Pursuing a postgraduate degree is a huge undertaking, particularly at the level of doctor of philosophy (Ph.D). It is a long commitment and huge expectations lie with those that are fortunate enough to be accepted onto one. Many people go through years of education; school, then undergraduate degree, then onto a PhD either via a masters, industrial expecience, or for some high ahievers, directly after their bachelor’s degree. Does this prepare them sufficiently? Are they mature enough/ready to do a PhD. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Life experience is really important, as well as maturity and passion for wanting to pursue this prestigious qualification.
I took a gap year between finishing school and beginning my undergraduate degree. I deferred entry for a year, and I worked for that year in a job I really disliked, and learnt how to function as a responsible person (I’d say adult, but I was not really mature enough to be one!). It was this year that showed me my passion for education, and made me understand and feel that I really wanted to go and do an undergraduate degree. Over the past decade or so, it has become expected that people go through this traditional route; school, undergrad, job/further education. Degrees are becoming less and less like reliable markes of someone’s ability or knowledge, and more a minimum expectation for any list of jobs. A disproportionate amound of degrees are available, and I feel as though there needs to be more focus on the alternative routes and training – which are equally, if not more important than holding a degree. I digress, but the message here is that a lot of people go through degrees still not knowing what they want to do, or the real skills that are necessary to achieve their utimate goals.
Everybody is different, and different people approach things from a different perspective, with a different view of what to do or how to do it. Ther is no right or wrong. Be clear on that.
Every journey through a PhD is unique. You will laugh like you’ve never laughed before. You will feel lower than you’ve ever felt before. And you will probably feel every emotion in between. I’m really passionate about student wellbeing, and making sure that students enjoy the experience as best they can – that is really important as it becomes your life for quite some time, so I’ve put together a list of do’s and don’ts from personal experience that may help you or someone you know.
Do: Make the most of every opportunity you can. You will likely have the chance to teach, supervise, travel, present, network, meet people and progress academically. Take the opportunities, but out of courtesy always check with your supervisor so that you aren’t overloading yourself. It is these extra-curricular things that help you stand out above and beyond everybody else with a degree or PhD.
Don’t: Do too much extra-curricular ‘stuff’. Your PhD is your primary focus, and while it is important to do extra things to set yourself apart, it is more imporant to maintain focus on getting those three little letters after your name. Public engagement is great experience, gets you out of the lab and into the real world, promoting your field to anyone and everyone. But without the three little letters at the end of the day, all the effort you have put in won’t benefit you in the way you wanted it to.
Do: Push yourself. Academia is ridiculously competitive. Your peers are not your competitors, and really, academia as a whole isn’t truly a competition. We’re all here for the same reason; the contribution to knowledge. It is important to do things outside of your comfort zone, this will help you develop personally and professionally. So go to that conference you weren’t sure you are good enough for, have a stab at that new method you’ve never done before, or have been putting off learning because the equipment is expensive. Tell your supervisor that you think this new idea is worth pursuing. Have a go.
Don’t: Feel like there is an expectation for you to earn the Nobel prize from your PhD work. Doing a PhD is a training program. It exists to develop you into an independent researcher; someone that can generate ideas, design effective, novel studies that will one day have impact, analyse and interpret data, and present these findings to world leading experts either verbally or in literature. It will not happen overnight, it takes time. You will get frustrated about this, but understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day either. Someone once told me that doing a PhD is less like cutting your way through the jungle with a machete, more like crawling on all fours centimetre by centimetre with a magnifying glass.
Do: Know that people want you to succeed. You are there because you deserve to be there, and will get the job done. You will have passed the application and interview stages, and have been ratified by those that need to. The barriers that you have already overcome are there to remove those that may not be ready, or are simply not good enough to do it at the moment. Your supervisors, mentors, peers, are all there to support you, so when (not if!) you feel a bit low, it’s ok to say ‘I’m having a pretty rubbish day’. That person you tell may also be having a bad day too, and you know what they say; a problem shared is a problem halved. Your supervisor, your school, all want you to succeed, not only for you, but for them too – it looks good all round!
Don’t: Ever feel like you’re alone. Literally thousands of people are in the same position as you are, many of these at the same stage in your studies, and many feeling exactly the same as you are, whether that is elated or pretty low. There is a whole community of students out there, irrespective of your research field. There are support routes available within your department, school or faculty, university, and particularly online. Peer support groups exist where you can attend to listen, or contribute, but know that you are safe and that you are most definitely not alone. Asking for help is really hard, and it takes a lot to take the first step. But please trust me when I tell you that things will get better once you make that first step.
Do: Enjoy the process. Sure you will have days, weeks even, where you really don’t enjoy it, but it is a training program, where you can develop, and really get stuck in to a project that you could and should enjoy. It is important to choose the right supervisor, sometimes even more so than the actual project. Projects are easy to change, supervisors less so. It is a fantastic opportunity to become a specialist within your field, an expert with many skills to offer academia, industry, or even just in genera levery day life. It does seem to become your life, so it is really important to have a good time while you’re doing it!
Remember; nothing worth having comes easy. A PhD is no different.