Advice from a recent PhD graduate

Lucy A. Taylor, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Oxford, wrote an interesting career-column article in the Nov. 6, 2018 issue of Nature. With the title, “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD,” this article obviously appealed to me! (Thanks for the tip, Curt Rice!)

Luckily it’s not loo late to implement her suggestions, e.g.:

  • “Invest time in literature reviews.” I did a literate review early on, but didn’t use enough time reading what I’d found. That’s why I missed a recent study where another researcher created a survey very similar to the one I’m making.
  • “’I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it’ is the biggest lie you can tell yourself! Write down everything you do — even if it doesn’t work.” How true! Right now I’m struggling to recount exactly how I performed a factor analysis – I should’ve written a more detailed account of the process as we proceeded.
  • “It’s never too early to start writing your thesis.” In fact I was doing just that when I got the tip about this article, but I probably should’ve written more by now.
  • “Break your thesis down into SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals. You will be more productive if your to-do list reads ‘draft first paragraph of the results’ rather than ‘write chapter 1’.” This is brilliant, and I never would’ve thought of it myself. Hurdles become smaller, making it easier to start on tasks.
  • “The nature of research means that things will not always go according to plan. This does not mean you are a bad student. Keep calm, take a break and then carry on. Experiments that fail can still be written up as part of a successful PhD.” How true that things won’t go as planned. I’m experiencing this right now, in fact. The deadline for collecting survey data from my main informants, a class of 220 students, is in one hour! I’ll be following these students for the next 3 years, so they’re incredibly important to my research, but as of right now, only 65 have answered! 🙁  I was hoping for at least 150! I have a meeting with my supervisors tomorrow, and we’ll decide which changes now need to be made. I have no idea how to proceed from here. (Argh!)

In addition to Taylor’s 20 tips for new PhD students, I have 3 more bits of advice that may also be useful:

  1. Record all of your sessions with your supervisors. When you listen to the recordings later, even if it’s just later on the same day, you’ll realize how much you’ve forgotten, or just didn’t process then and there. This is SO useful, and if you have supervisors like mine, you may find yourself smiling throughout the entire recording.
  2. Strap yourself in, and get ready for the roller-coaster-ride of a lifetime! Ups and downs are the norm. On some days you’ll feel like giving up, but on other days you’ll feel on top of the world. If you hang in there, even on the worst of days, you’ll get through it! (So I’m told?) I’ve talked to people who have “wasted” over a year on experiments that didn’t work out and couldn’t be used, but they still completed their PhD’s.
  3. Realize that being a PhD-student is as difficult psychologically as it is intellectually. Stay positive and try not to worry about things that you have no control over. (That’s what Tove tells me, but not many are as positive as her. 🙂 )

(photo taken today)

So wish me luck with somehow collecting about 90 more survey responses in the next hour! I’ve tightened the straps just in case, and am prepared for the roller-coaster plunge of the year…

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