even free) for PhD students and so this is a great opportunity to learn useful, new things.
And I definitely recommend going to relevant international conferences – these are extremely useful for a number of reasons. Presenting your work (even in poster form) is great for getting your name out there, speaking to other researchers and it also looks very good on your CV. Conference sessions can give you a sneak preview of exciting new research that will be published imminently in your field and also give you an appreciation of some of the wider research context beyond your narrow topic of interest. You get the opportunity to put faces to names of some of the top researchers whose work you have been reading and citing. And although it can be somewhat intimidating, this is also a great opportunity for networking, at the very least with other PhD students from around the world. It also gives you the chance to apply for a travel grant or maybe even win a poster prize, which, if successful, all look great on your CV. And of course, you get to travel for free and might get a half day for sightseeing, which is a lovely perk, especially when you are on a low PhD stipend and can’t afford to travel for holidays!
Keep on top of the literature
I’ve written a whole post about this before. It’s really handy to keep reading papers throughout your PhD. It’s not only necessary for your thesis literature review/introduction chapter(s) but can also be helpful for idea generation, and steering your thesis in terms of what you are most interested in.
Submit chapters for publication
A good PhD thesis is one that is “publishable”. This means that if you have already published some or most of it, you are on the right track for your PhD viva/defence. The process of publishing your work can also give you some helpful feedback from reviewers, which could improve your thesis chapters and prepare you for possible viva questions. To make the last few months of your PhD less ridiculously stressful, you probably want to start writing your thesis in the 2nd year, the earlier the better. Writing up some of your results as a paper for submission makes a lot of sense at this point. If your research topic is quite novel, you could also consider trying to publish a systematic review paper which could double as your first thesis chapter. Other than getting some of your work written up early on, publishing papers is likely to also give you an edge for getting your first post-doc. Whether you like it or not, publications are the single most important addition to an early career researcher’s CV.
Have an online presence
I definitely recommend joining Twitter and if you are already on there, make the most of it. There is a whole world of academic link-sharing and (brief) discussing of various academic and scientific issues that is worth keeping an eye on. If you’re hesitant about contributing, just follow interesting people and read what they are saying.
Another idea is to keep your university profile page updated and once you’ve got a publication or 2, make a profile on Google Scholar, ResearchGate, ORCID, and maybe also Academia.edu, LinkedIn or other websites. Consider tweeting and blogging about your papers and check out who else is talking about them on social media using Altmetric.
Get involved in some other stuff
The advice I had early on was that you should try your hand at several things during your PhD, beyond the core requirements. This could be getting involved in public engagement, blogging, getting some undergraduate teaching/supervision experience, organising a local conference or inter-disciplinary meeting etc. These are all ways to gain some skills that look good on your CV and to learn more about what it is you enjoy and are good at within the academic environment. But remember that this is just to dip your toes in the water and try some things so don’t let any of these extra-curricular things take over too much of your research time.
All things considered, I got a lot more out of my PhD than the right to use the “Dr” title and I feel as prepared as I’ll ever be for being a post-doc. So, thanks for reading this blog and feel free to leave any other suggestions in the comments!