For some time now we haven’t shared much on the doctoral front and as the season for new starters on the doctoral journey is nigh, hence is the need for a new post! Often I am left wondering whether these type of posts are supportive or detrimental to PhD candidates due to the complex and non-linear nature of the experiences. As one man’s meat is another’s poison so is the nature of the doctoral beast i.e. no such thing as a generic PhD.
I won’t belittle you with the suggestion there is a right or wrong way to do the PhD (who am I to know?) but I’m positive some things are particularly key in helping navigate the journey from the initial thinking phase, development of the proposal, getting the application through and starting on the road to “permanent head damage” as some people refer to it.
The seven steps I have chosen to discuss here are in no particular order and the first is to “know why you want to do the PhD and what your career options and end points are before you begin”. This is very important as far too often the idea is that once you complete your PhD, jobs will be lined up for you everywhere. That in itself is a fallacy as the job market can be just as brutal to PhD graduates as it is to graduates from first degrees. Believe me, one thing you do not want after your PhD and spending countless ££££ and $$$$ is #JOBLESS…..there is nothing as demoralising as knowing they you are a broke ass jobless DR.
The second step is that you’ll need to “get career and mentor advice early on”. This is very important! I have come across many PhD graduates who have spent between 5 and 10 years, sometimes even more on contract/temporary, rolling post-doctoral research careers which for some ends up in a blind alley career. In some of those cases, these over qualified individuals look for opportunities to change career paths, taking much lower salaries to break away from the unending slave-like performance that a lengthy post-doc could easily turn into.
Now it might be that you already know your career plan and you eventually would like to be an academic, working as a lecturer at a University beyond your PhD. If that is the case, my advise would be to seek opportunities to embark on a postgraduate teaching qualification. I was fortunate to have had a mentor who changed the course of my career taking me away from my obsession with returning to medicine and telling me that she saw a career as a lecturer or educator in me. Alongside this, came two senior academics who had convinced me on the importance of starting the teaching qualification during the PhD. I won’t deny how arduous the task was; doing a PhD, keeping a part-time job and doing a teaching qualification alongside it. Painful as it might have been, it was one of the best decisions I took as it paid dividend during my PhD and instrumental in me getting my first full-time lecturing role after the PhD.
So, having an idea where your career should or could go is important before and when you start your PhD. One thing that can help you with the support to build the network and find mentors to help your PhD would be joining a professional society. The importance of this cannot be overstated. For whatever field you choose to embark on your PhD studies, even if your PhD is on trying to understand the alignment of stars, or why pandas in captivity refuse to mate or best, the phenomena of witchcraft, there is a professional society that you can benefit from immensely.
Upon joining a society, it is important to be on the lookout for any early career groups within the society. This might not necessarily have to be before you start or immediately you start however it is important. I got involved with the early career scientist group for the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) early on in my PhD and without question, it was a great decision as it widened my network, was a platform to build a profile but I met many mentors along the way who positively influenced my choices and career decisions.
You probably heard the song “mo money mo problems” by The Notorious B.I.G. (well depends on your music taste or your age J). It was quite a hit at the time!!…i’m digressing…during your PhD, the more money you can generate through internal grants or travel awards the better your experience…as long as you are not fully funded (platinum levels) with so much to spare!! Thus, check the University webpages or your new professional society pages for travel, conference or postgraduate student grants as these although competitive are often easily accessible. Being a recipient for these grants also shows future employers you are able to pursue funding or generate money (a strong quality to have in a role in research or industry). We will be back with a post on how to raise funds during your PhD later on.
Finally, before you start, it’ll be good to ask someone about the research culture at your new department or University. It is also important to ask people in your new office or laboratory about the working ways of your supervisor. If you need to use some jedi tricks to find out about your supervisor (up to you!) but it’s always good to know (a) how your supervisors work (b) the strengths and weaknesses of your supervisory team (c) and who else perhaps not on your team that can be a good mentor for you.
This is in no way an exhaustive list but one that can help you get started on the doctoral process (journey). For more articles on PhDs, click here
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