Sometimes it can be difficult to admit you’re in over your head and need some assistance, but I’m sure we’ve all been there- including your supervisors. I know when I started out my PhD I felt like I was going to take on the world. I was going to be the PGR Representative, take a new language, work part-time, give a handful of conference papers, publish, AND write a chapter and work my way through a database of over 4,000 place-names simultaneously.
By the end of year one, I had only accomplished 3-4 of my original goals. I had no idea what I was doing, and I felt like I was letting everyone, including myself, down.
Little did I know, this is quite a common symptom of the PhD. We go from working our way through more structured courses and maybe have even held jobs outside of academia for some time which also had set expectations and schedules, and are then thrown in the deep end. I spent so much of the first year of my PhD not asking for help when I needed it, that I ended up making myself needlessly sick with stress and anxiety. Do as I say, not as I do, and reach out to someone if you find yourself in any of these situations:
- When you need to ask for clarification
I don’t think I fully grasped *what* a PhD was when I started. I didn’t get the jargon or what forms a literature review could take or that I needed to work out a citation tool ASAP. I found myself nodding along when people were talking around me about things I didn’t understand and that is a bad habit to get into. A PhD is a training degree, you are still learning, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
- If you’re stuck
Don’t spend weeks waiting for inspiration to hit- if you’ve hit a wall and don’t know where to go, say something. You’ll only hurt yourself in the long run by not being open and honest about where you are with your PhD and your progress. If you feel like you’re stumbling through your thesis without really any direction, speak to your supervisors, they have been there and can help steer you right.
- You don’t feel equipped to tackle an issue
If something has been suggested to you and you take it on expecting that you’ll figure it out as you go- don’t. You’re going to end up wasting a lot of time by not just asking for some guidance, or better yet some training that can be added into your PhD plan, to help you accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to do. It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know how to do that’. That’s where PhD training opportunities become so handy- you rarely get the opportunities to be walked through learning something new outside of the PhD! Or if it is truly something you don’t think you can handle mentally or physically, speak up, we all have our own limitations and that’s perfectly fine.
- You need more advanced insight/experience
Again going back to PhD training opportunities, if no one knows you need help with something, no one will be able to help. There are loads of resources out there to aid PhD researchers, sometimes those resources come in the form of more experienced academics. If you need to speak to someone maybe in a more specialised area than your supervisors, they will not be offended if you ask. Making connections with museum curators, academics outside of your University, community leaders, etc. will only benefit you.
These are only a few of the situations you might encounter along your PhD journey where you need to ask for help- but remember that not every situation is one you need to fix, sometimes you need to just say ‘no’. During my first year I hated turning down opportunities, but part of the journey is learning to prioritise, and if you’re struggling with too many commitments, you can always take a step back. Listen to what you need during your PhD, and if you’re confused or struggling, never be afraid to ask!
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