Reflections on my PhD (or “Advice to my first-year-PhD self”)

A few weeks ago I was asked to reflect on my “PhD experience” at the ACCE DTP and Grantham Centre launch events (University of Sheffield). My unashamedly honest account seemed to go down well with new and current students (and even some supervisors!), so I thought it might be useful to produce a written version for a wider audience. It’s worth noting that I had a generally positive PhD experience, and three years post-PhD, I am still in academia. So this piece isn’t about winging and whining – it’s about giving a realistic account of what went well, what didn’t, and how I dealt with all of it.

Why do a PhD in the first place?

I started my PhD fresh out of undergrad. It wasn’t because I specifically wanted to do a PhD, or even to be a scientist. I was simply desperate to continue the research project I’d started in my final year. I was obsessed with that project. Securing a PhD position in the same lab allowed me to continue feeding my fascination.

Obsession for science aside, I wasn’t at all sure about doing a PhD. I was mainly unsure if I was clever enough. I thought probably not, since everyone around me seemed SO knowledgeable and self-assured. For a long time, I worried about the day my supervisor would eventually realise how badly he had misjudged me.

It turns out that doing a PhD simply because you are obsessed with the project is the very best reason to do one. I’m not going to lie to you: Doing a PhD can be a challenge, and that’s putting it mildly. What keeps you going through the tough bits are the amazing highs when you have a break-through, when you figure out something crucial. This only works if you really care about the project.

Challenging yourself

I actually think a PhD should be a challenge. Although I might not have liked it at the time, I always thought that was kind of the point. It’s pretty amazing to receive the title of “doctor” for your scientific inquiry, isn’t it? I think that deserves some blood, sweat & tears (yep, literally). Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

I faced a lot of challenges during my PhD – as all PhD students do. Many of these challenges were project-specific and therefore of limited interest here. But some were more general and, I think, relevant to all PhD students. Many of these challenges were self-imposed (such as that good old friend self-doubt, who I’ve already mentioned). Others were less in my control. Whatever your challenge, it’s how you deal with it that matters.

Work-life tug o’ war

When I started my PhD, my supervisor sat me down and told me to prepare for it to completely take over my life. Twelve-hour days would be normal, evenings and weekends included. Forget other interests and hobbies – there wouldn’t be time. And, if I continued beyond the PhD onto an academic career, I would eventually have to make hard decisions and compromises regarding things like family life.

All the while, I was just sat there just thinking “s#*t…!” Because, unknown to my new supervisor, I’d just bought a horse! In case you’re not aware, owning a horse is really time-consuming. How was I going to keep this dark secret for 3 years?

At first, I was deeply influenced by my supervisor’s words. For a while I even paid for my horse to be looked after – which was extremely expensive – to prevent my hobby interfering with my work.

This turned out to be a mistake. I learned this one the hard way. It took me right to the end of my PhD to realise that my brain simply can’t cope with non-stop work*. In fact, it’s often only when I take a little break, relax, clear my mind, that I make sense of things I’ve been stuck on. That’s what having a horse – a hobby – does for me. I now schedule time for ‘chilling out’ – away from work – into every single day. That’s what Charles Darwin did on his sand-walk every afternoon. If it’s good enough for Darwin, it’s good enough for me.

*Please also read http://www.ecoevoblog.com/2014/09/26/phd-students-and-the-cult-of-busy/ by Natalie Cooper. Very important.

The transient nature of the lab group

When I started my PhD, I entered a big supportive group. There were two post-docs, four advanced PhD students and a senior lab technician who just seemed to know everything there ever was to know. The perfect environment for a new young scientist to flourish.

But by the end of my first year, three out of four of the PhDs had finished. The other was writing up and rarely around. One of the post-docs had left shortly after I started. The other one was about to take up a fantastic new position abroad. And – this was the real killer – our long-term lab technician decided it was time for a career-change, taking with her what seemed like infinite wisdom.

My supportive environment disappeared. Life became very hard. It’s amazing how long it can take to solve even the simplest of problems without having someone to check with, to ask for advice.

But I still had to get stuff done. And I did. I became an expert problem-solver, completely self-dependent. In fact I really notice this skill now and I’m grateful for it – I’m often astonished by the inability of many students to figure things out for themselves! But if you’re not forced learn these skills, why should you?

Having a supportive lab group is ideal, but it’s important not to become too dependent on others. Your PhD is your own responsibility – in your viva, you will have to demonstrate that your thesis is your own independent work.

Plus your lab group will change. People you might have latched onto as mentors at the start will have most likely moved on by the end. Of course, soak up advice from your lab colleagues. But also find others to talk to around your department. Join (or form) discussion groups. Take coffee breaks with other PhD students in different fields. And ultimately, be self-reliant.

Expect the unexpected…

There were a couple of unexpected additions to my PhD. I ended up working in France for four months: although exciting & rewarding, this presented challenges for my personal life – I felt this was a fairly long time to be apart from my partner and it was indeed emotionally tough. But we both recognized it was an opportunity I shouldn’t miss, and we got through it just fine.

I also had a rather large PhD restructure. This was ultimately my fault: I created yet another opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Just three months in, I decided I wanted to give a talk at the Edward Grey Institute (EGI) student conference (University of Oxford). My talk had be excellent – there would be lots of ‘key people’ there and I wanted them to come away thinking “ooo, she was good”.

So I worked really hard on my talk, practiced it, perfected it – and it paid off! My talk went down very well. So well, in fact, that one of the top Oxford ornithologists at the time, Robin McCleery, asked me to consider applying my ideas to the EGI’s long-studied blue and great tit populations in Wytham Woods.

This was a huge opportunity. BUT it meant practically adding another PhD onto my PhD! I would have to fit in field seasons, considerable extra lab-work and analyses – a more sensible person may have said it was too much. Not me! I just threw myself into it. As a result, I finished my PhD with all the skills I would have had anyway, plus excellent fieldwork experience, a heap more data, great contacts and, as a result, LOTS of job opportunities.

When opportunity knocks – answer the damn door

I’m convinced that the success I enjoyed during my PhD stemmed from: (1) putting myself out there into the research community and selling my work well, and (2) saying yes to opportunities, even if it meant investing more time and effort and taking risks.

I think PhD success and enjoyment has a lot to do with your general attitude: I know it sounds cheesy, but we are what we make of ourselves. You have to make the most of the opportunities that come to you. That’s how you make progress. Sometimes that means pushing yourself fairly hard. That suits me. I kind of like feeling like a warrior sometimes.

With saying that, no reflection on a PhD would be complete without a horror story, would it? Well fear not, I’ve got one of those for you too…

My PhD nightmare

The last 4 months of my PhD were a bit of a dark time. I returned from my last field season in June, laden with weeks of samples to examine in the lab and huge datasets to analyse. Oh yeah, and a whole thesis to write by the end of September. I’d realised that it was theoretically possible for me to finish within three years, and therefore I was gunna do it.

But I didn’t handle writing up very well. The main problem was that I didn’t make a good start on it early on – I had whole experiments neatly tied up by the end of second year that I STILL hadn’t written up. These should have been published papers! But I was fixated on the thesis. And that turned out to be a bitter mistake.

One morning, just two months off submitting, as I sat checking through my emails over a cup of tea, I read something that made my blood run cold. There, in Animal Behaviour journal’s new content alert, sat my PhD nightmare. Someone had published EXACTLY what I’d done in one of my chapters. My best chapter. One of those chapters that should have been published in year two. In EXACTLY the same species.

There are no words.

Eventually, after much despair (I’m playing this down here. Massively), I realised that they didn’t actually do EVERYTHING I did (just most of it). In fact, there was one very crucial and interesting bit that they missed and I still got a paper out of it after I finished. But really, I learned a hard lesson. Don’t swan about. Papers are academic currency, and I lost one by wallowing in thesis chapters instead of getting published. It was the wrong strategy. If you’re halfway through your PhD and you’ve already got good stuff finished, talk to your supervisor about getting it submitted. Then you’ve got a paper AND an almost ready-written thesis chapter too.

Advice to my first-year-PhD-self

So to sum up… if I could go back and give some advice to my first-year-PhD self, here’s what I’d say:

  • Throw yourself into your project and be passionate and excited about your research – it will create the drive you need to get you through the tough bits.
  • Talk to lots of different people about your progress and don’t be afraid to say that you’re finding things hard – everyone finds it challenging. But ultimately rely on yourself, not others, to get you through.
  • Make the most of your PhD – it’s such an awesome opportunity! It’s the only time during your academic career when you’re able to focus completely on your research without having to worry about other responsibilities. Take every good opportunity that comes your way because, believe it or not, this is also the stage in your academic career when you have the most time to do so.
  • Finally, be tenacious. You’re never going to get through your PhD without some significant knocks. Knocks can be good for you – they can make you tougher and wiser – but only if you get up, brush yourself off and keep on going.
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