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 www.phdcomics.com|
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.