The Earth is mud, be calm: Reflections on the PhD process

I was recently asked to a group of potential PhD candidates about my own experiences during and after my PhD.

I think in many ways, my PhD was one of the more positive stories I have heard. I would do it again in a heartbeat (I often lament that it was too short). I had taken time off before starting and went back motivated and sure of what I wanted to get out of the process and where I wanted to end up. I had amazing supervisors, an engaging research project that connected with with inspiring supervisors and good funding. I had the tough job of choosing between a post-doc or a tenure track job both at amazing institutions.

Recognizing that my experience is perhaps not the norm, I set out to ask my network of amazing friends with PhDs: “If you could go back and talk to yourself near the end of your Master’s, what advice would you give?”.

The answers are interesting and insightful and so I am sharing them here for anyone thinking about doing a PhD.

  • Be ready to have one of the most interesting and fulfilling adventures of your life. Yet, it will be hard, traumatizing, full of doubt. But never give up.
  • That a PhD thesis isn’t a book…it’s an idea. But the process of formulating that idea changes the idea itself just like it changes you. Your PhD won’t change the world but it will change you and your place in the world. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
  • Have an honest discussion with yourself about what life goals you have and how doing a phd may or may not help you achieve those goals. It is a large commitment of both time and effort. I’ve heard time and time again of people that did the phd because they applied and got funding and so it was just the next step. Sometimes it’s easy to go for it because of a sense of status or what not (I have a PhD so that means I’m really smart). But there are lots of smart people out there without PhDs. What do you want to do and how does a PhD help you do that?
  • It’s not about the research or information – it’s about personal growth and learning about yourself.
  • Try to surround yourself with a beautiful place (in this case, university, department, group) and beautiful people (team of supervisors, colleagues, friends). Make sure that the place and people around you care also about your learning, not only about your publications. Be ready to suffer, to question everything of yourself and others, and open up to the possibility sometimes of feeling like the stupidest among your peers! Don’t negotiate your salary but negotiate your freedom. Go home and stay with friends and family often. Work day and night on your research but never miss a party with good friends. Do sports often and have big breakfasts. Drink lots of water and breath deeply. From time to time laugh and smile to “your research problems”, because they are not as big as they may seem.
  • By all means choose a topic/focus that interests and inspires you, but don’t get too hung up on this, as, almost certainly, your topic, and your interest, will have shifted focus one of several times by the end. Also, rigour is a thing and you better get darn good at it. And, finally, people like to tell self-inflating exaggerated stories. It’s a challenge, yes, but unless you’re also caring for kids on your own, say, and balancing two jobs on the side, it’s not THAT hard. Seriously.
  • 1) Chill out in the first year and enjoy the journey of narrowing your topic. You don’t have to have it all sorted within a month!
    2) imposter syndrome is probably going to get you at some point – you ARE good enough, keep the faith
    3) acknowledge when you are stressed and need a break, and allow yourself to have a totally work-free holiday. You’ll be much more productive
    afterwards
    4) learn to upward manage your supervisor – figure out how best to work with their personality and schedule. Every supervisor is different, but it’s worth investing in the relationship
  • Your mental health has to be a priority. When you feel the need, do not hesitate to set the work aside to look after yourself and to find support. The work will still be there for you when you are well and will progress quickly when you are healthy enough to sleep and to sustain reasonable spells of peace of mind.
  • The Earth is mud, be calm.
  • I definitely agree with learning to upward manage your supervisor! In a practical sense, I would also to advise myself to write whenever able. The shear size of the thesis was as daunting as the intellectual task so having bits written out – even if they were rough -really helped. At the same time, don’t be precious about words or indeed ideas… at the end of the day the PhD process is about learning to research.
  • If I had a time-machine, I would give myself two pieces of advice: 1) trust your instincts! if you have an idea that excites you, run with it, and sell it to your supervisor. don’t underestimate yourself. although, if your gut tells you an experiment or deadline is impossible, you’re also probably right… 2) cultivate and maintain your non-academic friendships. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the safe, warm, smug little environment of academia, but there is so much more out there in the “real-world”!
  • In my experience, and from what I saw in my environment, and now with my own phd students, I think it is really essential to make the research genuinely “your own”. So even if you are not in the luxury position – as I was – to get funding for a project you designed yourself, you should really be encouraged to choose your own path, of course, without losing sight of the broader context you are working in, and without being totally immune from good advise from your supervisor and peers smile emoticon. Mastering your own project and developing your own ideas will provide you with the crucial inspiration to pursue this sometimes difficult and lonely, but highly satisfying trajectory!

2 thoughts on “The Earth is mud, be calm: Reflections on the PhD process

  1. Interesting! I am at the moment in my life where I have to decide which way I will be going, and this article is really helpful.

  2. I would add that these are helpful not only for someone thinking of doing a PhD, but to the many current students that struggle through some days (or weeks or months or years…). Recognizing that you are going through a series of challenges that other people triumphed over may be inspiring – you will triumph too (if you just keep pushing or jkp like my supervisor used to say).

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