I entered my PhD full of determination and expecting to hit the ground running. I knew what I wanted, and I was determined to make the most out of this opportunity. It felt like the clock started ticking the moment I stepped off the train in Dumfries. I was ready to get box ticking out of the way and get to work. Although, when I got there I began to realise I didn’t know what those boxes were and what getting to work actually looked like. I thought it would be something similar to writing my masters dissertation, but longer and for longer. Needless to say my expectations were a bit off at best and unhelpful at worst.
In retrospect I realise I must have looked like that person starting their first marathon with a sprint out of the gate. I ended up wasting a lot of time and energy, trying to jump in and do too much too soon. I think in part this was due to my own misguided expectations and my own tendency to put far too much pressure on myself. That’s all to say I didn’t start off as well as I could have and so I thought I would use the experience to help others learn from my mistakes. I think these suggestions are fairly useful at anytime in your PhD, but this is a list of things I wish I had known and done differently when I started my PhD. Many of them will look familiar if you’ve been reading my past posts and so I’ll add in the links to the other posts in case you’re interested in reading more about any of these suggestions.
- You’re going to feel lost – A PhD is very different than any other portion of your education and it’s going to take some getting use to and feeling out. By the very definition of it you’re forging a way into uncharted territory to make your original contribution. So, try and embrace the lost feeling as a sign that you’re right where you’re suppose to be. Remember you’re an explorer not an imposter. Explorers not Impostors: 3 things to remember when you feel lost
- You’re still learning – The imposter syndrome is very real and so in a PhD it’s important to remember you’re developing an expertise and the skill set to be a researcher. That is to say no one is expecting you to turn out 4-star journal articles, design undergraduate modules, and organise a conference right out of the gate. If you could do that, there would be no point in doing a PhD. See this as an opportunity to improve and develop; not live in fear of being ‘found out’. Getting The Most out of A Conference: Shared Humanity and Humility Conferences: 5 Things to Remember
- It’s hard, but it’s worth it – Many of us going into PhD’s were quite successful in our past degrees. They were challenging, but we likely excelled. A PhD is by far the hardest thing I’ve done yet. That could be due to a limited life experience, but it’s a challenge. However, anything worth doing in life is hard and takes work, and the knowledge, experience, and skills I’ve developed so far have certainly been worth the effort. The best advice I’ve got from my supervisor is when times get tough remember why you’re doing a PhD and this PhD. It’s certainly helped me. Rediscovering Your Motivation and Cultivating Hope: 5 reminders Walking on Arran and Writing: The Struggle is Part of the Process
- Look after your mental health – A PhD is hard and isolating for many. It can very easily take over your entire life, taking a massive tole on your well being if you’renot conscious of it at the beginning. Think about it like exercise, world class athletes certainly push hard, but they look after themselves: eating well, resting, and seeking help and advice when appropriate. During a PhD you’re essentially training to do the mental equivalent, so look after your mental wellbeing just as an athlete would look after their physical wellbeing, so you can perform at your best and enjoy the experience. Walking and Smiling: Dealing with Stress and Anxiety Annual Review: Dealing with the anxiety Feeling Overwhelmed: 5 ways to manage yourself better
- Pace yourself – I wish I had taken my first two weeks or even a month to settle in to my new home. I also regret spending almost my entire first year of trying to work all day-every-day and becoming frustrated as I procrastinated more and more. Take the time to look after yourself, to settle in, and to enjoy the experience. Rethinking Procrastination: A symptom not a cause
- Explore and experiment – Probably one of the most productive things I could have done in my first year is to take the time to sort out how and where I worked best. Instead of essentially trying to force myself into a routine or meet unreasonable self-imposed expectations, a more productive approach would have been to realise that what I was doing wasn’t working. This would have saved a lot of time and anxiety. A significant part of this is learning to set reasonable expectations, sorting out what you can actually get done in a day, a week, and a month, which takes time. Where does all my time go?: 4 ways to manage the PhD-and tasks When Enough Is Enough: Meeting goals and staying motivated in your PhD Laying a Foundation: Seeing your thesis as a beginning not an end
- Plan breaks and keeping up hobbies – When I started I told myself I’d plan a holiday when I felt like I was on top of things… I’ve yet to feel like I’m on top of things, but I am getting better. In part that’s because I’ve started just planning wee holidays and breaks, even if it’s as simple as taking a day to go for a walk. It helps me disengage from my PhD and rest my mind, allowing me to come back refreshed and motivated. Also, I find making time for hobbies like drawing or a sport have a similar effect. Plan a Trip: Destress, Recharge, and be more Productive Drawing for Enjoyment: Finding community and rediscovering humanityFor the Joy of Archives: Remembering to enjoy your work
- Prioritise community – A common complaint I’ve heard from many PhD students is that they feel isolated. Part of this comes from the pressures and nature of a PhD, but the imposter syndrome also plays a part. There’s a fear that you’re the only one struggling or you’re working slower than everyone else. From what I’ve seen we all feel that way, so find a community that you can talk and are supportive, remembering you’re not alone or abnormal. Sunshine in Scotland and Community
I didn’t do any of these from the start, to my own detriment, but I also made it through and learned from that experience. You also won’t get it all right from the start. You’ll likely have your own list of could’ve and should’ves by the end of first or second year, but that’s all part of the learning process and I’m sure you’ll make it through. I hope this doesn’t come across as bleak or discouraging, the point is to tell you what to look out for, so you can avoid making the same mistakes. And do be excited, a PhD can be a great experience, it’s hard work and frustrating at times, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. So, take your time, be kind to yourself, and remember to enjoy it!
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