Friday, 22 March 2013

5 things I wish I'd known before I started my PhD

Today's post comes from Dr Juliet Wakefield, a post-doctoral research in Social Psychology at the University of Dundee.  She completed her PhD in 2011 (also at the University of Dundee) - her thesis examined the social psychology of help-seeking and help-receiving.  Juliet has kindly agreed to write a piece for this blog about the things she wishes she had known before she started her PhD.  I think this is a must read for anyone doing or thinking about a PhD, Masters or even undergraduate dissertation.

The first thing to mention is that, obviously, no two PhD journeys are the same.  My specific experience of doing a Social Psychology PhD at a Scottish university (and the things I learned during that experience) are likely to be very different to somebody doing a PhD in a different discipline or at a different institution.  However, I have tried to cover quite general issues in the list below, so I hope that at least some of the five points will be relevant to most PhD students.  With that in mind, let's start the list.

1.  It doesn't have to be perfect
During my PhD I always had this image in my head that my thesis was going to be the best and most perfect thing I would ever do - that all my experiments had to be designed perfectly, that my methodology and statistical techniques had to be selected with flawless logic and that even the tiniest typo could not be toleratedIn reality, this image is very far from the truth, and the sooner you accept that, the calmer you will feel.

The whole point of a PhD is that the process is a training exercise: a rather intense 3-4 year period in which you learn and develop in many different ways.  So just as a first year undergraduate's thinking and writing is expected to evolve and improve over the course of a degree, so a postgraduate is expected to show evidence of learning and development over the course of a PhD.

This is a rather long-winded way of reaching a simple point: your PhD does not have to be perfect.  In fact, it's often better to show you can readily identify your mistakes, acknowledge them and ultimately learn from them.  For instance, some of my early experiments had some definite design weaknesses, which stressed me out greatly.  However, over time, I learned not to focus on these weaknesses,  Instead, I acknowledged them in the experiment's Discussion, and explored how I could develop my next experiment in a way that would address these weaknesses.  This meant that I could keep myself calm whilst showing my advances in thinking and reasoning - a double bonus.  Let go of the concept of perfecting during your PhD and you will almost certainly see your stress levels decline.

2.  A minimum of one major thing will happen in your personal life during your PhD
You may have heard this before, but it does seem to be a scarily accurate prediction: the majority of people I know have experienced at least one major event (positive and/or negative) during their PhD.  You may have heard of the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which rates (out of 100) the extent to which each of a number of important events (such as bereavement or marriage) impacts upon our lives.  

However when you are already facing the challenges of a PhD, even pretty 'minor' events, such as a change is residence (rated 20) or trouble with the in-laws (rated 29) can feel hugely stressful.  This highlights a key issue that all PhD students should think about from day one: the importance of having access to support and help if it is needed.  If you are lucky then you will have a supportive supervisor who will provide you with social/emotional assistance as well as academic guidance, but there are many other sources that you can turn to for help - friends, family, other members of your institution, counsellors, therapists and so on.  

The key thing I learned here (mainly because it was my PhD topic) is that it's important to identify when you have a problem and to ask for help when you need it.  It's probably one of the best things you can do to help improve your chances of having a positive PhD experience.

Talking about the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, I was quite surprised to find that completing my PhD scored close to 100 for me.  Finishing your PhD can be a rather traumatic experience (I imagine it is something like watching a child leave home for the first time) and 'Post Thesis Depression' is pretty common - I certainly experienced it.  I'm not writing this to worry you, it just means that it is important to have sources of support available to you at all stages of your PhD, from day one until after your viva.  It will make things so much more manageable if you have at least one person you trust who can share the highs and the lows with you. 

3. Stop comparing your PhD journey with the journeys of others
This is not an easy task, but it is important to keep trying.  Like many PhD students, I wasted a lot of time comparing myself with others, and feeling the inevitable guilt that is the product of such comparisons.  When I went home and other students’ office lights were still on, I worried that I wasn’t working hard enough, or that I wasn’t working for long enough.  I worried that I wasn’t reading the right things, or going to the right conferences, or learning the right statistical techniques. While it is important to try to improve yourself and your skills, you should not be motivated by feelings of guilt or inadequacy.  Every person’s PhD journey is different, so comparing the specifics within them usually makes as much sense as comparing apples and oranges.  Focus on trying to become more confident within your own journey, rather than seeking reassurance by comparing yourself with others.

4. Make the most of opportunities which arise
Rather than comparing yourself with others, the best way to feel more confident about your PhD journey is to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way.  Go on training courses and attend conferences and workshops (if you have the time and money, of course).  Not only will they widen your skills and your experience, they will allow you to meet new people and see the widely different PhD journeys that exist around the world.  My supervisor encouraged me to start presenting my work at conferences from early on in my PhD, and he also encouraged me to start writing up my research for publication as soon as possible.  Taking advantage of these opportunities has given me more confidence to present my work to others, and has led to me having two journal articles based on my thesis data accepted for publication.  Of course, you should not feel guilty if time or financial constraints mean that pursuing a particular opportunity is not possible, but it is definitely worth trying to take advantage of at least a few.   

5. You may not see the big picture until late in the day
My final point encapsulates a few issues.  First, I had quite intense anxiety early in my PhD regarding the sheer scale of the task - I could not comprehend how I was going to be able to write so much.  Seeing the length of other people’s theses (comparing myself with others again) made me almost shiver with dread.  Related to this was a strong sense of not being able to see the wood for the trees: I was reading all these papers and running all these experiments, but I never really got a sense of what the bigger picture was, and how it all added up.  These two concerns were definitely related for me, and did not resolve themselves until quite late in the day. 

The truth (for me at least) was that it was the process of writing itself, which allowed me to see the big picture of my thesis: how things linked together, how the thread of logic ran through the chapters, and what the overall implications of my work were.  I found that the more I wrote, the better my sense of the bigger picture became, and in turn, the more I could write about that bigger picture.  Suddenly I had a better understanding of what the theory-based chapters that opened my thesis needed to say so that the reader would understand the context and relevance of my own studies.  I had written the Method sections for my experiments as I had run each one (which I would definitely recommend doing), but suddenly I had a better sense of how these different experiments linked together and how to convey their relevance to the reader. Ultimately, writing up your thesis can be frustrating and rewarding in equal measure, but don’t be alarmed if you do not get a good sense of your thesis (and ‘what it all means’) until quite a late stage.

I hope you found at least some of these tips useful. Doing a PhD has definitely been the best experience of my life so far, but like any experience, it takes time to find your feet and work out the best way to deal with the challenges and issues that will inevitably arise during this intense process. It is better to think of a PhD as a marathon rather than a sprint: you need to look at ways to increase your strength and your stamina, so that you still have the resources to allow you to pick yourself up and get back on track if (or, more likely, when) you fall over. Anyway, all that is left to say is best wishes and good luck, and that you will deserve a massive party once it is all done!


  1. Pamela D. Williams10 September 2013 at 11:32

    A great and inspiring post about taking the PhD journey lightly. It has been apparent that a lot of graduate students take their thesis writing too seriously that have drained all of their energy that they might want to call thesis help desk and scream from the bottom of their lungs. This can help a lot of struggling students to make their journey valuable and fun.

  2. Your post is very comforting to me. I'm about to start on a thesis of my own, and I was really pressured to give it all I got, to the point that my anxiety level reached an all-time high. This helped me calm down a lot. I just wanted to say thank you for the tips!

  3. Shocked to see there is a supposed 'professional writing service'....

  4. Great job that you have done keep posting more information. Thanks a lot for sharing such useful information.
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