What is doing a PhD really like?

By Jun.23, 2010

Yesterday my colleagues Fiona Christie and Tahira Majothi organised the second edition of the PhD Futures – Careers event: Spotlight on academic careers.

PhD Futures 2010 - University of Salford

PhD Futures 2010 - University of Salford

I participated in a panel on What is doing a PhD really like?

I found it quite an interesting experience. I especially liked the fact that we were all doing research in different areas: Environmental Studies, Business, English, and Learning Technologies, and had therefore slightly different takes on how things work around our micro academic world. Deep down, however, we shared the same principles and ideas, i.e., doing a PhD is a journey. More important than passing the viva and getting the title is the trajectory you go through, how much you’ll learn about the topic you study and how you’ll find yourself in it.

The session was quite informal, leaving the delegates to shape the conversation. Indeed, it felt like a conversation. We did not have to do any formal presentation and we just talked about our own experiences, feelings and practices based on what the audience wanted to know. I think it works better this way!

There were some very interesting questions, which led us to reflect about our own experiences. And that was exactly what we were there for: to share our own path with others.

Before my memory starts failing me, I would like to share some of the key issues which were raised at that panel session and the answers we provided. Of course there are no right or wrong answers on the best way to do a PhD – it is pretty much linked to what works better for you (your personality) – but sometimes it is useful to learn what strategies others have developed to cope with their doctoral studies.

The first question was: Why did you decide to go down this route? Why doing a PhD?

The answers can be as diverse as people doing PhDs, I guess.

Kathleen Radford and Frank Swannack pointed out very similar reasons. They have a special interest in the areas they are studying and found that doing a PhD would allow them to continue involved with the areas of knowledge that fascinate them the most. Faiza Zitouni, who is in her 2nd PhD – yes, that’s right: second! – said that while working in industry she faced problems regarding communication inefficiency in the working environment which led to less successful practices and decided that this was a very important field to study. As for me – I jumped into a PhD right after having completed an Academic Masters in Portugal (similar to a MPhil). The director of that Masters’ programme told me on the day I passed my viva that I should go straight into a PhD if my purpose was to stay in academia. And indeed, I do love it here! Moreover, what a better way to understand my target audience (PhD students and academic researchers) than trying to be in their shoes while also studying them. Above all, for me, it is a form of connecting research and practice in an environment where the two walk hand-in-hand!

I am sure all of you will have other reasons for starting or wanting to start a PhD… why not share them here?

The relationship with one’s supervisor was also another very important issue brought to the discussion. I especially liked Faiza’s answer, addressing the question: what to do if your supervisor is not providing the kind of feedback you were expecting, by which it was meant more detailed, constructive feedback, as opposite to ‘Good’ or ‘Needs Improvement’ remarks.

Faiza underlined the need for students and supervisors to be able to openly communicate their feelings and expectations to each other. Rather than talking on people’s back about their performance and/or how expectations are not being met, it is much better to sit down with your supervisor and openly say what your expectations are and negotiate ‘the terms of your relationship’. Both of you will benefit from it. If you want more thorough feedback, with detailed information about the sections that need improving, etc, then ask for it. Do not hold it back. If you think meeting only once a month is not working for you, then ask for more regular meetings. People won’t guess what you want (think you need) until you tell them. Be that as it may, whatever you do, always adopt a respectable conduct while expressing your ideas. People appreciate honesty.

Motivation was also another important topic. How to maintain it? How to keep you going?

That’s a hard one. You start very enthusiastically. It’s all very easy at the beginning and after a couple of months you start facing the first obstacles. You get confused. All the certainties of the last few months are washed away by the new readings, theories and methodologies you will eventually have to choose from, peer’s questions, etc. It’s not easy, but then if it were easy it would probably not be for you!

Although a certain amount of confusion at different stages of your PhD can lead you to feel less motivated, the same can work to trigger your motivation. I, personally, compare a PhD to trekking. You start very enthusiastically. You have all the energy in the world. You want to get to the end of that adventure and the best thing to do is not to focus on the finishing line, but rather on the terrain you are now threading. It’s curvy and it’s hilly. The path is uneven, but that’s what makes it interesting and challenging. Then after a while you reach a flatter surface, and for a brief moment you catch your breathe before you start your journey again. Meanwhile, you might look back and you think: wow! I have come that far… but then you look up and you think: there is still more to go! The good thing however, is that while you are trekking your way up new landscapes unfolds before you and that is what makes the journey fascinating: the unexpected learning and findings.

How to choose your supervisor? This was another great question. How to answer this? Go and find a guru who is researching exactly what you want to study? That only happens very rarely, and then if they are doing research exactly on what you want to research how is this going to work? Again Faiza provided a very insightful answer. Your supervisor should be of a related field, but remember your supervisor will also be willing to learn with and from you. Indeed, the exchange of ideas is important.

In my MPhil, my supervisor was an ‘expert’ in only one of the field of my dissertation (curriculum) and I had to find a ‘mentor’ to help me with the ‘learning technologies’ part. Actually I had several, and that indeed was a very rich experience because I had access to different people I could talk to and who were willing to provide their critical views on my study. Furthermore, by connecting to people in related areas your views on your topic widen as you are exposed to their ideas. That is very important. Although you need to focus on your topic, you also need to be able to see beyond it. The chances of you getting a job in the exact same topic you did your PhD in are slim, but you might be able to apply to a job in the macro area of your field. Hence, being able to talk about different areas within your wider field is an important skill to have.

This leads me to the next issue: cultivating a network around you and also having a PhD buddy!

A PhD might be an individual project, but it should also be a shared journey. Shall I go back to the trekking metaphor? Never trek on your own. You won’t experience the journey the same way. And what happens if you get lost? Who’s going to help you? So my advise to any PhD student – anyone actually – is: cultivate a network of like minded people around you. They will help you with your questions and support you in different ways: feedback, resources, collaborative links for the future, etc. And have I mentioned that Social Media can help with this?! 😉 Yet, it takes time to establish a network, but once it starts going it also starts growing, and you will benefit immensely from it. It is also a form of making your research known!

As for the PhD buddy. Establish a link with another PhD student you trust. There is nothing like sharing this journey with someone who knows what’s like to be in your shoes. It is important to have someone who can read your texts and provide critical comments, just in the the same way you will support them.

Writing. How can I make writing easy? That is a typical question. I just came back from an academic writing week, which I hope to blog about soon – and I still haven’t met a single person who finds writing easy. It is not! It’s hard. And if you are not a native speaker, as it is my case, don’t blame your language flaws, because that is not the main problem. The problem relates to something much more complex than that, and that is how you unlock your thoughts and transfer them to a written register. It is not an easy deed, but it can become much more pleasurable. How? If you can handle another sport metaphor, here it goes: it’s like jogging. Who really likes jogging? I don’t. But I like the effects of it. After jogging for 5K I feel better with myself, my body gets more toned up and I am physically, and mentally, better prepared. The less I jog, the less I feel like jogging. It becomes harder to endure the 5K, I get distressed and I feel like giving up. What’s the point? But then if I force myself and reach the 5K, I feel well and the next day I feel a tiny little bit more inclined to jog again!

The same happens with writing: the less you write the less you feel fit for writing. The more you write the less difficult it will become. It never gets 100% easy, but it can get less painful. So the key is to find ways that can help you develop your writing fluency. I find writing particularly important, because it helps me think. Often in times I write things I had no idea I knew. Does this make sense? Writing helps unlock your own knowledge and it is also a great way of ‘knowing’ (learning)

I keep a blog as part of my writing strategy. It’s not only a great writing exercise; it’s also my shared thinking corner where others can provide their input. I also write for myself, and share some of my drafts with my supervisor for critical analysis. Whenever I have time I try to write an article for a conference or a journal. Conferences are good because you get feedback from the reviewers and the audience. Right now I am more interested in Journals, as I think I need to publish! I have found that many of the comments on the articles I have submitted to journals are quite thorough, as demoralising as it may be to get your article accepted with major changes! But I am trying to see the positive side of it, and indeed there is one: that of being able to improve my writing and thinking.

Other points I would like to stress when doing a PhD:

Keep a reference database. Trust me! It will help you enormously when you start editing your bibliography section. We provide training on endnote, but there are other tools you can use if you don’t like this one.

Use some kind of social media to start establishing your presence as a researcher in your field. Blogs are great to communicate your research and establish a Digital Identity, for instance.

Write, write, write – it’s never too much!

Establish a routine, but be flexible enough to sometimes drop it and then pick it up again (Faiza’s wise words). Do something on your PhD everyday – even if it is just an hour – you will feel less guilty!

Don’t give up your entire life. You still need to go on holidays and once in a while do something you like. It helps keep your sanity. Yet you do need to make some compromises to finish the PhD project. The sooner you do it, the sooner you will be free to get back to your old hobbies.

Enjoy the ride and share it with others. Having a support network helps a lot…especially with the PhD Blues!

Any PhD students out there willing to share their experiences. We would love to hear from you! 😉

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