Monthly Archives: May 2017

Doing a PhD: Keeping it Simple

Given how many words I’ve already written in this series covering preparing at the outset, engaging with academia, reading and writing, organising yourself, and time, money, and location, it might seem a bit weird to finish by advising you to keep it simple. Doing a PhD is a complex matter, so the following points are about keeping it as simple as possible, rather than making it simple overall. There’s no need for additional complexity in an already complex endeavour:


When you encounter problems, look for simple solutions first

This is partly related to your confidence with the analytical technique that you’re using (see below). So, if you’re anything like me, then if (when) something goes wrong in an analysis that you’re relatively unfamiliar with your kneejerk reaction is to panic. This leads me to cast around for obscure solutions (the logic being that if it’s an obscure mode of analysis then the solution must be obscure too) when it’d be much better to start by looking at the most basic possible option (e.g. check the distributions of all the variables (you should have done this already, of course!)). Countless hours can be wasted looking for complex solutions and, if you didn’t try the easy things first, you’ll feel like a complete tool when you finally realise how simple it was to solve the problem.


Don’t use structural equation modelling (SEM), unless…

…you fulfil the following criteria (this is the most specific, and technical, piece of advice that I give):

  • You’re already confident with advanced statistics;
  • There’s a real benefit to using such a complicated approach;
  • Your models aren’t too complex.

Alas, I didn’t meet any of the above criteria. I finished studying maths (a subject in which I felt chronically underconfident) at GCSE and had barely looked at the subject for ten years. I had no A-levels in maths, advanced maths, or statistics, and knew little about any of those topics. As such, I did the basic quantitative module in my Masters (the advanced quantitative module is reserved for what I call ‘stats whiz kids’, and what others have referred to as ‘statsos’). Thus, from being brought up to speed in a relatively introductory (albeit very well taught) manner, I jumped in at the deep-end. Try reading an online SEM ‘help’ board some time; if you’re not au fait with statistics then you may as well try to get help from a website written in Latin (apologies to the classical scholars amongst you, who scoff at the idea that one wouldn’t know how to read Latin). Indeed, when one of my fellow PhD students who is much more confident and competent with statistics than me (one of those whiz kids I mentioned) heard that I was using SEM, they remarked on how difficult it is. This should have set off massive deafening alarm bells, but I just waltzed on by and carried on along the path of doom. And for what? I mean, really, what has structural equation modelling added to my analysis? Yeah, sure, I can wheel out arguments in favour:

  • It’s good that it allows for the simultaneous estimation of measurement factors and the structural relationships between them (crowd: ‘oooohhhh!’);
  • It has the helpful capacity to separately estimate residuals and measurement error, which allows for improved accuracy in models (crowd: ‘aaaaaahhhhh!’);
  • It’s neat that you can also estimate plausible alternative measurement and structural loadings (i.e. produce modification indices) and thus, perhaps, test competing causal propositions when running models (crowd: ‘wowwwww!’).

But really, even with all of the above acknowledged, what is structural equation modelling except a very complicated way to (still) not prove causality (even assuming that’s ever possible). Of course, I can be confident that some of the variables in my model are causally prior to others (e.g. it’s fair to say that age precedes political views), but that would also be the case if I’d used a run-of-the-mill multiple regression. By contrast, all of my variables of interest (e.g. levels of cultural capital and levels of political participation) can be plausibly argued to precede one another (or be mutually reinforcing). This point stands regardless of how complicated the analytical technique used to analyse their relationships is (and such techniques are no substitute for longitudinal or experimental data). Thus, having failed to meet the first criteria, I also fail to meet the second by not really being able to see the benefit of having poured days, weeks, and months into an analytical approach that is effectively just an over-the-top way of saying how clever you are with statistics (which I’m not). Finally, the failure to meet the first two criteria was confounded by the fact that I was trying to analyse overly-complex models (e.g. my final model included 106 indicators, estimating 34 latent factors), which the software that I was using (Mplus) really isn’t designed to do. In short, using SEM was a two-year nightmare that greatly undermined the other aspirations that I had for my research. So, my conclusion vis-à-vis SEM? Balls to that.


Don’t get waylaid by side analyses

Interim analyses (by which I mean using messing around with your data without a clear purpose), fiddling with interesting data, and working on analyses suggested by other people can all seem useful but, unless they have a concrete pay-off (e.g. for you publications), they should be deprioritised. This means that if you do decide to take them on then your main analyses should remain the priority (i.e. the first thing you spend time on each day), and there should be a limit on the time you spend on such side analyses. I spent months working on multiple regressions (the time consuming bit was processing and recoding data) that I thought might provide useful interim findings but ended up being of almost no use. Instead, I could have used that time to start getting my head around SEM (assuming I didn’t follow the above advice) and getting that analysis done in a timely manner. So, decide on your analytical approach and do it. Mistakes will happen, and time will be spent on results that get revised or dropped, but the focus should be on the process that will give you something to write about in your thesis or in publications.


Reserve the last three months

Whenever your final deadline is set for, make sure that the preceding three months are kept as clear as possible. This means opting out of conferences, extra-curricular responsibilities and (if you can afford it) teaching so that you can focus exclusively on finishing your thesis. Also, don’t be tempted to go to interesting looking events unless you’re confident that they’ll have a concrete pay-off. If this means that you feel like you have spare time then good, because you’ll need it. Also, it means that you can afford to take breaks, so that you’re less intellectually (plus emotionally and physically) exhausted as you sprint towards the finish.


Phew, that’s quite a list, but I’ve reached the end of everything I can think of for now. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing and all that, which is why I’ll keep this open to additions in future (comments, suggestions?). But, otherwise, and rather unceremoniously, rant ends.





Doing a PhD: Time, Money, and Location


You might have a clear idea of your taste for engaging with academia, be a dab hand at reading and writing a shed load of stuff, and have excellent organisation skills for a PhD (all covered in previous posts in this series) but, alas, time and money are finite, and location can play a key role in your productivity too. So, you’re going to have to make decisions about all three of these things:


Be critical about the type of extra-curricular work that you engage in

It can be tempting to jump at every opportunity to gain work experience during a PhD, especially if it’s paid and you’re skint. You need to be more critical than this. During my research, I worked as a student reviewer of academic standards, an academic research assistant, an intern and then researcher at a polling company, as well as a teaching assistant in my department and at summer schools. In total, excluding the teaching assisting work (which is de rigueur if you want a career in academia), I spent over a year of my four-and-a-half years doing non-research-related work. Was it worth it? In the case of the polling company and teaching experience, yes. Otherwise, probably not. The money was nice but it would have been much more useful to have some of those months to focus on research (psychologically, I think it’s also important to retain a focus on the important work). I thought the experience would look good on my curriculum vitae in future, but I’m not convinced it does. No one cares if you were a student reviewer of academic standards if your thesis is lacking, or late, and you have no publications or impact. In fact, the contexts in which that experience is necessary are so few and far between that I’m bewildered I thought it would be useful. As for being an academic research assistant, it doesn’t look bad to have done it, but it also wouldn’t have been a great loss not to. So, before you apply for or accept extra-curricular work, make sure you think about how useful it will be in the long-run and whether it would be more useful to have the time instead. If there’s doubt in your mind about how worthwhile it is then don’t do it. Unless you need the money, in which case your hands are tied.


If you do other work then put time aside to keep working on the PhD

When I started one of my stints at the polling company I worked for, a member of academic staff advised me to carry on doing research work in my spare time (this links to not treating it as a nine-to-five). My immediate reaction was ‘seriously, you want me to work on my PhD in my spare time?!’ I should have listened. I had a total of nine months at the polling company and even if I’d only worked two evenings a week (and a weekend here and there) on my research it would have been beneficial. Beyond just providing more time to get the work done, it would have kept my research alive in my mind, and reminded me that, despite the hiatus, it was still a priority. As it was, I did very little and bore the costs at the end of my PhD, not least in the sense that I failed to do much of what I’d intended.


Save a proportion of your income every month

Despite my elaborate and detailed financial recording (as I said, Soviet  bureaucrat), I failed to do this most basic of helpful things during my PhD. My funding (granted through a collaborative deal between the ESRC and YouGov) paid my fees and awarded me a monthly stipend of just over £1,100 (tax free) for the first three years of my research. Had I saved just 5% of this, I could have had £2,000 in the bank when my funding ran out, which is to say a two month cushion in which I wouldn’t have to worry about income. If I’d stretched it to 10% then I could have had four months without worry. Or, an alternative approach would have been to live on my research funding and save any extra money I earned. Of course, there is another element to this, which is partially related to the below point: cost of living. I’d already worked for a few years so was used to having a (slightly) higher income and, crucially, wanted to live with my partner (now fiancée!) in London. This was the right decision (there are other things in life more important than research, despite the tenor of these posts) but it meant that I was essentially living beyond my means and rendered the extra work that I did necessary. Still, I could have saved more (i.e. any) money, and perhaps looked for a compromise on living arrangements; as it was, I ran out of money and ended up having to move nearer my institution to take on teaching work. So, you should accept that your funding is limited, adjust your living arrangements as necessary, and save as much money as you can for the (inevitable?) extra months you’ll need to work on your research at the end.


Live near your institution

This is partially about cost (i.e. if your university isn’t in London then try to avoid living there) but mostly about facilities, working environment, and social networks. For the last six months of my PhD I lived in the same town as my university, and it enabled me to work much more effectively. It meant that I had a desk in a shared office that I could use for work on campus, and therefore also had a clear physical divide between home and work. Thus, I could work late if necessary, safe in the knowledge that when went home the space would be entirely detached from my research. For me, this was hugely psychologically helpful because it enabled me to turn off entirely when I was away from my desk, even if only for the night. By contrast, when I lived in London my office was at home and I found it remarkably difficult to separate research from the rest of my life, which meant that I was never working effectively and yet, on some level, was always working. This partially prompted my decision to treat the work as a nine-to-five (see previous post) on the basis that if I couldn’t physically delineate my work and home life then I should do so with strict time limits instead. Alas, even despite this strict timekeeping, working from home enabled me to do lots of virtuous procrastination (e.g. washing up, hoovering, sorting out bills when they arrived in the post) that just wasn’t possible when I worked away from home in the final six months. Beyond having a separate physical space to work, living near campus also meant that I had access to a library whenever necessary (and one where I had full lending rights and computer access to boot), could get IT support quickly, and could arrange more ad hoc meetings with my supervisor (e.g. when problems with my analysis arose). Finally, it meant that I was embedded in an environment where I was surrounded by people who were going through the same experience as me. I could see them doing their work and progressing, which provided additional motivation on the basis that I could see it was possible, and because I wanted to emulate those who finished. I could also talk to people about the experience (whether moaning, joking, or expressing frustration) in the knowledge that they’d be able to empathise (as well as offer advice). Thus, for reasons relating to facilities, working environment, and social networks, I strongly advise finding a way to live near the institution that you’re studying at.


So, if you’ve figured out your goal, engaged with academia, read and written a tonne, organised the heck out of yourself, and sorted the contextual factors, then you might think you have it sussed. The kicker is that, in addition to balancing all those things, you also need to avoid over-complexity…



Doing a PhD: Organising Yourself


Of course, the demands of engaging with academia and doing plenty of reading and writing, which were covered in the previous posts in this series, require a certain degree of organisation. This is something that I was confident about but, it turns out, I wasn’t prepared for the task of getting a PhD done on time and to a satisfactory standard. This is a different kettle of fish to a nine-to-five job (or, at least the ones I’ve had) and should be treated as such:


Set realistic goals, but be prepared to knacker yourself to achieve them

It might seem like you only need to do one of these things but even realistic goals can be knackering to achieve. The point is that you need to get a balance; stretch yourself without trying to reach an unattainable point. I tried to do far too much in my PhD; mixed-methods research, gathering original quantitative and qualitative data from scratch, undertaking an overly-complex analysis of the former (see the point in the final post relating to structural equation modelling), and expecting to have massive impact with all of it. I could have opted to focus on either a quantitative or a qualitative approach (though I’m theoretically committed to mixed methods), chosen to use secondary data for either element, or conducted simpler quantitative analysis. Alternatively, I could have worked a lot harder than I did for much of my PhD (see not treating it as a nine-to-five, below); after all, this is a topic that I chose to research and that I’m passionate about. However, having knackered myself in the two jobs that I’d done before returning to academia (both of which I cared about deeply), I was adamant that I’d have a better work-life balance. Alas, I still didn’t get it right, and can attest that not achieving most of what I set out to do in my PhD is much worse than being tired and having less time for extra-curricular activities. So, I could have set lower expectations (which, as I’ve discussed with fellow research students, feels like an admission of defeat from the outset) or put in more hours. As it is, the time-consuming nature of my quantitative analysis, and my unwillingness to power through evenings and weekends (until the end neared), meant that I ended up with a thesis that doesn’t refer to my qualitative data, and certainly hasn’t had any significant impact. Needless to say, this is pretty disappointing.


Don’t treat it as a nine-to-five

As outlined above, I was under the misapprehension that my organisational skills meant that I could achieve all my research goals without putting in any extra hours. Thus, I approached my PhD like a nine-to-five, with a workplan and a timesheet, and I usually clocked off at the same time each day. It didn’t matter whether I’d achieved what I’d set out to do; there was always tomorrow. This was often pretty counter-productive; in the worst cases it meant that I stopped work without the satisfaction of achieving a particular task (which might have only taken an additional hour). By contrast, I’m now in the thick of a busy period in my new job whilst fitting in a bit of research work in the evenings and at weekends (there’s nothing like realising all the stuff you’d wish you’d done to provide motivation!), and I feel more content (despite being tired) than I did for much of my PhD. So, I think being flexible with your time is key; put in extra hours when necessary, and take breaks when needed. In the former case, this means that if you’re in the groove with a piece of work, or have a particular problem that’s motivating you, you can capitalise on it (the productive power of both of these situations should not be underestimated). In the latter case, an advantage of not really having a boss is that if you’re knackered (intellectually, emotionally, or physically; all are possible in a PhD) then you can take time to recuperate. I think this is at least as likely to be productive as my more rigid approach.


Don’t be a reincarnated Soviet bureaucrat

Someone once accused me of having an ‘administrative mind’ in a tone that was laden with intended offence (I just thought ‘fair point’). Indeed, my fiancée and I agree that I was probably a Soviet bureaucrat in my past life. It’s not that I love forms or anything, but I’m a badass at filling them out, and I’m scrupulously organised with all digital and physical filing (both personal and professional). This is an asset, up to a point. Unfortunately, it also has a tendency to take over, especially to the extent that it provides the opportunity for virtuous procrastination (‘I’ll just update my timesheet and then file these papers, then I’ll get onto the proper work’). Ultimately, to the extent that you’re administratively efficient, this has to play second fiddle to your main research work. It’s a good thing to have in addition to, rather than instead of, a focus on the actually important tasks. So, if you find yourself mindlessly filling time with tidying your desk, or ensuring perfect formatting in your latest supervision meeting minutes, then snap out of it and get on with the work that’ll actually be rewarding.


Organising yourself, of course, doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and there are contextual factors that you need to account for, and which you will have make decisions about. Primary amongst these are time, money, and location




Doing a PhD: Reading and Writing


Whether you’ve engaged with academia or not (covered by the last post), you’re gonna’ have to do shed loads of reading and writing. That sounds simple (and it probably is, relatively speaking) but there’s still a load of pits that I managed to fall into. So, here’s what I’d advise:


Do a paper-based rather than a thesis-based PhD

This option may not be available to you but if it is then you should give it serious consideration, especially if you intend to go into academia. It will significantly increase the chance of having one or more articles published by the end of your research because it makes them, rather than a thesis, the focus of that research. Bizarrely, I also get the impression that it’s quicker to finish than the thesis-based route (though I’m biased by the fact that I’ve just spent quite some time doing a thesis). Indeed, a while ago I had a conversation with an academic in which I commented that I regretted not taking the paper-based route, having observed people who did so and went on to graduate well ahead of me (having started at the same time). If I’m not mistaken, their response implied that it‘s easier to finish on time if one opts for that route, which perplexed the heck out of me. ‘Isn’t the paper-based route for the go-getters?’ I asked, to which the answer is apparently ‘yes.’ So, it gives you more chance to get the publications (always with the publications) that you need to pursue a career in academia whilst also raising the likelihood of finishing on time. In that case, what’s the downside? And, more to the point, what’s the frickin’ upside of doing a thesis?! Answers on a postcard please.


Always be reading

This one does what it says on the tin. With my ridiculously rigid and linear approach to work (I am attempting to change this), I really thought I could just spend the first year doing the reading, then conduct the primary research, and then analyse and write up. Wrong. People will always be suggesting things for you to read, and this is good because it keeps you up-to-date with what’s going on in your field, introduces you to new ideas, and challenges the one’s you already have. Indeed, I’d go one step further and subscribe to a few key journals that are relevant to your research. If a journal that you’re interested in only has institutional (i.e. very expensive) subscriptions available then follow it on social media, or figure out their release schedule (and mark it in your calendar), so that you know when new issues are coming out and can get relevant articles via your institution’s library.


Be critical about your choice of reading

Of course, you could spend infinite lives reading everything that has been, and will be, published in your field so you also need to get good at discerning which things are worth spending time on. If you get one page, or three pages, into an article (or a chapter into a book) that you’ve dug up or been recommended and it doesn’t seem that relevant then you can usually trust your instinct. There’s really no point in scrupulously reading a source that won’t be either useful or interesting to you. Also, use the power of the contents and the index, and learn to skim-read (if you can’t already)! I’m conscientious to the point of self-destruction so, if I skip part of a book or an article then I spend hours worrying that I’ve missed the most important point, or the game-changing quote. If you’re like this then get over it; you’ll almost certainly lose more (i.e. in time and energy) from reading uninteresting or irrelevant sources than you gain. Of course, there are some things that you’ll want to spend plenty of time reading in depth, but it’s useful to learn how to distinguish these sources from those  than can be skimmed or skipped.


Always be writing

Again, I was thought there should be a nicely delineated ‘writing bit’ at the end of my PhD, and planned as such. This meant that I got less feedback, was rushed with the bulk of what I wrote, and couldn’t return to analysis and address issues that arose in the course of writing. Indeed, writing is the best way to formulate ideas and arguments, spot errors with your analysis or findings, and get that all-important feedback. It also provides materials that allow you to raise the profile of your research (if that’s what you want to do). So, in addition to writing articles or chapters, and papers for conferences, it’s worth writing for blogs and, if your topic becomes salient, established news sources. I’m guessing that every university has a public relations team and they’ll probably be glad to help you (try and) get your writing onto blogs and into news outlets (if you don’t already have relevant connections).


Set-up a website early, and blog every interesting finding

In the same vein as the above, and in addition to trying to publish academic articles, external blog posts, and news stories, it’s worth having your own website where you can write whatever the heck you want (well, within reason). Again, this can contribute to the development of your arguments and the refinement of your analysis, and it can also demonstrate (e.g. to potential employers) that you’re research active, showing what you can do analytically and that you can write both frequently and accessibly. More importantly, it can be invigorating to write for a wider academic, or even public, audience; even if your blog only gets a few visits, at least you have something to show for your efforts. By contrast, my approach (i.e. leaving all the writing to the end) meant that my thesis emerged from a stale, inward-looking process, and is the only substantial collection of writing that I have to show for my four-and-a-half years of work.


At this stage, it might seem like engaging with academia (conferences, papers, feedback, and teaching), plus the ongoing demands of lots of reading and writing could be a heavy burden. If that’s the case  then it might be helpful to organise yourself



Doing a PhD: Engaging with Academia


Continuing with the tips I’d give myself if I could go back to when I started my PhD, this post moves on from preparing for the journey ahead. It emphasises the importance of figuring out whether you want a career in academia, and offers some tentative ideas for how one might go about making that decision:


Decide whether you want to go into academia early

This is linked to the point about research as a means or an end in the previous post, and will shape what you do in your PhD; if you want to go into academia then you need to focus on that end goal from the outset. This means working on getting publications, building networks of fellow researchers, organising and attending events, gaining teaching experience, and flogging your research outside academia (i.e. impact). Evidence of these things will put you in good stead when it comes to applying for hyper-competitive academic and postdoctoral research posts. If you want to go into another sector then figure out what the requirements are for breaking into it early on, start going to sector-related events, network with relevant people (even if networking doesn’t come naturally to you), and tailor your research outputs to the requirements of that sector. Of course, it’s not necessarily easy to know whether you want to go into academia at the outset of your research, but there are a number of things you can do to help. The first is, again, to think about research as a means or an end, and the second is to follow next three pieces of advice.


Start going to conferences with paper deadlines early

This is an excellent way to set yourself external deadlines that have to be met (credible commitment, anyone?); once you’ve been accepted to present a paper at a conference it’s generally bad form to renege. All the better if the conference actually requires you to submit a written paper (rather than just turn up and present your research). This will make you write something and, in doing so, think about the flaws in your research, formulate your arguments, and consider how to present your findings. The earlier you do those things in your PhD, the better. Linking this to the previous point, it will also give you the chance to establish whether you like the academic conference experience. Travelling a long way and taking time out of busy schedule to present to a half-or-three-quarters-empty room can be disheartening but, at the same time, it means you get to meet ace people, many of whom will share your research interests, and you often get to do so in fantastic locations.


Seek and respond to criticism but don’t take it to heart

This is linked to the above; academic conferences are a key means by which to get external feedback on your research. Scary though that can be, it’s one of the best ways to ensure that your research is as good as it can be. Even if you’re not going to conferences, you should be writing things (see next post) for your supervisors to review and critique and, ideally, submitting articles for review. Reviewers (and supervisors) may not hold back in their criticisms, which can be demoralising, but again this is one of the best ways to improve your research. It’s also useful to seek feedback because if you can’t abide this sort of pointed criticism (and, potentially (though thankfully not in my experience), intellectual, methodological, and analytical prejudice or one-upmanship) then academia might not be the best sector for you. Of course, part of coping with such criticism is not taking it to heart, so remember that it’s rare for feedback to be based on unreasonable dismissal of the work or personal disdain for you.


Get teaching experience early

This was a game changer for me. I enjoy research (for research’s sake) and also hoped that my work would have impact outside academia (alas, as yet, it hasn’t got close to the levels I’d intended), which is all good and well. But, I love teaching. It’s essentially being employed to have interesting conversations (in my case about politics). You can help people understand things, be challenged by them (and change your own thinking), and see them develop. I found it deeply, deeply rewarding, but I didn’t try it, and thus find out, until the penultimate year of my research (out of four). You may or may not like teaching, but it is likely to be a large part of an academic career, so get experience of it early on and figure out whether you want to do it for much of your working life.


If you’re already engaged with academia, and on your way to knowing whether you want to stay in the field for the remainder of your career, congratulations. It took me until almost my final year to figure this stuff out. Crucially, whatever you’re preferred career is you’ll have to spend a great deal of time reading and writing to get your thesis done, as the next post makes clear…




Doing a PhD: At the Outset


I recently submitted my thesis and am spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about how I could have achieved more of the goals that I had at the beginning of my PhD. In that light, and in an effort to help those embarking on the postgraduate research journey avoid my mistakes, I thought I’d write down all the things I’ve learnt in the form of the advice that I’d give myself as I began my PhD. Think of this as ‘My PhD: A Warning from History’. Of course, this also has useful cathartic side-effects, as you’ll probably pick up in some of the points. Some of my thoughts will be of particular relevance to people doing quantitative social science research in the UK context, but other points will, hopefully, be more widely relevant. Some of the points are also blindingly obvious so, if you prefer, you can take this as an indicator of how bewilderingly oblivious I was during my research (which, I guess, may undermine my claim to offer any helpful advice). There are twenty-three points overall so, in an effort to make their consumption more manageable, I’ve split them up into sections that I will post separately. The theme of this post is ‘At the Outset’ whilst the next one will cover ‘Engaging with Academia’. Then there’ll be ‘Reading and Writing’, ‘Organising Yourself’, ‘Time, Money, and Location’, and finally ‘Keeping it Simple’. That’s about as far as the structure goes; I haven’t added the bells and whistles of lots of introductory or concluding text because the main focus is on the substantive points. I may add to points in various sections (or even add entire sections) as more things occur to me and, in the meantime, I’ll hawk this around my (many and varied) doctorate-holding friends so that they can contribute to, and riff off, it as they see fit. So, without further ado, here are the first three things that I’d tell myself if I could travel back to October 2012 (yes, it’s really that long since I started):


Think carefully about research as a means or end

Do you do research for the sake of research, or to achieve another goal? It’s good to know the answer to this question before you start a PhD, because it will influence your approach. In other words, do you get out of bed in the morning because you always have questions rattling around in your head that you want to think about more or try and find answers to? Or do you have a particular career, or type of impact, in mind that you’re hoping to achieve. Of course, this is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy but it’s useful to be cognisant of what drives you. Knowing this will certainly help when you enter the home straight and, whether you like it or not, the whole project becomes about meeting a deadline, submitting a document that conforms to particular requirements (i.e. hoop jumping) and, ultimately, getting a piece of paper that says you’re good (enough) at research. Also, your disposition will shape everything you do in your research so you may as well be explicit about it at the outset, and allow it to influence the particular questions that you focus on (e.g. of interest to more or less academic audiences), the methodology you adopt (e.g. something that appeals to experts in your field or to policy-makers), and the training that you do (e.g. courses that might be of use later down the line if you carry on doing research, or courses that will help you finish the PhD on time and move on to whatever’s next).


Don’t be complacent

Before my PhD, I worked for a year in campaigning, and then for two and a half years as an elections and representation coordinator at a students’ union. This sparked my interest in the topic that I ended up researching, and also gave me experience of project management, running training and events, and doing administration. Thus, I thought that my organisational experience would make undertaking a research project pretty easy. I was wrong. The requirements of academic research are totally different from those that existed in the other contexts that I’d worked in (and, I imagine, many other work contexts). There aren’t the same kind of external deadlines in academia, you can encounter deeply challenging intellectual, methodological, and analytical problems (which might take far longer to resolve that you could have anticipated), and you (probably) won’t have the same kind of line management and appraisal. Departments are increasingly putting hard deadlines in place so that pressure is brought to bear on students, but a PhD is essentially a self-motivated research project, and that’s no small undertaking (as the following points will hopefully demonstrate). So, don’t expect to walk it.


Have your end date lasered onto your eyeballs

OK, don’t go this extreme, but make sure you bloody well know the actual, concrete, end date of your PhD (by which I mean the end of your completion year or, if you’re mega-keen, the end of your three  years (funded, hopefully)). Print it out in bold, underlined, red letters, and have a copy above every desk you use. This is when you have (repeat, HAVE) to be done, and I think it’s good to be aware of this throughout. By contrast, I managed to lull myself into the misguided sense that it was a never-ending journey, and thus I didn’t work as hard as I needed to until the end was far too near.


So, with your motivation established, some humbleness adopted, and a clear end date emblazoned across every visible surface in your home and office, the next thing is to figure out whether you want to go into academia