Enjoying your PhD

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.

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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, ResearchGateORCID, 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!

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Writing a research proposal – first steps

Science takes a lot of hard work, which can occasionally be a little repetitive and even uninspiring. At other times, it is an incredibly creative process, which requires a lot of insight into seeing how pieces of information are connected and what the bigger picture might look like.

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about post-PhD options and trying to come up with ideas for a possible project proposal. Although reading has been immensely useful for seeing what has been done already in my subject of interest, it’s been a lot trickier to identify potential gaps in the literature. This kind of creative idea generation is difficult as it can’t really be forced and just takes time and perhaps some luck. I’m reminded of the early days of my PhD, when I was trying to decide on specific analyses I could do within my chosen topic.

So, how exactly are you supposed to come up with a brilliant proposal idea? Although I don’t really know the answer to that, here is my attempt at muddling through and having a go at it.

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The first step of idea generation is getting something, anything down on paper, i.e. doing some brainstorming. A reasonable way to begin could be by jotting down any random ideas that come to mind and trying to think about possible gaps (no matter how frivolous or vague) regarding the existing literature in a fairly narrow topic of interest. It might also be useful to draw some diagrams. It sounds simple enough, but the longer you stare at an empty white page, the clearer it becomes that starting from scratch is daunting. I began by writing a literature summary of any studies that were relevant to an interesting observation I’ve noticed. This was a good starting point but I felt like I spent hours staring at my computer screen, trying (and most days, failing) to think of an insightful or clever way of exploring this observation further.

Once you do have some vague ideas, it’s useful to share them with colleagues, supervisors or even family and friends (particularly if they are academically-inclined) to get some feedback and have a discussion. It’s really easy to feel like you are going around in circles thinking about an idea and so having a general chat with someone else can give you new insights. If they don’t understand the connections you are trying to make, this might suggest that you need to think of the issues in simpler terms or take a step or two back. The media and popular beliefs paint a picture of science being about grand discoveries and great leaps in knowledge. In reality, we know that science is a cumulative process, typically involving many much smaller steps towards increasing our knowledge and understanding.

After some initial brainstorming and informal chats, a possible helpful next step is to do a short presentation and have a longer discussion with several supervisors/colleagues. Although this may feel slightly daunting to begin with, in my experience the prospect of doing a presentation is good motivation for transforming random half-formed ideas and jotted-down thoughts into a more coherent whole. Within the first 3 months of starting my PhD, I had to give a couple of departmental talks (the first on a research paper relevant to my PhD topic for a journal club and a second talk introducing my topic and research plans). I spent the first few months of my PhD doing little other than reading papers and preparing these 2 talks. The talks gave me a target for finalising my aims and the feedback was really useful.

The feedback from my more recent talk about my fellowship proposal ideas has similarly helped to steer me in the right direction. I’m now at the no-less-difficult stage of formulating specific aims and hypotheses and trying to design a method to address them. I have a long way to go with my fellowship proposal and I am conscious that all this effort might not even result in any funding, as the schemes are all extremely competitive. Part of my thinking was always that I would just try my best with this and learn something from the process.

One step ahead of the game

It’s that time of year again, when my friends and peers are busily editing, formatting, referencing and proofreading their final PhD thesis drafts. Inevitably, this has brought the goal of my PhD to the forefront of my mind. But more so than at the end of my first year, this has come with an additional sense of impending panic about my post-PhD plans.

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I’ve written before about the stressful consequences of not thinking about and planning my career soon enough. So I know all too well that it’s never too early to start preparations for the next step. Naturally, these preparations involve researching available options.

So what are they? These generally split into options that involve staying in academia and research vs. options that do not. Much has been said recently about the general difficulties facing PhD graduates in terms of leaving academia, even though statistically speaking, the majority of us are going to do just that. As a psychology postgraduate, I could:

  • Leave research and compete against the 100s of other graduates to try to get a place on a training course to specialise as a clinical, educational or other psychologist
  • Leave psychology for a vaguely related but new subject (e.g. medicine, social work or teaching)
  • Leave both psychology and research all together and get into science communication or join some graduate scheme or something entirely different

Yes, those are all viable options… but not ones I am keen on. I want to stay in research because I love it and this is what I really want to do. According to my “individual development plan”, my skills, interests and values are most compatible with being “Research staff in a research-intensive institution”. So, with that in mind, what should the next step be?

  1. Becoming a lecturer in the hope that in between preparing and delivering lectures, marking coursework, supervising and mentoring students and doing admin work, there will be time to squeeze in a bit of research
  2. Competing for a coveted but short-lived post-doc position on somebody else’s grant
  3. Failing getting a post-doc position, trying for a research assistant post (for which you wouldn’t need a PhD). Judging by the difficulty of getting one of these without a PhD, I’m pretty certain a lot of PhD students end up doing this.
  4. Applying for your own grant money via one of the supremely competitive “early career” fellowship schemes

Every option is bound to be competitive and all options (except perhaps the lecturer route) are going to be short-term (1-4 years from what I’ve gathered) before you need to try for a new post. Many of the options may also involve moving to a new university/city, which can come with all sorts of complications.

At the moment, it is far too early for me to think about the first 3 of these options as positions will only be advertised at most a couple of months in advance. I have just over a year to go before my funding runs out. The fellowship route on the other hand would involve about a year-long application process, so now would be the time to start considering this option.

I’ve recently been to a few talks and workshops on fellowships and have been looking into specific schemes that offer something I might be eligible for. Although it sounds like a really exciting and appealing option, it also looks pretty tough and competitive.

One of the trickiest parts is coming up with a brand new, exciting and viable research idea. I’ve already had to come up with an idea for my undergraduate dissertation and then an idea for my PhD, followed by several more specific ideas for my PhD research chapters. The trouble is trying to find time to work on developing a new project idea (fellowship), while still working on the last one, which is still far from done (PhD).

Perhaps that in itself is a useful skill I should practice, given that that is what the cycle of grant-writing appears to be like. From my limited experience of seeing supervisors and professors writing grants, there is only a short grace period in between successfully receiving grant funding and beginning the next grant application, while the current work is being done. Well, it can’t hurt (too much) to try, right?