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…