Advice for doing a PhD


Recently on Twitter I asked “If you could give only one piece of advice to a PhD student what would it be?” and I received lots of useful advice from the twittersphere. Might tweet spread further than I ever anticipated. I received 48 responses over all.

You can view the tweet above but I thought it might be worthwhile to summarise the tweets here. As a result, this post will be quite short as I think most of the tweets speak for themselves, so have a look at the thread!

Overall, it seemed to me the most common advice is:

  • Keep a work life balance, take your holidays and look after yourself.
  • It will be harder than you think.
  • It is a slow process, embrace the skills you learn along the way and it is your process. Don’t compare yourself to others.
  • Be organised and start writing early. Don’t assume you will remember everything from the start of your PhD at the end, having a system helps.

Here are some of the key tweets I liked:

I encourage you to read through the thread. It provides insightful advice from people who have been there before.

My own advice would be, don’t compare. I wish I had known this at the start of my PhD. I remember meeting someone in the sciences and following them on Twitter. They are about a year ahead of me in their journey, and were already teaching and publishing. I immediately felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Never mind that this person was doing experiments, so had results to share, and that they were a year ahead of me. My brain chose to ignore these facts. Remind yourself every time you compare, that it is actually impossible to compare your journey, even in the same field.

The time question

The very first day of my PhD I googled “how much time is enough to spend on a phd”. . A quick search revealed conflicting answers, some saying 9-5 Monday to Friday, others suggesting 12-15 hour days and weekends as a minimum. I have a tendency to overcommit myself, so I chose to listen to the 12-15 days and weekends advice.

In the beginning of my PhD I loathed workshops and social events. I honestly felt that if I wasn’t reading or writing, I was wasting my time. I had a very loud ticking clock in my head that constantly reminded me I was not doing enough. As a result, I would take readings home and sit on the couch while my housemates watched television in the same room. I would guiltily be drawn into the shows they were watching, all the while clutching my journal article and a pen in my hand. I would work on Saturdays and Sundays, trying desperately to keep my concentration while my family and friends attended fun events without me.

To an outsider this is obviously not sustainable. I was pretty stressed and miserable, I felt like I was constantly working and achieving nothing. In part, I was. By forcing myself to follow what I had read online, the ’12-15 hour days and weekends’ I was doing myself more harm than good. I was being less productive because I was tired and not getting any rest. Whenever I was working I was achieving less because I was exhausted. My scholarship says I can’t work more than 8 hours of paid work, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. This is the guideline I nowΒ like to work with. I try to be working as though my PhD is a fulltime job, 9-5 Monday to Friday with sometimes 8 hours of paid work thrown in. For me working nowΒ means reading, thinking, workshops, social events within the faculty, meetings, student events and writing. While I am working my focus is to make the most of the hours I have during the day. As a result, I am less stressed and have a work-life balance.

I won’t lie, sometimes I work weekends or stay past 6pm. But this is when I want to and only when I know I am not compromising my physical and mental health. I don’t stay because I feel like I have to.



My 9 month anniversary

The 1st of May marked my 9 month anniversary of beginning my PhD journey. I haven’t been posting as much as I would like because I have been deep in preparation for my confirmation. I also partly felt that I couldn’t share this blog with anyone. I thought it was a bit personal, maybe too real about the PhD journey, would people not approve of what I posted? Would potential students find it?

On reflection, I don’t think my blog is too personal. I think it identifies the feelings I had in the first six months of my PhD.Β Feelings that are completely normal.

The main feeling I experienced in the last nine months, but mostly the first six of my candidature, was uncertainty. It is important to understand that you may feel this too and it is normal. It is normal because you have never been through this process before. You are learning and for the first time a lot of the project is only aboutΒ you. Yes, you have supervisors but they will be guiding you, not driving every decision. Once you learn that it is okay to not know everything, you will be happier.

PS. If this thesis was a baby, I would have had it by now and I would be cradling a screaming newborn. All I have is an unfinished confirmation document.