In the final stages of the PhD, I am faced with the big elephant in the room –writing up the thesis. I feel like my brain is fried beyond recognition and anything to keep me away from the thesis for a minute appears to be a blessing in disguise. Despite the challenges, this stage of the PhD has been quite an interesting experience with both high and low moments. Overall, I have enjoyed doing a PhD. Looking back at my journey, there have been several key aspects that have played an important role in my progress. I hope these will be useful to other PhD candidates.
Getting the PhD Supervisor(s)-Student relationship balance right
Some people regard this as the most important and akin to a marriage of convenience. I would definitely not disagree with this perspective and it is the major juggling act you would have to learn to manage. It is imperative that from the start of your PhD, there is an established order of how your PhD will be managed by both you and your supervisor. Yes YOU! The management of your PhD is just as much your responsibility as you think it is your supervisors’. Knowing what is expected of you at each stage of the process and delivering (at least to some extent) of what is expected is one sure way of keeping the relationship smooth. It is also important you know what you should expect from your supervisors from the early point. Simple things like their areas of strength e.g. technical, pastoral, social etc. and other things like how regularly you should meet should be established early on and maintained. For me, weekly meetings in the first year of my PhD kept me on track and on my toes all the time, in the second year it was a fortnightly exchange and in the final year it has been a case of meeting as and when we deemed necessary which worked for both of us without compromising the quality of the work being undertaken and the timelines to be met.
Continuous development through University and external workshops
At my University and generally in most UK universities, the graduate schools organise workshops to develop the skills of the research students to help them through the PhD and also preparing them for life beyond the PhD. For any PhD candidates not taking advantage of such graduate school workshops, you are really missing out!! Examples of the type of activities at these workshops include – learning to use statistical tools (SPSS), preparing for transfer and viva voce, academic writing and structuring your thesis, applying for grants and learning to publish. External bodies also organise workshops that are beneficial to the PhD students. For example, in the UK, a group called the Voice of Young Scientists (VOYS), part of the Sense about Science network regularly organise events tailored to develop science PhD students. One of the sought after VOYS workshop helps develops researchers on how to the media and using media tools to communicate the science. Pretty awesome isn’t it?
Keep reading – and never stop writing
As a PhD student in the sciences, my PhD has been predominantly laboratory based and at times through the PhD whilst I was reading, I wasn’t writing. Now at the stages of the final write up, I have to review old literature and going back to things which I would not have had to if I had kept the writing flowing….tut tut tut!!! Regrets! The things I didn’t know when I started eh!! I could try blaming the fact that my research is laboratory based but knowing what I do now….it’s no excuse!! As I approach the end of the PhD I have realised how important it is to maintain a writing flow throughout the PhD.
Disseminate your work
The isolation encountered by many PhD students can occasionally create some weird alien feeling of pseudo existence in some odd planet somewhere thus, the chance to talk about your work with your peers or anybody who would care to listen is important. It can occasionally offer you the chance to get out of the laboratory, office, University and if you are lucky, the country. My PhD journey has been enriched greatly by the opportunities I had to attend several national and international conferences and more than anything else it brings a sense of belonging and pride that you can actually be recognised for the many hours and candles burnt during the night working in your little silo. It also creates an opportunity for feedback from established researchers in your field of study which would only help to improve your research.
Join a professional society
For anyone thinking of embarking on a career in research or academia it is imperative you find a professional society in your area of interest or field to be a part of. Some societies are free for student members whilst others charge a minimal fee for the student members including PhD and postdoctoral members. Without question, this should be high up on your list before or you start your PhD and where possible, get involved. If you can, volunteer for the society as this is one sure way to get yourself noticed. I have been a member of several professional societies and undoubtedly my involvement with the professional societies has been a major highlight and key part of my PhD journey.
Keep a social life
Your supervisor will always want to ensure you are continuously working. S/he might probably want you to spend 30 hrs everyday (if it were possible) eating, thinking and dreaming about your research. Word of advice, ensure you find time for a social life. Whether it is going out for drinks, travelling or whatever “your thing” is, letting your hair down (even if you are bald) occasionally is necessary to sustain you through the PhD and ensuring you have a positive support network for an occasional ‘usual PhD rant’ is also necessary. I still have many people to thank for my occasional outbursts during the PhD especially Dr M. Av-B who’s response was usually “let’s go get a coffee”
No PhD experience is the same anywhere and undoubtedly, there are other helpful aspects that could be beneficial to you as a PhD student. The summary of all of this is simple; be professional, work hard and where you can, CREATE TIME to enjoy yourself because you will need it.
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