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…