After so much planning, discussion, coffee-drinking and biscuit-munching, as well as getting properly acquainted with the ever-stimulating delights of the Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton ring-road and parking systems, it is very exciting to be welcoming our first real, live cohort of South Coast students at long last. These bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students are in an enviable position in so many ways, but perhaps most of all because they are to join our wonderful, existing cohort of Southampton DTC students, not only the best and the brightest of PhD students across the globe, but also the friendliest and fun. Together, the whole of the new cohort, from the new Masters in Social Research Methods students to the seasoned third and fourth year PhDs, will have multiple opportunities, experiences and new friendships to enjoy within the SCDTP.
In many ways, I envy those at the start of what is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating, absorbing and fulfilling periods of personal development and achievement in life. But, at the same time, starting out on PhD study is always tinged with some questions and doubts, many of which may continue, perhaps in a slightly different form, as you progress from wide-eyed newbie to long-in-the-tooth done that/been there. So, well over twenty years after getting my own PhD, and with having supervised just about that same number of students to receiving their PhDs, what are my five top tips for not only surviving but enjoying your PhD?
Tip 1: Don’t suffer in silence. You are in the lucky position of being part of a cohort and a member of a DTP-a ready-made support group at your doorstep. Use this. Make friends, start chatting, don’t be afraid to open up and admit to uncertainties. Trust me, everyone is going through the same sorts of experiences, emotions, feelings and challenges -so whatever it is, you are not the only one. So don’t hide away, thinking the only solution is to carry on staring at that computer screen, but grab that chance to go to a seminar, workshop or training session, even if at first it may appear not be bang-slap right In the middle of your obsession with feminist post-structuralist discourse analysis.
Tip 2: Your supervisors are human. It can sometimes seem that there are two sorts of people in the world: those with a PhD and those without. Only super-brains get PhDs, don’t they? Well, no. Your supervisors will remember all too well their own PhD experience and what it takes to get to the other side. They will also have not only enjoyed the highs of discovery and solution but suffered the same challenges and struggles -sometimes even more so! So talk to your supervisors, don’t think you always have to appear to be on top of things and not admit to doubts and concerns. They, more than anyone perhaps, will understand!
Tip 3: Keep writing. There’s no such thing as ‘the writing up phase’: a mythical period where you finally start writing, knowing exactly what to say. Get into the habit of writing every day, and keeping copies of everything you write. Introductions, Literature Reviews, Background chapters, Theoretical Frameworks, Methodologies-these are all works in progress throughout your studies so keep them going, keep adding to them, refining your writing style. Whatever your research discipline, by the end you need to be a good writer and practice, practice, practice is the only way to get there. The best advice I was given by my own supervisor was to write at least 500 words every day, and then go to the beach. The beach might be challenging-so you can substitute this bit with running/dog walking/cooking/drinking in the pub etc., but not the writing bit.
Tip 4: Think about how to make a splash. You are in the amazing position of being funded by the state to do a PhD! You have been selected from a large and highly competitive talent pool because you have demonstrated real promise- that you have what it takes to be a highly trained social scientist and that your research will make a difference to the world around us and the people in it. As social scientists, we care passionately about working towards a better, more equal society and eliminating disadvantage. So, from the start, think about how your research can have some impact and be used for change. Who will find it interesting? Who will benefit and how? Reach out and make contact with your audience. Plan ways in which it may be transformed-perhaps by collaborating with non-academic partners-and make a splash!
Tip 5: This is your job. Sometimes doing a PhD is an amazingly rewarding and inspiring way to live your life-and you can hardly believe you are being paid by the taxpayer to do it! Other times it’s just not. Like any job, you have to get up, get into the office and work all day at something which may not always be particularly riveting and there’s a deadline hanging over you. You will submit something to your supervisor which you have worked on for weeks and are quite proud of and then they pick holes in it. But that’s working life. However precious your PhD topic is to you, however much you want to redefine neo-liberal thought paradigms or produce the perfect methodology, in the end your job is to produce a finished product, good-enough to pass. There will be great days, good days and not-so-good days. But keep at it and, before you know it, one of the great days will be the day you become Doctor!