Recently I’ve been thinking about what I wish I knew about PhD study before I began. When you start out to do a PhD, there are many things you have to learn that are not necessarily directly related to your proposed topic. This blog post isn’t intended to highlight all of them, since everyone who pursues a PhD has a slightly different situation: the location, institution, department, course of study, expected thesis format (and page length) are going to drastically affect the individual’s experience. There may be many other blog posts that target your particular context (some are linked below), but here are some practical considerations that I think apply to everyone.
1) Research your (potential) supervisor before starting a PhD.
I was personally very fortunate to find a good supervisor. I didn’t do much research on my primary supervisor beforehand, but things really worked out. His teaching/mentoring style really matched my learning style, and I was able to get enough support from him that I learned a ton and became aware of how much more there was/is to learn. I was also fortunate to find a co-supervisor that I worked well with and learned a lot from, which meant I wasn’t stuck when my primary supervisor was unavailable. I also received quite a bit of practical support and can say that both my supervisor and co-supervisor are still important friends and mentors. But I know of other people that received much less support, and in some cases it meant they were unable to finish their PhD. If you’re going to pursue a PhD, make sure that your potential supervisor isn’t someone who is likely to be a cause of difficulty along the way, either causing you to drop out of the program or give you a bad reference later. Of course some things cannot be predicted, and sometimes bad things happen, but do your best to research the person and their track record, or at least their character and interpersonal relationships with (former) students.
2) Learn/develop organizational skills.
By the time I started my PhD I had learned organizational skills for keeping track of bills and projects as an independent musician. But in my first year of PhD study I had to learn how to keep drafts in folders, organize papers, and otherwise have a filing system that helped me find stuff. Even so, I occasionally find duplicate files in random folders on my hard drive. The digital organizational tools you use are only as good as the systems you have in place to help you manage your work. After my PhD I discovered that there was a much better way to organize my files, data, and workflow (more on that in another post), but I would have been even more productive if I had learned these things early on.
3) Get practical advice on finding a job after your PhD, and learn some skills/abilities outside of your main subject area.
Fortunately I had mentors who had their own life experience and had done things in between academic jobs. In some cases they had worked odd jobs after their PhD while applying for everything and anything in their subject area. I learned that the basic post-PhD pattern is: complete PhD, apply for lots of jobs (postdocs, lectureships, professorships), get a few interviews, get a lot of rejections, keep applying, work odd jobs in the meantime, write/submit lots of papers (and receive lots of rejections), finally get a job. It’s a pretty rough deal, but if you’re willing to travel for jobs you have a decent chance. And secondary skills (like how to program or be a barista) can tide you over until you can get back to doing what you REALLY want.
4) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Doing a PhD is hard. Sometimes you’ll wonder if it’s worth it. For some people it’s probably not. But if you pursue it, realize that there are some things you should get really pissed off about, and there are some things that you’re better off letting go. Having people steal your work is worth getting pissed off about, but most other things aren’t. For example:
a) Let go of thinking that you’re better than the next guy. Accept instruction from your mentor(s) who really DO know better/more than you. Even the cleaner in your hall might have specialized knowledge that can help you out.
b) Let go of thinking your thesis must be perfect. Your knowledge will never be perfect, and your thesis is only a snapshot of what you know at the beginning of your journey. Don’t let this fact stop you from submitting it to your supervisor - let them be the final arbiters of whether it’s acceptable or not.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned in pursuing and completing a PhD. If you’re interested in learning more, and you’re actively thinking about graduate school, you might find this UK blog post helpful, or this Australian one. Some other practical advice, as this post notes, is to publish early and publish often, even during grad school. You should also consider searching more specific criteria related to your area of interest, but hopefully these four suggestions will get you started.