Starting your PhD is a daunting experience. For a lot of PhD students, they’re thrown right into the deep end, given full autonomy, and have to start making independent decisions right away. This can take some time to adjust and in the short term, feel overwhelming and might even be the root of some imposter syndrome – especially if this independence is new to you. Although you will eventually grow into it and learn how to manage this sense of independence, is there anything you can do to manage the process? What can you do to set yourself up for PhD success? What would the advice be for people just starting their PhD?
This post will cover a range of topics and things to consider on how to set yourself up for PhD success. First, we’ll touch on just the PhD experience – focusing on what matters for the completion of a PhD. Next, we’ll expand this further and look at how to take full advantage of your PhD programme in a way that sets you up for success after you finish.
To start, the best thing you can do is truly understand that a PhD is a marathon not a sprint. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter too much as to what you do or don’t do on a daily or possibly even weekly basis. This can be helpful when things get tricky or you feel as though you’re not making progress as fast as you ‘should’ be. PhD’s come in highs and lows, it’s transient and dynamic. You will have periods where you struggle to get 200 words down on paper, you will have days where you are able to produce work with the potential for it to be published. The sooner you accept this and learn to ride the wave the better. Constantly trying to swim upstream or force yourself to be productive by staying late or doing extra hours will ultimately kill your productivity and quality of work in the long run. It will also damage your mental health and interfere with your personal life. In the first instance, when motivation is low, take the day off and don’t resist. Tomorrow will be better.
For most PhD students, this is all they need to hear. Majority of PhD students operate differently to the rest of the working world. They turn up early, they work with vastly complex issues that most people don’t have the patience for, when they’re not working they’re thinking about working, or feeling guilty for not working. All in all, PhD students produce more tangible and inspirational pieces of work (whether that be publications, books, blogs, podcasts, videos, grants, you name it) with less resources and for less money. If this is you, maybe skip ahead to the next paragraph.
The only caveat to this first tip for PhD success when it comes to riding this wave is to not drown in it. If lack of motivation, inspiration, or commitment starts to seep in and these unproductive days turn into weeks or possibly months (you can actually probably get away without doing work for one month, honestly), then you’ll need to take action. Counterintuitively, this slump may actually be caused by PhD burnout, in which case you’ll need to take some time off to fully recharge. Otherwise, you’ll need to switch things up and be more productive – which is a post for another day.
When it comes to your productivity, i.e., the days when you are inspired and motivated, what should you be doing to reach PhD success? In this case, it’s more about resource allocation, or specifically, investing your time and energy into the stuff that matters. PhD success ultimately depends on the thesis you write. One step further, the quality of your thesis is determined by how much you publish throughout your PhD. In order to publish during your PhD, you have to prioritise writing throughout your PhD, not just at the end.
In other words, the hours you spend being productive, should be productive only in the context of completing your PhD. Hours spent doing teaching, marking, other people’s side projects (even your supervisors), attending conferences, writing grants, doing talks, anything that isn’t directly related to either collecting data (for research intensive PhD’s), or writing up possibly papers/theses chapters (especially if your PhD is a non-STEM subject) is a distraction.
Of course, doing these additional things are important for both your political advantage in the academic world (presenting at conferences can be a good way to network, for example), or to provide you with additional transferable skills – however you should not be doing all of them at once. Essentially, you should always be leaving enough time and energy in the tank to prioritise your actual PhD – nothing else. A lot of this comes back down to time management. Knowing when you should and shouldn’t take thing’s on is for you to navigate and understand. If you can do this well the chances of you achieving PhD success greatly improve. In essence, less is actually more.
Outside of these two things there really isn’t much else to cover when it comes to completing your PhD successfully. Accept that it’s slow and repetitive, give yourself permission to rest and recharge when your body tells you to. Additionally, keep the blinkers on a little bit. Have tunnel vision on your goal. Research and write. Nothing more and nothing less. If you do this well, you’ll see an improvement in your wellbeing, productivity, quality of work and quantity of work (nothing says this more than by publishing). Of course, the other softer skills such as asking for help, leaning on people to support you when the time is right, and attending training workshops are essential to have PhD success – but only if it’s directly relevant to your actually PhD and thesis. There’s no point asking for help or doing a training course in something completely irrelevant. As said above, keep the blinkers on, work out what the core essentials are for you to succeed and do it.
It’s a bit underwhelming isn’t it, at least to pass your PhD that is, but consistency really is key. Having said this, a PhD programme does not serve to just give you a thesis, a cool title, and a qualification. In fact, a PhD should often be viewed like a job or even a long-term training opportunity. With this in mind, you want to take full advantage of the opportunities a PhD can provide you – but not because it means you’ll pass your PhD – but because you are trying to improve your competency as a human being and develop yourself further. Depending on how much you engage in this part of your PhD is ultimately what will set you up for PhD success after you finish. In lay terms, the ‘extra’ things you engage in during your PhD will make you more employable and adaptable for different career options. You’re accumulating transferable skills. This is the true value of a PhD – it’s versatility. But what skills should I focus on? You ask. Well, there is no hard and fast rule.
Depending on what you want to do long term in your career, or after your PhD (if you haven’t thought about it yet, you should – otherwise it will creep up on you without realising) will dictate what type of skills you seek out. If you want to continue doing research, but in a different setting, acquire as many research skills as possible. If you want to work with data, acquire data and programming skills. If you want to lead teams, or work consultancy focus on your leadership (management and teaching). You get the idea. Identify the skills you need to do whatever it is you want to do and seek them out.
On the other hand, if you have no idea what you want to do, or even if you know what it is you want to do long term – it’s recommended to just get as many skills as possible. Explore the things that interest you, develop in areas that aren’t necessarily relevant to your PhD but still give you new skills, and of course always seek opportunities to develop your interpersonal and people skills. The idea here is that the more and diverse skills you get the more transferable YOU will be when it comes to the end of your PhD. Keep this at the forefront of your mind; skills = options. The more skills you have, the more options you have. The more options you have, the higher chances you have of achieving career satisfaction and success – not just PhD success.
When it comes to acquiring skills to maximise your PhD success, the key thing is to make sure you’re actually learning something new. If you’ve been teaching for 6-months, it might make more sense to stop and pick up something else. You’re likely to gain everything there is to learn from teaching in 6-months, after that it’s dead weight. It’s not helping you develop and it’s also taking time away from your actual PhD (see the first section of this post). Make sure the things that take you away from your PhD are adding value to your CV and personal development. This is vague guidance because there’s an infinite number of skills to be acquired. Lean into what you enjoy, and what’s new. Learn, learn, learn. It will pay dividends in the long term; in ways you won’t necessarily appreciate until you get a job offer in something completely different to your PhD because you picked up a unique skill somewhere along the way.
Taking all this into consideration, it comes apparent that a balance between focusing on your PhD priorities and acquiring new skills needs to be found in order to have PhD success. This is hard and difficult to manage. Again, this is a dynamic and fluid process. Some months you’ll need to prioritise your PhD, some months you’ll have the freedom to explore new things. Keep them both in check and try not to lean into one more than the other. Ultimately, spending too much time on your actual PhD will stunt your growth and make it harder to find a job after your PhD. Trying to obtain as many skills as possible will lead to poor time management, detract you from your PhD and cause burnout. Focus on this balancing act.
And with that comes the golden nugget of wisdom that is needed to achieve PhD success. The minutiae of ‘what skills?’, ‘should I publish?’, ‘how much time should I spend on X?’ hopefully all fall into perspective. All skills are valuable – if they’re new. You should always aim to write and publish, and you’ll need to devote time to this. Spend as much time as you need on everything – if you think you’re short of time, drop something for the short term. When you factor this in and remember that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint, it makes it more manageable. Some parts of the race you need to focus on one thing, other parts you need to do something else. Put things down, pick things up again. It’s okay. Some PhD students don’t ever come to realise this and the bad habits, such as long hours and limited skills, ultimately follow them into their future careers and throughout their life (you can probably see it in your supervisor now). If you’re ever going to master this process, now’s the time. PhD success can lead to life success. Enjoy.
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