Friday, 11 June 2021

Things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD… (part 2)

Posted by members of the Population Health Interventions Programme at the MRC Epidemiology Unit

This is Part 2 of our PhD SURVIVAL GUIDE. In Part 1 we found out that doing a PhD (or any research) is challenging but the ‘this might be okay’ stage always comes; continuously comparing your work, and yourself, to others is the thief of joy; and research is a team sport and you're the boss so start channelling your inner Arsène Wenger!

Like most research groups, ours comprises an ever-changing cast of early, mid and senior career researchers. Our training is in a variety of academic disciplines and we all have different short, medium and long term life and career aspirations. While our experiences of public health research are naturally individual, we have noticed some commonalities. We share these here to provide reassurance to those new to the game that whatever they’re feeling is almost certainly ‘normal’. Challenging experiences are often interpreted negatively, particularly when they are first met. We propose that they can often be reassessed and reframed in ways that make them positive parts of a continuous learning and career development journey. Other people might have different experiences, this is ours…


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4. We’re all in this together – don’t take it personally

It is impossible to overstate the importance of not taking feedback personally. Opening a document containing feedback from your supervisor or peers and seeing a page full of colourful tracked changes and comments can sometimes feel like personal criticism. It’s all too easy to see this as a setback but in reality, this is what teamwork looks like. Your supervisor is there to ask the difficult questions, and to stretch you intellectually. All feedback is intended to be helpful, so you can produce a stronger output.

Trust us, your supervisor doesn’t expect perfection. Think they don’t receive similar feedback from their colleagues? Think again. But they’ve learned from experience that falling short of perfection is okay. Few imperfect ideas are that imperfect!

Also, what does perfect look like? There’s rarely a ‘right’ answer to any question, and there are different but equally valid ways to approach most things. Different is not necessarily better. Although you’re bound to immediately presume what you’ve done is ‘wrong’, our advice is to take a breath, remind yourself why you did what you did, and be prepared to defend that. This will be an essential skill for your viva! But remember to respect the time it took for someone to really consider your work, by reciprocating and carefully considering their ideas.

Your supervisor wants to see you succeed because your success is also theirs. Seeing your student flourish is immensely gratifying. It rewards everyone’s intellectual contribution to the work, and validates that seedling of an idea, planted by your supervisor, which has since blossomed under your care. Lastly, don’t forget that as much as you’re learning from them, they’re learning from you, too. You wouldn’t be doing that systematic review if they knew the answer already. 

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
5. A PhD is a job, not a way of life

For most of us, reaching the start of a PhD represents lots of hard work and effort. It is tempting to think that means you should pour your life into research, and nothing but research, for three or more years, to do justice to that opportunity.

But your PhD can benefit from some down time. Giving yourself a mental break from research means you can return to work with renewed enthusiasm. Time away can also offer clarity and sometimes inspiration! Setting boundaries between research and the rest of your life can make the entire PhD process more sustainable and ultimately, more enjoyable. It can be easier to work efficiently and effectively in distinct working hours (even if those aren’t 9-5), with the incentive of doing something else that you enjoy at the end of it.

However, intending to take time off work and actually doing it are two very different things. During busy periods, it is easy to prioritise your PhD over other areas of life. It also becomes harder to switch off thoughts like “should I read that extra paper?” or “maybe I should do that analysis?” while you are trying to relax.

There are simple ways you can give yourself a better chance of achieving the elusive ‘work-life’ balance. Scheduling time – and protecting that time – to do a particular hobby, sport or social activity can help. It is much easier to rearrange a “hope to do yoga at some point this week” than a class you have booked at 7pm on Wednesday. Similarly, committing to doing things with other people is a great way to cultivate new friendships with colleagues, enjoy their company, and follow through with a plan. At times of self-doubt, it is also a good reminder that there are many other things you are capable of, and that life isn’t all about the PhD! 

6. Some bad things may happen that are not okay

A healthy PhD experience should be challenging, yes, but if this starts to have a negative impact on your physical or mental health and affects how you would normally function, something could be wrong. There are fantastic resources on the Mind website which are a great starting point to help you be more aware of your feelings. Struggling with mental health is very common in life and you are not alone. Seeking help and support is important though. Don’t be afraid to tell your supervisor if you’re struggling.

Sometimes though, the cause of these struggles can be external, and in particular, your relationships with supervisors. Supervisors are responsible for challenging you but also encouraging and supporting you. If there is a problem with your relationship, it is always wise to talk to your supervisor if you can, as they may not realise there is a problem. People are not always immediately compatible in their working styles; this is okay and can be worked through.

If a dysfunctional relationship is caused by a supervisor who is behaving inappropriately, this is not okay. Harassment or bullying of any kind should be escalated through the proper channels in your university. Speak to fellow students you trust candidly about your experiences too; you may not be the only one suffering and they could help support you through it.

The student always becomes the master
7. Enjoy every step of the journey

The good things that come from doing a PhD are not necessarily what you might expect. For some, the highest high is indeed right at the end, the crescendo, when the thesis is submitted. But for many this can feel like an anti-climax. The more you can learn to embrace and enjoy the process, and the less you anticipate what you think will be the good things, the more good things will come your way. A breakthrough with your data collection, your first set of meaningful results, mastering a new skill, or even just a meeting with your supervisor that goes particularly well, are all cause for celebration. Each milestone is a block that forms the foundation of your PhD and each one is a vital move towards your end goal. There is nothing more rewarding than the sense you are on the right track.

As you progress, you will also start noticing that people begin treating you like the expert you are becoming. You might not feel like it, but the student always becomes the master. As strange as these moments feel, you should enjoy them. They are an external reminder that you know more than you think you do. 

Occasionally you will sit back and realise, "I'm doing a PhD! And that’s pretty cool". Stop thinking that you need to have all the answers, or even that you know where your research is going, and instead realise you are there to learn and there to explore, wherever that takes you.

That’s it!

We hope that these points have been helpful, and that you are able to look back at these blog posts when it feels like everything is going wrong. Trust us, it most probably isn’t. We have all been where you are and have lived to tell the tale. Most of us would love to be in the position you are right now again, even just to spend time reading those papers that we still can’t get around to. Try your best to enjoy this incredible experience. You’ve got this!

Authors: Catrin Penn-Jones, David Ogilvie, David Pell, Dolly Theis, Emma Lawlor, Hannah Forde, Jean Adams, Jenna Panter, John Rahilly, Kate Ellis, Martin White, Matt Keeble, Nina Rogers, Rich Patterson, Roxanne Armstrong-Moore, Tom Burgoine, Yuru Huang.

Song: We're All In This Together (From "High School Musical"/Soundtrack Version)
Artist: High School Musical Cast
Writers: Robbie Nevil, Matthew Gerrard
Licensed to YouTube by: UMG (on behalf of Walt Disney Records); UNIAO BRASILEIRA DE EDITORAS DE MUSICA - UBEM, ASCAP, AMRA, LatinAutorPerf, Walt Disney Music Company (Publishing), LatinAutor - SonyATV, LatinAutor - UMPG, CMRRA, UMPI, and 15 Music Rights Societies

1. "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

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