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10 Great things and 10 Bad things I did during my PhD: Advice for PhD Students
Every PhD student discovers their own ups and downs in the process of completing a PhD, and everyone has some things they wish they could tell their younger self to keep doing, or stop doing. In this hub I will tell you ten things that were helpful and made my PhD an enjoyable process and ten things I probably shouldn't have done, in the hope that fellow PhD students out there might take something useful away from my experience.
Starting a PhD? What concerns you most?
10 Things I did that I definitely don’t regret
- Got married and went on my honeymoon
- This was my only holiday during my PhD, so, you know, after 4 years of undergraduate study straight out of high school and then a year and 3/4 of PhD I think it was deserved. It's easy to get burnt out during a PhD if you have no breaks at all, so I recommend doing something special and having a short break at least once.
- Wedding planning became a new passion: I absolutely loved planning the wedding and doing the craft projects for it and the way it brought family and friends together. It made me feel strongly what a great support network I had in my family and friends, which made me feel more supported in my PhD, and it gave me another new interest outside of my thesis work.
- I gained new security in my relationships and more certainty about the future: Not that I needed to get married to feel secure in staying with my husband, but when you are married, it's a lot easier to take one another along if you have to go overseas or interstate, people expect you to bring the person you are married to where they might not expect you to bring a boyfriend or girlfriend, so it's less likely that you get temporarily separated when looking for work.
- A lot of social events came out of preparing for the wedding, forcing me to get together with friends and family I otherwise might not have seen often, and to feel more relaxed and supported. We held social crafternoons on weekends working on projects for the wedding with our bridal party and family.
- During my PhD I performed with a band for the first time, worked with backing singers for the first time, and acted as a backing singer for the first time. It was something I had always wanted to do, so I suppose the message I'm trying to give is, if there's something you really want to do as well as your PhD, don't be afraid to do it at the same time; it is possible.
- I grew confidence in being the MC at events and doing performances other than dance, involving speaking to an audience.
- I improved my voice a lot, which improved my speaking abilities as well as making me feel that I had developed another skill.
- Had regular social and family commitments
- As soon as we moved out of home my husband and I established a family dinner with our parents once a week where they either visited us or we visited them. This helped maintain our support network, kept our families in the loop about what was happening with our PhDs and gave everyone much needed social time.
- I also had band practice with family at least every second week for the last few years, which forged a new kind of connection with them.
- Every Sunday afternoon we visit a specific group of friends to engage in that activity with the geekiest of reputations, Dungeons and Dragons (actually now Pathfinder but that means very little to most people). We cook a meal with our friends, catch up around the table, eat together and role play fantasy characters. It's a great brain break from thinking about PhD, to do this kind of creative storytelling, and it maintains a connection with friends on a regular basis so we don't become too reclusive. I highly recommend some kind of weekly games night or activity with a group of close friends during a doctorate.
- In the early part of my PhD I also held dinners for my bridesmaids at least once a month; this became a bit slack when one of the girls moved far away and the other started shiftwork, but it was always very important to all of us and helped us to wind down after work.
- Learned other new skills that were creative and worked on creative projects
- Over the course of my fourth year I filmed our family’s ancestral garden to create a twelve month diary of the changes and seasons: This provided great relaxation and connection with family, as well as a sense of great achievement which is nice to have when you are not getting much feedback on your daily work.
- I also worked towards an event for my dance class to collaborate with the family band, which was a very successful night and resulted in having lots of new contacts; don’t underestimate having non-academic networks as well as academic ones; you never know when you might want to do something different, or just need friends.
- Learned to knit, weave baskets and bake new recipes: Again, small achievements to give me a feeling of doing well when feedback was absent.
- Created cool stuff for our wedding: This made me feel as though I was the wedding planning queen and could do that for a living if I needed to; probably not true but it is always good to keep some other skills progressing.
- Entered the Three Minute Thesis competition two years in a row
- Doing this helped me to summarise for myself what my thesis was for, and what it could contribute.
- Creating these summaries re-fuelled my interest in my topic by showing the end goal and the contribution my project could make to knowledge
- I also got the chance to hear about others’ projects and realise the huge scope of PhD work that exists in our university, which was amazing. I highly recommend three minute thesis as an exercise in defining your topic and inspiring yourself in the process of trying to inspire others.
- Got my dancing teachers’ qualification and started an adult dance class, danced a great deal with a significant time commitment and lots of performing
- My new dance students are the best new friends and support network you could ask for; knowing I get to work with them inspires me to work harder to get my PhD work done each day so I can get to class with them. I think it helps everyone to have something like this: another skill you maintain that you are the expert in, a group of people you go to who look up to you regardless of what is happening in your research.
- The class and performances provided affirmation of my skills other than academic ones; play a sport or do a thing where you are going to be applauded sometimes. It’s important.
- Finally, the class was a source of some extra income, although small, which allowed me to occasionally get lunch out or go to something I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to pay for.
- Did teaching and tutoring at the university
- In my opinion, teaching is the best part of academia; doing teaching work made becoming an academic seem more desirable to me.
- When you teach, you are able to help others, so it feels good.
- Teaching the basics can reinforce your own knowledge, and make you more aware of your own research designs and assumptions.
- Made my office full of things I love
- Always have something to look up at and think about that is positive on your office wall, such as photos of great times, things you are proud of, and things that make you laugh.
- Always have access to lots of re-fuelling tea and snacks. Tea in my opinion makes everything easier; perhaps coffee is your thing, but whatever it is that keeps you going, make sure you have lots of it available.
- Have pin-up space for inspiring concept maps and ideas, and anytime you’re feeling great about your research, write something down to represent your thoughts and pin it up there to remind yourself later.
- Held awesome birthday and anniversary celebrations
- It might seem silly, but organising great events for yourself means you will get to see friends and family you might not have much time to devote to otherwise
- Your network of friends and family will endeavour to make you feel special
- Each event provides something to look forward to and plan for, which for me always made me want to get through work quicker
- Themed events provide inspiration for recipes, crafts, songs, and more which maintain other skills and interests for you
- Maintained fitness activities
- Many people stop their sports and forget about fitness during their PhD. This is a bad idea. You don’t want to come out the other side unhealthy and feeling bad about your fitness.
- Choose something simple that doesn’t feel like work: For me this was dance because it’s a physical activity where your brain is occupied with remembering the steps and watching others’ reactions, and you get the fitness as a by-product. It could also just be daily morning walks or meeting up with a friend to catch up and jog along the beach.
Are you a PhD student? Which strategies do you currently use to keep motivated and keep your PhD going well?
10 Things I do regret, that you should avoid
- Went with an ‘easy’ topic by following on with my Honours research rather than choosing something new and inspiring
- Old topics get boring fast, unless you already have experiments in mind
- A change of supervisor and lab would have given me more connections and a wider variety of experience
- At the end of it all, I want to branch out into new areas, but I only have experience in one field
- Sometimes assumed I was not clever enough to have ideas for experiments on my own, and wasted time waiting for my supervisor to approve of them before starting work on software or further writing up
- If you have ideas, write them down, and write up a method and find references for an introduction, and write suggestions for the different outcomes and directions you will go. Send that to your supervisor, rather than a list if possibilities that you’re unsure about
- Moved out of home in second year during a period of uncertainty with my topic
- Excuses, excuses; shopping, cleaning, setting up house, cooking, and a place to hide while not doing writing. If you’re going to move out, do it once you are more certain exactly where your experiments are going and what you need to get done to get through a PhD, or do it before you really start, so you can establish new habits from the beginning.
- Did not establish a strong connection with my co-supervisor
- I only ever had one supervisor who was really involved, so I could only ever get one opinion on my writing and ideas and only had one source of wise inspiration; get a supervisory team, not just one interested supervisor
- Having more supervisors means more connections and more introductions to other researchers who might later want to work with you or employ you; this is particularly beneficial if your principal supervisor is a bit anti-social.
- Underestimated the value of forming a network with students in the same lab
- Your co-students often know things you don’t, and talking or working together with them can help you solve a lot of problems. Form a lab network early and meet up with your fellow PhD students to talk about things you need to know, or just generally how things are going. If you aren’t sure who to ask or how to get something, it’s possible they do know, and you can all get assistance with something together.
- Did not make strong demands or requests of my supervisor to get specific things done for me
- Supervisors have lots of extra duties on their mind. It is actually possible for them to forget about you. Sometimes, you just need to send them a message and tell them you really need them to do the thing, now please.
- Did not branch out and contact other researchers in the school or university who work in other areas I am interested in
- Yeah, other lecturers in your school do fascinating stuff. If you were brave enough to contact them and tell them, they might have got you involved in lab work and helped you produce publications in other areas.
- If you don’t do this, at the end of your PhD you will only have knowledge in a very specific niche, which is fine if you still love it, but that is quite rare after you study something in great detail for 3-4 years.
- Never wrote up my honours work into a paper
- Many PhD students write up their Honours work as a first shot at publishing. It’s a good idea. That’s a first paper for you, along with a lot of experience, and even if it doesn’t get accepted at least you now know the ropes of how to submit. Your PhD experiments may all end up in one paper, and one paper, no matter how fantastic a journal it is in, doesn’t look as good as someone else’s five when you start looking for work. At least if you try to write up your Honours, you can say that you’ve had the experience of preparing work for submission early in your PhD.
- Often waited to be told my work was good enough to try to publish or to put in a conference talk, rather than just writing something and then asking if it was good
- Always write everything down, including a method section, for any ideas you have, and try to guess the different possible outcomes and have a rough idea what you will do next in the case of each. That way, if your supervisor thinks one of your ideas is great, you’ve already done a large chunk of the writing, and you’ve shown off your writing skills to them as well.
- Did not get the chance to co-supervise or recruit Honours students
- If you want to do this, be forward about it, write down ideas for Honours projects and show them to your supervisor, and go and chat to third years, otherwise, you’re easy to miss.
A summary of tips from experience
Maintaining a social support network
Taking up opportunities and advice
Maintaining non-academic skills
Making work easier
Have a regular family dinner or meetup to engage in a family activity
Make the most of your supervisor by being clear about things you need help with or that need doing
Maintain at least one hobby and work at being good at it in your spare time
Stock up your office with healthy snacks and your preferred beverages
See friends regularly and establish common activities
Engage in challenges such as three minute thesis and giving talks to others in your lab
Share your interests outside of your PhD with your colleagues, friends and family
If your office doesn't have a kettle buy one
Make the most of birthdays and other celebrations
Go out of your way to meet Honours students and others who might want to work in your lab
Learn how to make or do new things
Make friends with your office mates
Take time to plan dates or special occasions with your partner
Talk to other academics in other fields you are interested in and maintain contact
Teach others who are interested how to do something you have skills in
Meet and talk with other PhD students about your work and concerns
Talk about your PhD to your partner or a close family member often
Take up any offers of teaching experience or helping with other academic work such as grant writing
Take part in big events occurring in your extra-curricular areas
Have an area to decorate with inspiring messages, favourite photos, quotes or ideas