Doing a PhD, or any form of graduate research, is hard. Really really hard. Don’t let any of those people who begrudge you for being a ‘lazy student’ and ‘tax-dodger’, who refuse you store credit or a rental property as you don’t have a ‘proper income’, or who say you ‘do nothing’ tell you otherwise. Research is grueling. But it’s also enjoyable, rewarding, and, at times, exciting. Here’s my list of points and tips (that have helped me!) about research life for PG students….
– Don’t be put off by yourself or anyone else. Yes a PhD is shit scary. It also sounds a lot scarier than it actually is. Day-to-day, you’re NOT writing a groundbreaking outstanding and revolutionizing 80,000-100,000 word thesis. Day-to-day you’re staring at Butler/Spivak/<insert complicated and horribly-worded theorist> and wondering what on earth said theorist is talking about; you’re thinking of tiny points, getting to understanding post-structuralism/post-modernism/post-colonialism/the postal service (where is my new bank card?!); and you’re getting to understand the politics of intra-departmental relationships, how hard organizing a conference is because of that one annoying person who never replies, and how to write grant applications. A PhD is a process, you go in not knowing where/why/who you are and you sure as hell don’t know how you’re going to do this ‘PhD’, but, hopefully, after a few years, things start sinking in, and you get through the process and come out the other side. Before I started a PhD, when I was in my final year of undergraduate study, the prospect of starting a PhD terrified me: I felt completely incapable of this giant looming doctorate project, I didn’t have amazing ideas, and I certainly didn’t know enough. Now, I’m a year and a bit in and I still feel daunted by the prospect of my doctorate thesis, I have fuzzy ideas which sometimes seem great, other times seem ridiculous, and the rest of the time I realize I’ve plagiarized/come up with something already examined, and I definitely don’t know enough. But everybody is in the same position. You can’t start a PhD knowing much at all – it would be pointless. And you don’t finish a PhD knowing everything, with amazing ideas, and completely secure in yourself.
– Find out how you work. Find your routine: I seem to work well treating the PhD as an 8-6 job. I work well out of the house, at uni, or in cafes or libraries. So I follow a rough routine: get up, shower, breakfast, check emails, by 8.30. If I’m going to uni, I cycle, get there, check emails, have a cup of tea, and get down to some ‘proper work’, such as planning lessons. When these little bits are done, I settle in for chunks of reading, writing, or planning; usually of about an hour, with breaks in between. After lunch, I need a cup of tea to get me going, and go slower 2.30-4, when I perk up again, for a more productive writing hour or so. This might not work for you, but what ever does, find it and utilize your body clock.
– Be a user. Use productivity tools, your peers, friends, contacts for clarifying ideas, and, most of all, your supervisor(s). Use tips and support from any- and everywhere you can. You’ll feel involved in a group and you might even get some good info.
As technology advances, there are some great productivity tools available: my favourite programmes are write or die, scrivener, the full-screen button on windows for mac, and hash tags on twitter. That said, for planning, I swear by a pen and paper. There’s loads of information available on various blogs/webpages about using technology. Try things, and if they help you, use them.
As for your supervisors, they should be available as your first port of call for any and everything (personal crises included) – at least, this is how I use mine. They probably won’t be able to answer all your questions, but they should be able to point you in the direction of some one who can help, and then you can go and use them. Despite appearances, academic research is not about complete solitude; rather, it should be about ‘using others’, sharing resources, tips, ideas, knowledge. At least, that’s what I think. If not, it’ll be very lonely, subjective, and we’ll all have mental breakdowns before we’re 40….
– Be organized. Prepare for your supervisions. This isn’t just to adhere to university burocracy. It’s helpful. For you and your supervisors. Write things down. And keep them together (this is my weakness – take notes galore, but heaven knows where all those pieces of paper go afterwards….). And be organized with your sources! I try and use an online version of refworks. Largely because many institutions have free logins available via uni usernames & passwords, but also because it’s online, I can access it anywhere, and I’ve got a big list of sources. Admittedly, it’s not quite up-to-date, but it’s getting there.
– Write. And Write Early. I realize that I’m stepping into shark-infested waters by entering into this debate (see here, here, and here for blog posts on this very subject), but I really do believe that you should write things down in coherent essays/mini-essays/reviews from the get-go. This sounds daunting at first – last year, one or two months in, I was told it was time to ‘write something’ and I nearly spluttered. I hadn’t learnt anything. I certainly didn’t have plans for my thesis. This doesn’t matter. You don’t write your thesis from day one (and see the first link above for exactly why you shouldn’t). But writing is a learning process based on practice. So as you research a topic, write a review on it (as you go along, or at the end, whatever works best – I’d probably suggest a mixture of the two). This helps synthesize sources and your notes, gets ideas clear in your head, helps you practice writing, and MOST IMPORTANTLY creates a coherent document that you can come back to when you’re writing a thesis chapter / article / conference paper. I’ve been doing this with ‘critical reviews’ of criticism on various genres and it’s mean that I can just copy and paste citations / points from the review into a chapter / paper, to then edit. It’s so much easier than searching for that source.
– Make sure you have a good personal life. Even if you treat a PhD like a job and leave it in the evenings, your personal life will still eek in. So if your friends are dicks who don’t support you, or you’re in a living situation which is not conducive to good study practice (or good mental health) ditch them/it. Make sure you spend time hanging out with people, relaxing, enjoying yourself. And don’t let your personal life/well being affect or be affected by the PhD. If it is, try and combat this.
This sort of leads on to mental health, too. This can certainly affect and be affected by the PhD, and I’ll write about this in more detail in another post. But in the mean time, the only thing I can suggest is try and ensure you have a support network. A PhD can be grueling, lonely, soul-destroying, you feel like an imposter, you get poor feedback or a rejection and you feel dejected, or you can feel high after a successful application / grant proposal, before coming crashing back. It’s, and sorry for the cliché, a rollercoaster. And emotions can be overwhelming. You’re not the only one, things change daily (hourly?), take things one step at a time, talk to friends, and do other things.
These are the things that have helped me get to my second year… maybe next year I’ll have a different list.