What I Wish We Taught First Years

This month, all around Australia, there will be a whole crop of PhD students starting their degree. It’s an exciting time, but a nerve-wracking one as well. Last time we heard from Jonathan Downie he was parenting a toddler. This time Jonathan has some good words of advice for those of you just starting on your PhD journey. You can read more about Jonathan and his work on his blog Rock Your Talk.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 4.42.54 pmBy 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!

Thanks Jonathan! If you could go back in a time machine and tell your first year self one piece of advice what would it be?

Related posts

5 things to do in your first year

5 things to do in your first week

The best two books on doing a thesis

25 thoughts on “What I Wish We Taught First Years

  1. Ian Street says:

    Absolutely agree. Take it from a postdoc that has burned out, gotten depressed and only found some semblance of being mentally healthy in recent years. Depression sucks, avoid it if possible (it can come from/be exacerbated by unhealthy mental habits cited here and not taking care of yourself outside the lab). Growth mindset, everyone! Done is better than perfect (but still hard to avoid perfectionistic tendencies in my case :-/).

    Ironically, I have really leaned on Twitter and the internet to really turn myself around. It can be a distraction too at times, but it’s such a critical tool for connecting to people, networking, and learning to take better care of myself.

  2. JohnAtl says:

    There are more than two problems. Here are two more I can think of:

    3. When you’re doing other things to avoid doing what you need to do, you aren’t really relaxing either. In other words: you have work, but need rest. To avoid that work you do some other task, rather than resting. You didn’t work or rest, but are still exhausted with lots of work to do – only with less time do to it.

    4. Some online activities, such as posting on Facebook, give you the feeling of accomplishing something when in actuality you’ve done nothing productive. For instance, “Best steak EVER!” with a picture of your plate will get you lots of likes. Your brain likes likes and gives you a shot of dopamine. You did something, people liked it, you’re awesome! In fact, for most people eating a steak is not an accomplishment. And there sits your work undone.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “A PhD thesis has to be an original piece of work that addresses a specific research question in a rigorous way. That’s it.”

    Can I get this tattooed onto my retinas?

  4. Shari Walsh - Resilient Researcher Program says:

    I totally agree about really reinforcing the need for rest and breaks away to first year candidates. I had a client recently who was incredibly surprised and quite resistant to the idea, of taking the weekends off from her PhD in order to spend it with her children. She was already doing over 40hours on her research during the week. Scheduling holidays, making sure you have some relaxation during the week and managing the urge to constantly be ‘connected’ are crucial to remaining sane.

    I also think supervisors need to take some responsibility for making sure their students have some balance and give them permission to take holidays.

  5. jodie says:

    oh i love this post! i am supposed to start my phd on the 23rd, hope i still can, but i broke my wrist on sunday. i watched my best friend struggle through in a research job with a broken hand a few years ago so i know its not likely to be easy (she rocked it in the end though), but posts like this remind me that its ok to be both a phd student and a human simultaneously. apologies for the lack of caps… guess im going to need to work on my one handed typing!

  6. natjosborne says:

    Pacing is such an important point. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. There will probably be times during the project where 7 day weeks and 12+ hour days are necessary, but it shouldn’t be the norm.

  7. Kate says:

    As a part time PhD student and working full time, plus a part time reserach assistant to my supervisor, I find the work-rest thing a really hard balancing act. I enjoy it but I love my down time too – I just have to stop feeling guilty about it!

  8. russellanderson99 says:

    Listen to your body: if you feel tired, don’t keep trying to push; if you feel stressed, do what you need to do to let release it (in a healthy way).
    I often find the tiredness comes with reading, particularly in the early afternoon – my eyes start to feel heavy, my focus starts to drift. It’s much better to accept that I need a 15-minute power nap (a staple of my day, now) than to keep forcing my eyes over the page only to realise I’ve not taken any of it in!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m about to start and I think being realistic is going to be my motto. There is plenty of time to contribute perfect journal articles post phd. Maybe that’s giving in before starting … Time will tell

  10. Reinald Minnaar says:

    Hoi Jacqueline,

    Hier een tip om je aan te melden bij ‘the thesis whisperer email list’ (via haar blog). Hier is een mail die ik net kreeg en ik vind dat er altijd wel weer iets in staat waar je iets aan hebt of om over na te denken. Het is gericht op PhD schrijven, maar ook zeker daarna (voor mij dus) is het zeer nuttig.

    Groet, Reinald

  11. Singbetterenglish says:

    Jonathan – your point ‘A PhD thesis has to be an original piece of work that addresses a specific research question in a rigorous way. That’s it.’ is so straightforward, it’s easy to forget.

    There is a life beyond a PhD, a future that, hopefully, extends and builds on those few years of work. Sometimes people treat PhDs as if they’re going to drop dead the day they finish the last word, leaving their thesis as their only lasting contribution to human knowledge.

    Thank you for your post.
    Best wishes

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