George has just started the second year of his PhD in Politics at the University of Southampton. Funded by the ESRC’s South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership, George’s thesis focuses on the connection between economic inequality and political trust using quantitative methods. He also spends time as a Research Assistant on academic and non-academic projects related to democracy and public participation. Aside from his research, George is interested in community-engaged academia and mental health.
I have just finished the first year of my PhD in Politics at the University of Southampton. There is a steep learning curve for those beginning their doctoral journey and the process can at times be a bit overwhelming. For this reason, I offer below five key lessons that I learnt during my first year, in the hope that others can benefit from my experiences and the advice that I received.
Lesson One: Pace yourself
The early months of the first year can be both stressful and exciting. You’ve finally been given the freedom to research the topic that you’re passionate about. This can feel like a massive opportunity. What’s more, you’ve heard how important it is to ‘hit the ground running’ and get off to a good start. While mottos like these ones can help if you’re struggling with motivation or focus, they can also be counterproductive. Working too many hours a day or failing to take your weekends off can cause stress and make the whole PhD experience much more difficult. It’s a cliche, but as my supervisor advised me, a PhD is supposed to be ‘a marathon not a sprint.’ I try to remind myself of this, particularly if I start to sense that I’m burning out. There’s no need to put in 110% all of the time, particularly in the first year. It isn’t the final stretch, it’s just the beginning.
Lesson Two: Try to not compare yourself to others
As with many aspects of life, during a PhD comparisons are everywhere. There is always someone in our peer group who seems to be ahead of us; further along in their research, attended more conferences or published more articles. This can then make us feel like we are failing. It is easy to push ourselves even harder, in an attempt to reach those key milestones quicker. If we’re focused on getting a head start on our peers or being ‘productive,’ we can actually end up not achieving much at all and exhausting ourselves. Working at a steady rate that’s compatible with your own wellbeing is much better than running yourself into the ground for a few months and then needing a prolonged period off. In the first year, for example, slowly digesting some key foundational contributions to your topic is much better than trying to read ten journal articles a day. The quality of your reading will also be better if you approach it in a more relaxed way. If you’re too stressed or anxious it can be difficult to focus and process information clearly. When more relaxed, you can absorb new information much quicker and, most importantly, more reflectively.
Lesson Three: Don’t be afraid of making big decisions.
One of the hardest parts of first year for me was making big decisions about my thesis. For those of you conducting your own original research, it is common to be told that you don’t have to keep to the original research proposal. On the one hand, it’s good to not be tied down to the 1,500-word proposal that you wrote nine months earlier. On the other hand, the free reign to ‘start from scratch’ can create an overwhelming number of options. There is an endless expanse of literature out there and the job of narrowing down to a specific set of research questions can seem impossible at times. Halfway through my first year, all I had was five or so half developed ideas. I would go down one route, think it was good, work it up to a decent level and my supervisors would be approving. Not long after, though, I would move to the next thing that grabbed my attention. Going down rabbit holes and meandering is inevitable and is even positive, as it widens your knowledge of the literature around your topic. However, if you have a plan or idea and your supervisors say yes, this is good! Do not keep second guessing and weighing up options into the second term. Your supervisors are to be trusted. If you really like the idea and they’ve approved it, don’t be afraid to commit! Once you commit to a question/topic and start exploring it in more depth, that’s when the real progress is made.
Lesson Four: ask for help and stay connected
Asking for help and staying connected has multiple meanings. The help you may need could be emotional or intellectual, or to do with anything else in your life. Learning that it’s okay to be stuck and in need of some advice or support is something necessary to make the PhD enjoyable (and possible!). Simply suffering on your own is going to make things much more difficult. Use the other people in your cohort or building, your supervisors or your own personal support network. It’s likely that someone is either going through the same thing, or particularly in the case of peers in the later stages of their PhDs, have been through it themselves! For concerns around your thesis and career in particular, your supervisors are there to help. You should not worry about contacting them with questions between formal meetings. Lastly, if you think you’re in need of more substantial support, it’s always worth making use of the wellbeing services and resources offered by your university.
Lesson Five: Keep perspective
Academia can sometimes feel like a world of its own. Specialist terminology, its own culture, the depths of academic Twitter, these things can make the whole PhD process seem all-encompassing. To avoid this, my advice would be to ensure that you invest time in your friendships, hobbies and interests that have nothing at all to do with your work. Having friends that don’t talk about your work with you can be refreshing and help you keep perspective. Aside from relationships, getting immersed in non-work-related activities and hobbies can help your mind relax and process what you’ve been doing. It’s common knowledge that the best, clearest ideas can happen when you are away from your desk. Our minds need time to process what we’ve done. Working constantly doesn’t allow for that to happen.
It is also helpful to remind yourself of the purpose of your first year. It can feel like this is the most important year because it is the time to learn the skills you need and become an ‘expert’ on your literature. While it’s true that the first year is designed for these aims, these thoughts can lead us to become anxious. I went through this process myself. I was really stressed leading up to my first-year review in May and needed to take a step back. I realised that if I’m this stressed at this point, what would the next two years be like? I found that putting my situation into perspective and remembering that I chose this route because I was passionate about my subject and about research, I enjoyed work a lot more. I didn’t have to figure it all out immediately, nor steam ahead. A PhD takes time, and it’s good to let it develop gradually.