Despite the fact that more PhD candidates are successfully completing within the allocated time, a significant proportion of PhDs do not graduate. We were overwhelmed by the response and feedback to the first part of this guide where Amara discussed some pointers to support current and prospective PhD candidates in navigating the journey towards successful completion. In this article, she shares more food for thought that can help you to not just survive your PhD but enjoy and enhance your experience.
Begin with the end in mind – You’ve committed or are committing the next few years of your life to undertaking extensive research on a specific subject in order to make an original contribution to knowledge within your discipline. Having a mental picture of what the ‘end point’ of your research study looks like will help you persevere through the tough times. On a personal note though, what does completing your PhD look like? What do you want to get out of completing a PhD? A specific job title? A career? A great salary? Improved skill set? Recognition within your discipline etc? All the above? How does this fit in with your life and career goals?
Avoid viewing a PhD as just an end but more as a means to an end. Embarking on a PhD with a personal end point in mind will enable you keep the next few years in perspective of the big picture of your life and career goals. Furthermore, you will recognise opportunities outside the sphere of your research study that can fast-track your progress.
Write now, write better! – Writing is an essential skill you need in your PhD survival toolkit. It isn’t a PhD if it isn’t written up! Regardless of discipline or research topic, all PhD candidates are de facto writers. You will be writing research proposals, progress reports, journal articles for publication and the mother of them all – the thesis. Writing is unavoidable, so how do you feel about it? “But I’m not a natural writer and I find writing difficult.” Welcome to the club. Even international best-selling authors find writing difficult sometimes.
The most important thing to do if you can’t write is to…write! I cringe when I look at some parts of my PhD thesis. Hindsight is always 20/20! I am a better writer today because I have continued to write. There is no magic potion, you get better at writing by writing. Just like learning to drive or swim. You can attend writing sessions and be given all the tips in the world but you still have to write. In my academic writing coaching sessions, I am constantly telling my students that – ‘It needs to be written not perfect.’ No one can edit a blank page. If you are not happy with your writing skills, do something about it. Do not leave writing to the final year, this is a recipe for unnecessary stress. besides writing and submitting small pieces of work to your supervisory team enables you to create more opportunities to get feedback on your writing which you can learn from. If you are on Twitter follow #acwri and #amwri for more writing tips
Who’s on your team? – We all know about the isolation that occurs while undertaking PhD research so please do not underestimate the value of a support network. I would not have made it without my team which consisted of mentors, colleagues, family and friends. It may be emotional, academic or financial but at some point, you will need some support. I was speaking to some international PhD students who shared their struggles of managing their research workload in a new country without friends or family. If you are in a similar position, find out from your Graduate or Research Office if there are any peer support networks for PhD candidates and get involved. If there isn’t one, why not start one yourself? I have discussed the importance of mentorship in career success and the same is true for PhD candidates. I would advise that you choose wisely though. Be careful about the people who you allow into your private space and learn to differentiate between critical thinkers and critical people.
Take time off – This may come as a shock but you are allowed to have some time off. One of the best proverbs I have ever read goes –
‘Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade.’
Plan ‘breaks’ into your research plan or programme. After submitting my first draft of the final chapter of my thesis to my supervisor, she told me to take a holiday. That was her polite way of saying it was crap. I was stressed and broke and simply tired of writing. I am a perfectionist and totally ignored my advice in the preceding paragraph. My friend took me on a week’s holiday and I came back sharper and ready to face what was coming next. I rewrote the chapter from scratch and her comment was ‘Welcome back.’ Do not ignore the goose that lays the golden eggs. There must be a balance between production and production capability – the P/PC balance as described by Stephen Covey. Doing a PhD is one of the toughest challenges in academic life so give yourself permission to take a break when you need it. I have seen too many stressed, burnt out PhDs who either do not complete or worse still develop more complicated problems. Don’t let that be you.
P.h.D does not translate J.o.b! – This is an area where I wish someone had told me what I am about to share with you. Having a PhD should be an advantage in getting a job, it just doesn’t entitle you to one! I believe this holds true, regardless of whether you stay in academia or leave. The points we make in our article regarding graduate employment are valid whether you’ve achieved a BSc. or a PhD. Majority of PhD candidates will not work in academia – keep breathing! – as there is a shrinking proportion of openings for full time and permanent posts. However, a significant proportion of PhD candidates are unaware of the full range of career options available to them after earning their degrees.
I was unemployed for over six months after completing my PhD because I had not given any thought to what came next. My ‘begin with the end in mind’ map was very limited to ‘working in academia.’ Oh, that I knew then what I know now! If academia was not an option, what would your career alternatives be? How can you leverage your PhD in the job hunt? What are you doing today that will be of benefit to potential future employers? A friend of mine has just landed her dream job in science policy even before submitting her thesis. She decided early in her PhD that academia was not for her and started doing research for her dream job. She prepared for employment during her PhD – she didn’t just hope for the best.
About our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology and Food Science, Amara is developing her career in academia – providing teaching and learning solutions in UK FE and HE Institutions as well as conducting research in Food Microbiology. Amara believes in the combined power of education, mentoring and productive relationships as essential tools for building successful careers. ‘Ignorance can hurt more than sticks and stones.’
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