What I wish we taught first years



By the time this goes live, most of us will be well into the academic year and getting used to cycles of supervision meetings, reading, classes, seminars and conferences. For those of you who have just started your PhD, this is about the time when you realise that if you weren’t a nerd before, you will be one soon.

By the time I got about six months into my PhD, I was heading for THAT meeting. My early optimism (or should I call it cockiness?) was about to give way to humility and anxiety and I was wondering how I would manage to balance full-time freelancing and part-time research. Despite that, I still tell each new set of first years that the first two years of the PhD are the best two years.

I also try to pass on some of the things I wish I had done more (or less) during that time.

First on the list, oddly, is that I wish I had found a better work/relaxation/thinking rhythm. If I am honest, most of the issues I hit in first year came about because I got into the practice working long hours and sending early drafts to my supervisors without doing a sanity check over their contents. I had this insane thought that my first ideas would be my best ideas. Only the experience of having an early paper sent back for heavy revisions, and a colleague who recently read a paper draft and advised me to drop an argument I have been sitting on for over three years made me realise that ideas take time to mature.

As I mentioned in a post about how to write good talks, it is a mistake to assume that you can write a talk or a paper or a thesis going straight from idea to execution or from data analysis to finished chapter. It simply doesn’t happen like that. Your brain works best when you are calm, unstressed and when you let it work on things at its own pace. This absolutely includes taking days off, holidays and time with your family and friends. Not only will those around you thank you for taking time off, so will your thesis.

Your thesis and your mental health desperately need balance. This leads to the second thing I have learned: I need to recognise the difference between healthy diversion and damaging distraction.

Walk into a PhD student office and you are as likely to see social media or the news on their computer screens as you are to see journal articles or drafts of chapters. I am not about to sit here condemning. I do it too. However, what I have found is that I need to recognise when and how non-research web use is becoming damaging.

Here I don’t mean internet addiction but simply using the web, or email or anything else as a form of escapism to hide from issues. It could be a reaction to deadline pressure or a difficult meeting or just weariness but it is all too easy to bury yourself in some behaviour and find it becoming your routine for coping with difficulties in your PhD.

There are two problems with this. The first is that once you start this behaviour, it can be hard to stop. You can easily end up repeating that behaviour whenever you have a challenging task, losing time and making the situation worse, leading to more of the same behaviour. The second problem is that, rather than helping you calm, it can make your emotions worse, especially if you get caught in the trap of getting into heated discussions online or getting angry at those who challenge you.

If you notice yourself getting into these cycles, you need to honestly recognise which way out will work for you. My own method is to use leechblock to stop the cycles developing in the first place. I simply input my usual time wasting sites and get it to restrict my access. For other people, outside help in the form of counselling might be needed. You really do need to be honest with yourself and this includes trying to figure out better behaviours that will help you deal with issues rather than avoiding them. My personal favourite is going home early. You would be amazed at the boost you get from one hour less on campus.

The last thing I wish I learned is that the “h” in PhD doesn’t stand for hero. We all want to change the world, write the most quoted paper, engage with world leaders and end the war on something or other. One day, we might do it. But those things are not prerequisites for graduation. A PhD thesis has to be an original piece of work that addresses a specific research question in a rigorous way. That’s it.

While you should never lose your fire for big things, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve within 3 or 4 years. In fact, it is only realism that can help you stay excited for all those bigger dreams. Once you realise that your PhD doesn’t need to change the world but can be a springboard, it releases you from the pressure to be perfect and to write like Inger Mewburn or Pat Thomson from day one. As the famous quote says “there are two types of thesis: perfect ones and submitted ones.” May yours be one of the latter!