Eight simple rules for losing your doctoral virginity
Right now, there are thousands of brand new PhD candidates entering universities around the country. Many of them will be highly anxious, knowing that they have a long, difficult journey ahead of them which, statistically speaking, they have less than a 75 per cent chance of completing successfully.
Emma Jane last year described doing a PhD as “childbirth for the brain”. And, while I liked her sentiment, I don’t agree that the whole process really has to be so “mind-meltingly, stomach-churningly, sleep-deprivingly difficult”.
Just as there are many things expecting or labouring mothers can do to make childbirth easier and more bearable – epidurals, controlled breathing exercises, gym balls, warm baths, happy gas, umm… taint massage – there are some simple rules Doctoral students should follow in order to deliver their baby without recourse to forceps or an episiotomy.
So, for all those nervous new PhD students out there, here are my eight simple, straightforward tips for timely submission of a better thesis:
1. Choose a topic you’re interested in.
I say this, if you’re going to spend three to five years of your life doing something, why not ensure it is something that you give even half a shit about?
Sure, listen to the advice of your supervisors or mentors, but always make sure you’re studying a topic that is going to keep you motivated when the tough really gets going.
It’s also worth pointing out that the base requirement of a PhD is to make an original and significant contribution to your field, not that you come up with an entirely original topic. So, don’t waste the first year of your candidature looking for a radically new research question, you can just undertake a new investigation into an old idea, or an empirical (perhaps localised) test of a new (or foreign) one.
Also, don’t be afraid to let your topic evolve over time should your research take you in slightly new or unexpected directions.
2. Find a good supervisor.
Besides, most probably, your ‘significant other’, the most important person to your success as a PhD student will be your principal supervisor.
My best advice on this is to pick someone you can work with, and who wants to work with you, not just the biggest “expert” within reach. Obviously you need to have a supervisor who is experienced and knowledgeable, but personality is much more important than many people realise. Find someone who shares your expectations, and with whom you can engage on a personal level as well.
It is important that you meet with your supervisor(s) regularly, and that you also listen to what they tell you. (NOTE: If your ‘significant other’ is your principal supervisor, alarm bells should be ringing.)
3. Worry about ‘shape’, not fine detail.
One thing you must realise is that you cannot know exactly what will be in your thesis until the day you submit it. This is a journey of learning, and it’s quite OK if you’re not quite sure about much of the fine detail of your topic until you’re two or more years in.
In the early days, you should only aim to have a very rough idea of the ‘shape’ of your thesis (the main arguments, how they might be sequenced), and let the detail fall into place much later on. The whole thing will probably come together quite organically anyway, as you write, re-write and re-re-write all the various bits and pieces along the way.
4. Treat your research like any other job.
A very clever person once said to me “it’s just a PhD”. That is not to belittle or mock the achievement of getting one, but to simply point out that a PhD thesis is something you do to get a university degree. It is not your magnum opus, and it does not have to consume every hour of your waking life.
As with any other job you’ll do in your lifetime, success comes simply through working regularly, being organised, meeting deadlines, and staying focussed.
Steady employment should not come at the expense of your social or family life, and the same goes for a PhD. So, don’t over-work yourself, take regular breaks, and go on a holiday when you need to.
5. Teach, where possible.
Most PhD students will, at some point in their studies, be presented with the opportunity to teach undergraduate students. Assuming it doesn’t completely interfere with your primary goal, then I say go for it.
In many cases teaching undergrads broadens your horizons, exposes you to new ideas and perspectives, and helps keep you grounded.
Teaching experience is also fast becoming a minimum requirement for anyone seeking academic employment after they graduate.
6. Publish and publicise.
One of the things I have quickly learned in my thus-far short academic career is that the biggest names in a given field aren’t just the best thinkers, but are also the ones who publicise their work heavily, and publish most widely.
You should aim to get several academic journal articles based on your research published during the course of your candidature. This not only keeps you in the writing habit, gives you deadlines to work towards, and helpful feedback on your work in progress, it also makes you much more visible to other scholars (often leading to bigger and better things). Send copies/links of everything you publish to the people in your field who really matter.
Basically, don’t hide your light under a bushel. (Whatever the f**k that means…)
7. Believe in yourself.
Right now, you probably have thoughts lingering at the back of your brain, telling you that unlike every other PhD student “you’re not smart enough”, and that you really shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this fraud.
Allow me now to let you in on a little secret: everyone feels that way. Yes. Everyone. (Yes, I’m sure. Now shut up and let me finish!)
It is a universal condition of the PhD student to feel like an intellectual con artist, but trust me, you are smart enough. You wouldn’t even be allowed to enrol into a PhD if you weren’t. Besides, as a highly respected academic once told me, “if nobody has ‘found you out’ yet, then chances are nobody ever will!”
8. Just do it.
I would have to say that, at the end of the day, getting your PhD is actually less like childbirth, and a lot more like losing your virginity.
If you over-think it, you won’t enjoy it. If you’re too fearful and nervous, it’ll never happen. Sitting around dreaming about it endlessly won’t actually help you either. At some point you just have to shed your inhibitions and write the damn thing. And, once you’ve finished, it won’t seem like that big a deal after all.
Believe it or not, doing a PhD is less a test of your intelligence than it is a test of your self-motivation, willingness to learn, and ability to put in the hard work. I mean, there does seem to be quite a lot of dodgy-looking parents kicking about at the local shopping centre, yeah? (Think about it…)
So then, what’s the big secret for completing a PhD?
It’s simple: Don’t be a wanker. Just do it.
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