What you should know before starting a PhD (and what you rarely do!)

In this (late!) article, resident blogger Garry Mac shares some of his experiences of talking with researchers at an earlier part of their journey, and how older researchers, or those at a later stage of their research, can reveal that, yes, we all worry whether we can do this or not!

Many apologies for the lateness of this article – it’s taken me a while to recover from an extended period of intense work and I’m only now starting to process it all!

Over the course of the SGSAH Research Showcase 2022, which took place last month at the wonderful TIC Building of University of Strathclyde, I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of researchers. The second year symposium took place the day before so there were plenty of 2nd year researchers, and I also spoke to a number of first and third years too. As we shared our research, and importantly our research journey, with each other, some common themes came up, and I thought it would be useful to share some of them.

As an elder (I started my PhD research at the tender age of 41!), I tend to pick up on things that younger researchers might not, and having life experience outside of the academe gives me at least a little wisdom when it comes to working my own way through the journey. So it was common for me to hear about specific worries that feel common enough that we all recognise them, yet which are rarely tackled directly in your PhD.

That’s why I thought it might be useful to talk through some of these.

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Imposter Syndrome

One of the key concerns I heard from early PhD candidates was a lack of vocabulary or a broad understanding of the vast scope of research and scholarship that’s out there. One attendee told me that she didn’t have the vocabulary to tell me why she was so excited to hear about my research, but that it inspired her. That’s a wonderful thing to hear from anyone, but I was more focused on her doubts about her ability to engage, and tried to put her mind at rest.

I reckon it’s extremely common, though. When I started my PhD, I went through a period in 1st year where I was sure I had somehow tricked SGSAH into funding me! How could I have ended up doing study of this level when I had very little knowledge and a lack of vocabulary, terminology and such?

Every time I picked up a book by a scholar I hadn’t tackled yet, I’d have to do so much reading around it, just to understand their context and methodologies. Surely, I asked myself in a terrified inside voice, no one else has to do this? Surely they’ve come from undergrad to Masters to the PhD, accumulating a vast array of knowledge along the way!

This voice is imposter syndrome, and it has several causes, many of which are unique to the individual. However, it also comes from a lack of understanding of what your PhD journey is going to look like. I’m not sure why the academe has difficulties with this, but it’s the case that for most of the researchers I’ve spoken to, we’re never given a broad-level overview of what a PhD is, nor what that journey might look like. More often than not, it’s assumed we either know, or will pick it up.

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Why don’t I already know everything I need?

Here’s the skinny: no one arrives at PhD level with a vast awareness or understanding of the volume of scholarship out there. There is a significant leap from Masters (which is usually a mix of self-directed and taught) to PhD research (which is entirely self-directed). What’s important to understand is that part of your PhD journey is making yourself acquainted with that scholarship.

That’s why one of the key things to tackle at the beginning is your literature review (in my humble opinion). Getting to grips with the relevant scholarship isn’t just about making sure you have the right sources, or even just about understanding the broad scope of your research topic. Part of that process is actually acclimatising yourself to academic texts, methodologies, vocabularies, and areas of philosophical thought, including how scholarship is always in conversation with itself – its peers, what came before, and how academia is effectively a long, glittering chain of ideas that evolve by building on what came before, or offering a differing position on it.

So, your first couple of years of research will involve you actually gaining the skills required to do the PhD. That this isn’t often said so directly at the beginning is what can lead many of us to think that we don’t have what it takes. But we do. You do. If you were funded by SGSAH, your proposal told them everything they needed to know to satisfy them that you are a safe pair of hands to use that funding to create innovative and important research.

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You are the authority

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: you are the sole authority on your research. In order to carry out that research, you will need to build upon the work of other scholars and researchers, you will need help and input from your supervisory team, and you will depend upon the structures and benefits of your HEI and funding body. But this is your research – you have been selected because enough people read your proposal and thought, “I want to see this research.”

You are unique, and so is your research. You can easily find several people in any SGSAH cohort with similar areas of study, but they will never, ever be the same. The differences will emerge from the specific angles of approach, the experience of the researcher, and what drew them to that research (watch for a forthcoming article on autoethnography that will talk about this in more detail!). And, even when those areas are very different, there will be overlaps and interstices that connect your work to others, but where you’ll find that each researcher takes an entirely different approach.

This is part of what makes research so interesting, but in order to enjoy it for yourself, you need to shed the idea that other people know better. They’re there to help you achieve what you set out to do in your proposal, and the more you recognise that, the better quality that help will be. Supervisors will help guide and shape your research, but a PhD is self-directed, and if you don’t take the lead, they can’t do it for your.

For example, if you decide that to combat imposter syndrome you’re going to tell your supervisors everything you think they want to hear, and project a front that you’re completely in control, they have to take that on face value, unless something in your work suggests otherwise. But mainly, it won’t, for all the reasons above. So even they might not know you’re struggling, because they’re deferring to your authority with regards to your study.

Understanding this acts as a solid foundation for your research. Where you don’t know something, you’ll more easily ask. When things aren’t going as well as you hoped, you’re more likely to raise it, knowing that it’s not a reflection on your ability, just one of the myriad unique challenges that can emerge. And, when you’re engaging with other researchers, you won’t internally chide yourself for not knowing their reference points – instead, you’ll lean in, ask questions, look for connections with your own research. This is the way you make connections with researchers, because you soon realise that they’re all, actually, just like you – shaping their PhD as they do it, learning more as they go.

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The real work of research

Because the real work of a PhD isn’t the thesis, or the data, or even engagement outcomes – the real work that is carried out is on you. You aren’t a researcher when you start the PhD, not yet. By the end, you just might be. The journey you take is yours, and yours alone, and it is a journey of accumulating learning, knowledge, experience.

If you feel like you lack vocabulary or concepts at this stage, trust me, that will change, and it usually changes quickly. As long as you steer the course, allow your research to guide you where you need to go, and cast that net wide so you have as broad an understanding of your field as possible, you’ll get to the end of third year and realise that you actually have everything you need. I realised this when talking to those first and second year researchers – they were like I was at the time, but now, I was more comfortable, in my knowledge, my experience, my validity as a researcher.

But if I’d known that at the beginning, it might all have been a little easier!

So please, share your thoughts, your fears, your worries and doubts, with each other in your cohort, your supervisors and, especially, researchers who are further ahead in their study than you. More often than not, you’ll find out that those researchers who look they’ve got everything under control have spent just as much time as you freaking out! By sharing this with each other, I hope that we can start to mitigate some of the worry and panic that sets in, allowing you to forge ahead with your research while allowing yourself to enjoy it!

Garry (Mac) McLaughlin is a 4th year PhD researcher in Comic Studies at the University of Dundee with co-supervision at the University of St. Andrews. His project explores queer temporality in comics and graphic novels, researching trans-temporal narrative mechanics within the systems of comics. It is practice-based and he is currently working on the key output, a comic called PRAXIS. He is from and resides in Glasgow, UK and has lived here for most of his life. Find him on Instagram as @queertempo and see progress on the comic at @praxis_comic.

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