The toddler’s guide to doing a PhD


The last time I posted, I mentioned in passing that I am the proud dad of a toddler (and, by the time this goes out, a new baby too!). As any parent will tell you, you learn as much from your children as they learn from you.

It just so happens that in the past few months my son has taught me a lot about doing a PhD.

He is exploring the world and learning to walk. I just wish I had learned it all sooner! Here is my shortlist of essential PhD skills you can learn from toddlers.

Learn from everyone and everything

When was the last time you paused on your way somewhere to stroke a wall, explore the feeling of a hedge or touch a tree? For my son, the answer is, almost every time you leave the house. At the moment, no walk to the supermarket is complete without a stop somewhere on route to look at or touch something interesting.

It was a while into my PhD before I realised that this kind of wide-ranging curiosity is a good practice for researchers too. Kristin Luker, in her book, “Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences”, suggests that, when you are doing your literature review, it helps to allow yourself to wander a bit. She calls this “following your id”.

Her point is that if we are going to do cutting edge, boundary-pushing, interdisciplinary research, we can’t be too restricted on where and what we learn. The more we restrict ourselves to one sub-field, one set of journals or one approach; the less scope we give ourselves for accidentally brilliant discoveries.

Get used to falling

I am yet to meet a parent who could honestly say that their child learned to walk without occasional (or not so occasional) falls. Falls also come with bruises, shock and, in the case of my son recently, a cut tongue. The strange thing is that, the more a toddler falls, the more they learn to fall properly. They go from falling any old way to purposefully making sure they fall on the most padded part of their anatomy: the bottom.

Eventually, after enough impacts, they learn to walk.

The link to doing a PhD is obvious. On your way to becoming a fully-fledged, hooded academic, you will occasionally (or more than occasionally) make mistakes, have lousy ideas or just plain mess up. Good for you! Messing up or falling intelligently is an incredibly effective way of learning.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s the only way.

So how do you fall intelligently?

In my experience, the first and hardest step is to never take falls personally. One lousy idea doesn’t make you a bad researcher and one failed experiment doesn’t make your PhD a write-off. The more you see the odd fall as a natural part of learning, the easier they are to accept. Once you accept falls, you can look back and examine what you can learn from them. Looking for recurring patterns in your failures doesn’t just give you useful info for your PhD; it might even be the basis for a paper.

Cry for help when you need it

If there is one sound parents get used to hearing, it is crying. My son is actually a very contented little boy but even he occasionally gets frustrated with a toy he can’t get to, a brick that won’t balance or some other little issue. His immediate response is to call over his mummy or daddy for help, often with a kind of whiny cry.

The problem is, when we grow up we mistakenly become more reticent to ask for help. We get proud and start to try to become “self-made people”. Worse still, we can feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness.

If you are doing a PhD, that kind of attitude can be crippling. Read any PhD forum and you will find countless stories of students who have spent months trying to fix a research design, understand a theory or apply a method but are no further forward than when they started.

It should never happen. Almost all of my “light bulb” moments, when I have really seen sudden, massive progress in my PhD, have come when I have asked someone for help. Sure, the answers haven’t always been comfortable but they have always meant some kind of progress.

Celebrate your successes

As I was writing this, I asked my son “where are the lights?” He instantly pointed right above his head to the ceiling lights. Of course, his mummy and I congratulated him for getting it right and then, to everyone’s delight, he gave himself a big clap. When was the last time you let yourself celebrate what you have achieved? Sometimes even grown-ups need to give themselves a clap.

Enjoy the journey

By far the greatest thing my son has taught me is that you can find something to laugh at and someone to smile at every day. Even on my worst PhD day, when the data looks nasty and the theories make no sense, I try to mirror his attitude. After all, why spend several years of your life looking like a depressed bloodhound? Someday the whole PhD process will be over. Until then, I want to make sure I enjoy the ride.

Author Bio:Jonathan Downie, a PhD student, conference interpreter, public speaker and translator based in Edinburgh, Scotland.