Thursday, 2 May 2013

PhD: Now vs. Then

Today's post was written by Professor Trevor Harley, Dean of the School of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland.  Professor Harley specialises in the psychology of language, particularly speech production and high-level cognition.  He also has his own blog - The Science of Self-Improvement.

I did my PhD in experimental psychology in the early eighties at Cambridge. It was a good place and a good time to do it; in many respects those were the best years of my life. Things were very different then: we had much more freedom and fewer obligations. It was more like the USA now; although we only had funding for three years, no one was that bothered if we took longer. Neither did we have to take any courses. Essentially on 1 October I moved into my office and was left alone to think and do what I wanted, if indeed I wanted to do anything at all.

Needless to say therefore I spent most of my time doing nothing. Wine, women, and song are my predominant memories of most of my postgraduate years. Then somehow I caught glandular fever in my second year and was laid low for several months. At the end of all that I realised I had to pull my act together and get on with things, and somehow managed to collect a lot of data and write up the first complete draft of my thesis by the end of the third year. I also realised the importance of publishing, and got a good paper out in Cognitive Science that I am proud to say has stood the test of time and is still regularly cited today. I can only put this extraordinary foresight down to luck.

So in many respects I think things are much better now, and I envy the PhD students of today for several reasons.

1. In general there are more PhD students and many more MSc students around than in my day. I did feel fairly isolated at times. I think there are now more new PhD students at Dundee each year than there were even in Cambridge over three years in my time.

2. In retrospect I would have liked a few courses, particularly on advanced statistics, to give me training and provide structure to my time. But not too many.

3. I think half yearly thesis monitoring committees and minuted meetings with your supervisor are, in spite of seemingly being a bit bureaucratic, very useful. I wouldn't have drifted anywhere near as much if I had had regular deadlines.

4. I wish we had had regular postgraduate seminars. I think these are an invaluable resource and the more you put into them the more you get out. A few of us set up an informal reading party, but it was really too small. The first talk I gave in my life was my first job interview.

5. The pressure to finish in three years is good because it means you get it out of the way early, and are forced to work hard on it from the beginning. I know it's more stressful, and I suspect the pressure has driven down the size and scope of PhD theses. Finishing within three years means really only two months of effective testing.

6. There is pressure to publish as you go along with your PhD research because it's difficult to get jobs otherwise. While undoubtedly very stressful, it does mean your name can be out there from an early stage.
So many of the things that people now get down about - deadline, pressure, seminars, meetings, courses - are in fact I think advantageous, and when you've finished (as you will) you'll come back to look upon them fondly and appreciate the good they've done.

On the other hand I do miss the freedom, the space to do what I want to do, the fun of going to a bar at 5pm and talking new ideas with friends, making acquaintances of all sorts, and the feeling that everything is new and exciting. I had plenty of ups and downs when doing my PhD, but I found the feeling of finding out new things about human behaviour that NO ONE has ever discovered before to be unbeatable. It's a wonderful opportunity to think about what you want to do with your life and come to appreciate the beauty of science. 

And science, like all good drugs, is addictive. You will have bad days, or weeks, or possibly months, but they are more than compensated for by the highs. My tip for dealing with the ups and downs to make a very explicit plan for yourself. You have long-term goals (get the PhD in three years, get a paper), medium-term goals (write that thesis monitoring committee report, write a method section), and short-term goals (run ten participants, make up a list of new materials). Correlate those goals with a plan; keep a to do list and track your progress using a calendar. If you have a bad day or week you can see that in the bigger context of things it doesn't make much difference.

Of course, you might be very unlucky and that bad month turns into months. In that case you need to talk to someone urgently. Treat your supervisor as your friend. Talk to your peers; never isolate yourself.

And finally nothing beats the thrill of getting to be called "Doctor" (until you get to be called Professor)!

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