I keep saying I want to encourage everyone I know to do a PhD which is not entirely true, but there are some of my friends who have been thinking about a doctorate and so I hope writing this might help them. I realise that not everyone enjoys research but for me it was a life changing experience. I wasn’t always planning on doing a PhD but in some ways it was an inevitable step after I finished my undergraduate degree. I desperately wanted to prove I was clever, I didn’t feel ready to leave university and get a job and I started on the path of doing research as an undergraduate and found it an amazing experience. Partly it was because I had some freedom to follow my interests, partly I realised how exciting it could be to find stuff out. To find a little niche in the world where no one else had been. However there were a whole set of factors that helped me really thrive as a researcher. A set of specific circumstances that I think are worth discussing and sharing as they seem useful for anyone who might be thinking of doing a PhD. I also realise that I was fortunate, being in the right place at the right time, but I also realise that anyone doing research now has so many more opportunities to connect with like minded researchers. Anyway, here goes with some advice…
1) Find the right supervisors. I say that because I had 2 supervisors which at the time was relatively uncommon. But it meant I had two perspectives on my work and two experts in their own field which I think helped me work in an interdisciplinary way, but meant I could take advantage of their respective strengths. Supervisors are so important as they guide and support you and having two of them really worked well for me. It also really helped that they were in different departments and really did have quite different specialisms. They both helped me in different ways as I learnt to write about my ideas and refine my thinking.
2)Become part of an inter-disciplinary community. The year I started my research my university (Aberystwyth) had decided to invest in PhD studentships across all departments. Not only did it mean I got some money to live on and to pay my fees but it meant there was around 100 people in my year all starting our research together. We were effectively a cohort who together became a community of researchers. I was a founder member of the Postgraduate Association and we had an excellent Dean of Graduate Studies who was keen to support research students. We organised social events (cheese and wine related usually) and held regular meetings to discuss any issues people were having. We were lucky to get support from the Guild of Students and our Dean gave us a small budget. What is meant for me though was I didn’t ever feel alone. Yes I was the only one studying my strange little topic on historians and newspapers, but I had the support of my friends who were doing PhDs in astrophysics, maths, geography, history, international politics and all sorts of other weird and wonderful subjects. We shared our experiences of the progress we were making, of the issues were were having with our supervisors or with our families (who clearly thought we were all slightly bonkers) and it motivated me and made the experience rewarding on a personal basis.
3) Get some research training. While I may not have appreciated all aspects of the research training course I did in my first year I was effectively taught for the whole year and the course covered all the main social science research methods. Not only did it give me an excellent grounding in theoretical frameworks and research methods it meant I met researchers from all different departments across the university. We learnt qualitative and quantitative methods and analysis, philosophy of social sciences and much more. The course was compulsory for anyone in the Faculty of Social Sciences and it had been devised in response to guidelines from the ESRC, but it was really ahead of it’s time. And even today I still an amazed at how few universities have such an extensive programme. My experiences working in research support in the years since then showed that treating doctoral students as people who might understand all their needs is fundamentally flawed. If you had given me the option of not taking that course, I suspect the confident, know it all I was back then would have decided to opt out. But I’m glad that wasn’t possible and passing that course was an essential part of progressing to my second year, but also made me the researcher I am today.
4) Become part of an academic department. In addition to being part of a wider community of researchers across the university one of my departments had an excellent ethos in the way it treated doctoral students. We were given shared office space on the same corridor as the academic staff, we were allowed to use the staff room and we had many of the privileges of staff. It really felt like an apprentice scheme in being an academic and it was amazing how such little things, such as being able to go into the staff room, made a real difference to how you felt about your identity. We had regular research seminars where we were encouraged to present our ideas and get feedback from our peers and colleagues from across the department showed an interest in my research. It gave me the confidence to submit a paper for an academic conference in my third year, and attending that event at the University of Westminster proved to be a pivotal moment for me.
5) Take the opportunity to teach. Teaching wasn’t really something I had considered before becoming a doctoral student, but it was also something I didn’t have much choice in doing, because I needed the money. I was in fact awarded half a studentship from the university which meant without teaching to earn some extra money, I would have been pretty poor. I can remember being terrified about what I would be expected to do, how I would answer students questions, having to teach subjects I had barely understood as an undergraduate (Dialog and Datastar searching!) But as the time went on I realised teaching was actually fun. I could often get by when a student was struggling by asking them lots of questions and actually reading the handouts the lecturers had prepared (I realised how few students seemed to be able to read and follow a help sheet when doing any form of computer practical!) And I got to chat to the students and learnt so much myself during my time as what we called a ‘computer demonstrator’. I sometimes wonder now if I really was a teacher, but what I know is that I had found something I enjoyed, that gave me a source of income and students seemed to like me.
6) Write from the start. Since doing a research supervision course last year I learnt that factors for success with doctoral students are many, but one thing sets many students apart and makes them far more likely to complete. That is the student who writes from the start. I was encouraged to do this by both my supervisors, but I also remember early on in a meeting them being surprised at the volume I had written. It’s quality Jane not quantity they said, but I often feel I have to get the words out my head and onto paper to start to make sense of what I might be thinking. This was effectively what I spent the 3 and half years of my doctoral work doing, writing and writing and re-writing and re-drafting until finally some of it started to make sense. There are loads of other factors that contribute towards success, but this for me was critical and is something that has stayed with me always. I write so I can think and in writing it helps my thinking, which in turn improves my writing. It’s not perfect, but I’ve never let that stop me. I don’t always write things grammatical correct, but it all comes out in the wash in the end and that’s what proof readers and critical friends are for after all!
7) Avoid perfectionism. Few people who know me would say I was a perfectionist. I work hard, but I also have a sense often of the effort needed to make something perfect, which can be far greater than the time that is available. So I have never been afraid to hand in a first draft, knowing it’s not great. Or to ask someone for help with redrafting a paper that I just can’t get right. Perfectionists don’t finish PhDs. What you do has to be good, you have to work hard and put in the hours, when you are collecting and analysing your data, when you are searching the literature and when you are drawing it together into some sort of conclusion. But no one expects perfection. Do your best, in the time you have available, but be willing to put your work and ideas out there to get feedback on them. It’s the only way to learn.
8) Have a hobby. You can’t spend your whole life working on your PhD for 3-4 years. It will feel like that is what you are doing but you need to take time out. I effectively treated it like a job. I worked 9-5 (or in my case more like 10-6). But then I went to the sports centre and did aerobics classes, and went out walking in the hills at the weekend, and socialised. I also did a lot of cooking and learnt to make jam. I didn’t work endlessly into the night (except perhaps right at the end) and I even went on a couple of holidays. Yes you feel guilty the whole time you are not working on the thesis, but you have to do other stuff and for me cycling and aerobics and making the most of the beautiful West Wales countryside at the weekend were the way I survived my PhD.
I do realise I was very focused during this period of my life. From 1995-1999 there are very few TV series I watched. I did go to the cinema still but I didn’t listen to a lot of music – I have huge gaps in my cultural references because I was immersed in my own world of academia (I never watched a single episode of Friends). I threw myself into my research, to such an extent that it’s painful sometimes to go back to it. Since my thesis has been digitised and made available online I have cringed a lot at my writing style. I’ve wondered why I was so enthralled with the topic. But I have never, ever regretted it for a moment. It set me on the path I am on now and has instilled in me a love of research, a curiosity that I hope never leaves me. A desire to ask questions, to present at conferences, to write papers and hopefully one day soon to start supervising some PhD students of my own!
Thanks to Emma Wilson, for inspiring me to write this piece. I hope she finds it useful after our recent discussions. I’d love to hear from others about what doing a doctorate meant to them and how it might have contributed to who they are. A doctorate gives you many things, but it also sets you apart from people, such as making your family think you are strange or terribly clever. That can be both a blessing and a curse! But I say to anyone thinking about doing a PhD, find the right topic, the right supervisors and plenty of support and then do it. You won’t look back and remember life’s a journey so don’t forget to enjoy the ride!