The PhD Top Ten

Welcome to the 100th post on the SGSAH blog! I (Lucie) have been the blogger in residence for SGSAH since February and I am so pleased to have reached this milestone! This blog is all about PhD life: research, opportunities and the PhD experience. In the last 16 months we have covered every subject from social media to the second year slump, feminism, the First World War, and whether your PhD is trying to kill you.

100 cake2

For this, our 100th post, I enlisted a little help from the brilliant PhD Twitter network. I asked two questions: 1) What is the best thing about doing a PhD? And 2) What one piece of advice would you give to other PhD students? Collating the responses and drawing on my own experience, I offer you the 10 best things about doing a PhD, and the 10 top tips for PhD survival!

The top ten tips for PhD survival 

  1. Find a hobby, distraction or activity that takes your mind of work completely. Ideally this should be something that makes you leave the house, or the office. Do it often. Don’t skip it when deadlines start to loom.
  2. Take advice from as many different sources as possible but filter, and make decisions according to your own needs. We all work differently, and you know your own needs and limitations.
  3. Get organised: Find systems that work for you and keep them up. Clean up files on your computer and take good notes. (I like Evernote, it makes all your notes searchable!) Set a work schedule and try to stick to it. Try and keep your working hours consistent and give yourself regular time off. Quality is more important than quantity when it comes to writing a PhD. Staying really focused for a few hours a day is far more rewarding than staring unproductively at a screen for 14 hours.
  4. Find other PhD students and form a network of support. If you don’t work on campus try making connections with PhDs that live near you, even if they don’t attend the same institution. You could set up a writing or reading group, or just go for drinks to share your experiences! (I wrote a bit about this in the PhD squad!)
  5. Take care of yourself and others. Doing a PhD is tough in so many ways, look after your body and your mental health and don’t only prioritise your PhD. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Remember that others, even when they seem impossibly accomplished and confident, may be struggling too. Ask generous questions, share biscuits, offer support. Have a look at the #academickindness thread on Twitter if you need a little inspiration.
  6. Don’t buy into the cynicism, make the experience your own. It is too easy to get bogged down in the doom and gloom of academic life, the terrible job market, and the endless writing. But there are so many positives to being in academia and specifically to being a PhD. (Just see the section below).
  7. A change of scene can do a world of good. If you are struggling to focus try moving from the office to the library, the kitchen to the living room, or the chair to the floor. There are endless ways you can trick yourself into working!
  8. Don’t judge your progress by the progress of others. This was the most repeated piece of advice in my highly scientific collection of date via Twitter. No two PhDs are the same in content, structure or process. Everyone does things in a different order. There is no need to worry if someone in your cohort has two chapters and you have none, you probably have more research than they do. Go at your own pace.
  9. Learn to say no. PhD students are expected to do a lot of things on top of writing a thesis. Conferences, publication opportunities, teaching, work experience, research trips and workshops are all part of the process, but you don’t have to do all of them all the time. Pick and chose according to what is missing on your CV or what skills you need to develop, but say no when you need to focus on your thesis. Most importantly, say no when you need a little time off.
  10. Just keep swimming (writing). Try and write a little bit every day, even just notes or ideas. Think of it like training or warming up. When you suddenly need to write a 10,000 or 15,000 word chapter it won’t seem such a daunting task.

finding-dory-movieThe ten best things about doing a PhD

  1. The freedom/autonomy.  A lot of PhD students get to design their own projects, set their own research questions and goals and work to their own schedule. You have supervisors, but they are there more to guide and support than assign set tasks. This may seem scary, but it is also a total luxury.
  2. The people. You meet so many great people doing a PhD. The academic environment is often very multicultural and you get to work with staff and students from all over the world researching an incredibly wide variety of subjects. Conferences are a brilliant way to meet other researchers working in your area, even those at the top of your field. The term ‘networking’ doesn’t really do it justice.
  3. The discoveries. There really is nothing quite as thrilling as the moment you make a big PhD discovery. It may be more exciting to you than to anyone else, but that moment when things suddenly fit together is just brilliant.
  4. The luxury of three-plus years with a subject you love. I get to spend everyday in museum stores, reading historical magazines, and writing about frocks. Need I say any more?
  5. The confidence. You may not feel confident at the start of your PhD, but slowly you realise that you actually might just know what you are talking about. The moment you get invited to speak on a subject suddenly brings this feeling home.
  6. The opportunities. As already mentioned, doing a PhD comes with a huge number of opportunities: to teach, to travel, to attend conferences and get access into incredible archives and collections. It is such a luxury to work on a schedule that allows this, and for me will be the thing I miss most about being a PhD student.
  7. The contributions we can make. Publishing your research is daunting, but by doing so we are making actual contributions to a field of knowledge. No matter how many people read those articles, chapters or books, they will be around for a long time and will probably be referenced by future scholars.
  8. The extended student discount. 16-25 Railcard until I’m 30? Yes please. Also hooray for cheap cinema and theatre tickets.
  9. The ability to make mistakes. Three years has gone by so quickly, but I have made a whole bunch of mistakes with the time to recover and get back on my feet, academically speaking. There is no set course for a PhD so mistakes are inevitable. Your supervisors are there to steer your straight and support you through the challenging times. You really do learn and grow from those mistakes. And your examiners never have to no about them.
  10. You get to be a doctor at the end of it!

Post viva you get to join this gang. Image by Paul Hanley on Deviant Art.

The Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities exists to support PhD students across Scotland, but this blog allows us to reach out and connect with researchers around the world. Thank you all for reading, and here’s to the next 100 posts!

This post was writen with help from around twenty current or recent PhD students. Thank you & others for your valuable and insightful contributions!


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