Is the advice you get about your PhD wrong?

This post is by Dr Matthew Evans who is currently a Teaching Fellow in Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK and Visiting Researcher in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was previously a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Prior to this he completed his PhD at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, York, UK. His research focuses upon human rights, especially socioeconomic rights, transformative justice, and the roles of social movements, nongovernmental organisations and trade unions in advocacy networks. He has recently published “Structural Violence, Socioeconomic Rights and Transformative Justice” in the Journal of Human Rights and “Trade Unions as Human Rights Organizations” in the Journal of Human Rights Practice.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 3.12.00 pmThere is no shortage of voices telling PhD students what they absolutely must do (or not do) to complete their theses and secure jobs afterwards. My experience is that some of the advice thrown at PhD students is inaccurate at best and actively harmful at worst. I ignored a lot of it. Nevertheless, I submitted my thesis after three years, passed my viva and got a postdoctoral fellowship. Here are five of the pieces of advice I came across most frequently but ignored anyway.

Don’t self-fund.

I wouldn’t recommend self-funding (it’s hard) but if you were to believe most of the advice out there you’d be forgiven for thinking it is literally impossible to complete a full time PhD or get a job afterwards without a scholarship. It’s not. Despite the (many) difficulties of self-funding I completed my thesis and started a postdoctoral position before some of my fully-funded colleagues. No doubt a scholarship helps PhD candidates demonstrate the record of research funding many academic jobs ask for but it is not the be all and end all. Nor is it the case – as some claim – that self-funded research is not considered valuable or worthwhile. A PhD is a PhD is a PhD. Having PhD funding did not come up in my postdoc application process, having a PhD did.

Take up as many opportunities for extra training as possible.

Of course training can be useful – but it often isn’t, particularly if it comes at the expense of actual experience. I prioritised other considerations over taking up training for the sake of it. For instance, in part due to self-funding, I took up additional paid teaching over additional unpaid training. I could have taken up training in methods I had no intention of using but ignoring advice to take up any and all research training allowed me to concentrate on my thesis. When deciding whether to take up extra training I tended to ask myself ‘what is this for, will it help get my thesis done and will it help me get a job?’ If the answers were unclear or in the negative I didn’t take do the training. No-one has ever asked me about this in job interviews, it certainly didn’t come up in the viva and spending time writing rather than at training courses definitely helped me get my thesis written in time.

Attend as many conferences and seminars as possible.

During my PhD I attended a fair few conferences and seminars – and presented at a handful too. What I didn’t do was attend every conference, symposium or workshop broadly in my discipline (despite some people advising me to). Unless there was a clear link to my research I avoided attending seminars and conferences when I could have been working on my PhD. There were plenty of relevant conferences without having to think about attending the vast number which weren’t. Not attending seminars on European environmental policy, the political philosophy of John Locke and so on didn’t stop me completing my PhD on socioeconomic rights and advocacy networks in South Africa. Indeed, having time to do research and writing probably helped me get my thesis done and getting the PhD done was a pretty important factor in getting a postdoc.

Publish as much as you can anywhere you can.

Obviously publications are important for research-oriented academic careers. It can also be useful to get used to the publishing process early on. However, in terms of the learning experience and the value-added to PhD candidates’ CVs, the costs of, for instance, publishing numerous reviews of books in your broad field rather than publishing one or two reviews of books which are directly relevant to your thesis seem to outweigh the benefits. Likewise, as much as it is good to get a high quality publication (or more) out of a PhD, publishing in itself won’t help you finish a thesis and – particularly given the focus on the REF and similar exercises – publishing in any outlet which will accept your submission may not be beneficial for a research career anyway. During my PhD I published one book review – of a high-priced hardback which directly related to my research. When I submit research for publication I don’t base my journal choice solely on reputation or impact factor but I don’t submit work to publications I wouldn’t read myself. This excludes most of the journals (some more dubious than others) which regularly seek submissions from PhD candidates in borderline-spam emails.

Say yes to everything.

Probably the worst piece of advice I have heard is that PhD candidates cannot afford to turn down any ‘opportunities’ so should say yes to everything. Many so-called opportunities are pretty much invitations to be exploited or are at least distractions from the important business of actually getting the PhD written. This is even more the case for those self-funding – if I said yes to every extra opportunity and continued to work enough hours to pay my fees and live I would have had no time to work on my thesis at all. For every opportunity which is beneficial there is at least one which is not. I tried to discern between the two so that I was still able to work on my PhD enough, and avoid, for instance, spending months doing no PhD work in order to organise a conference of only marginal relevance to my research or producing teaching materials for someone else’s course for little or no payment. When these kinds of ‘opportunities’ came up I asked myself ‘why should I say yes to this?’ If the only answer was ‘because I was asked’, I said no. Spending more time on my own work probably made the difference when it came to submitting my thesis on time, plus there were enough opportunities worth saying yes to for me to expand my CV and gain broader experience without worrying too much about all the things I turned down or ignored.

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30 thoughts on “Is the advice you get about your PhD wrong?

  1. I hate to say this, but I think that this advice is most relevant to white men, who are already often accorded a level of professionalism by sheer dint of being. If you are a black woman, disabled, trans, or openly queer, I think that you are going to be working ‘backwards and in heels as Ginger Rogers said. Twice as much necessary effort to often be considered half as good.

    • This is an extremely good point and thank you for making it. I think the key idea Matthew is putting forward here is: question all advice, including this advice. Everyone is different and it’s very true that some people start closer to the finish line than others. I’d love another post on this issue if you want to write it? Thesiswhisperer is all about being inclusive and showcasing multiple views.

  2. I’m inclined to think Dr Evans has good advice: he is basically saying focus your energy on getting your PhD done, and be strategic about what you say Yes to. It would be interesting to know how he went about getting his postdoc.

    However, Evan has a good point — and even if you’re white, being a woman can still be a disadvantage. (Dr Evans’ photo is a headshot of a white male, by the way — but he might be disabled or queer 🙂 )

  3. I agree with the vast majority of this post, but I really dislike this talk of self-funding lately. I’m adamantly against it and I’ve had a lot of kick back from people on this. I don’t know if this is a result of departments admitting too many students, but to be honest, there is no real reason to fund your entire PhD unless you’re independently wealthy. I can see accumulating some debt over the course of many years, but I have seen figures recently where people were talking about being saddled with six figures worth of debt for a History PhD and no viable job prospects. No one wants to admit it, but this is an out-and-out mistake. I’m in Anthropology myself (in the US, which may differ from the poster who appears to be from the UK where perhaps things are different?) and would be extremely wary about taking out that much debt for what I’m doing. We can’t have blind allegiance to these grad programs and have them take advantage of us. We’re working hard on this long and treacherous road and now we have to worry about paying for it all too? Not in my corner.

    • To clarify: Australian citizens do not pay fees for their PhD program in Australia – but international students do. Some Australian students also receive a stipend in addition to a fee waiver. Your comment caused me to reflect on how lucky we are the government still supports PhD programs.

      • I always forget that Australian PhDs are fee-funded. In the U.K., I would strongly advice against self-funding as you end up with debts equivalent to a year’s salary in an excellent job. Self-funding your living costs is normal even for ‘scholarship’ holders. A fees and stipend scholarship is really rare.

    • I am a self-funding PhD student, working part-time in roles related to academia – such as digitization projects, grant management, and departmental administration. Even if I don’t get a research post, I will be well placed for alt-ac at the end of my course. I am on track to complete within four years, and I currently only have £4k of debt, which is related to my fees. Those who ‘adamantly oppose’ self funding generally are only looking at one model of doing so, ie the taking on of enormous personal debt. The avoidance of that is – I think – good advice for anyone in any career.

    • 1) There are a lot of countries where universities don’t charge fees from PhD students. Many of these countries allow you to do a PhD without living there all the time.
      So if you pick the wrong country, it’s your own decision.

      2) You don’t need to be “independently wealthy” to self-fund a student life. Millions of people do it through things like work.

      • Saying that someone picked the wrong country to do a PhD is a little preposterous. How or why would I move to a different country to do a PhD when I’m here in the U.S. surrounded by top ranked programs that folks from overseas are clamoring to get into? We really can’t blame individuals– we need to blame these programs for not taking care of their students properly. And I will say this, during my first two years I was told to take 4 classes a semester. I never would have been able to work independently of that course load in order to make money. I needed to be supported.

      • If there are 200 countries and you limit yourself to one (seemingly based on the coincidence of once having been born there) and then complain about the fees, my suggestion that other countries and universities are available is not “preposterous”, but quite practical.

        Four classes really doesn’t sound that much. I did more in one day when I was at law school. And yes, of course I worked at night and during term holidays to finance that.

  4. I came to make the following point but realise others have said it before me. This post was clearly written by a white man, who could focus his every energy on finishing his thesis and still land a job afterward. The same cannot be said of women, particularly disabled or women of colour. The expectations are so much higher for us and so I consider the advice given in this article ‘wrong’ in and of itself

    • I have to say this was my first thought too. I know am not alone amongst women PhDs who have had to balance caring responsibilities and associated emotional labour with my studies, which has often meant I am too exhausted or time poor to put every spare minute into my PhD (let alone extra-curricular stuff). But maybe we can learn from his main point – to focus your energies on where it counts and permit yourself to refuse the bs work that only adds to our unpaid labour!

    • I must admit I this was my first thought too, as a woman who until very recently has struggled to balance caring and grieving for a fatally ill parent, with a PhD. I know many women students must have similar responsibilities and perform the same kind of (unpaid) emotional and caring labour, which means they cannot put every spare moment into their PhD. But this is not reflected in many of the blogs and popular literature on life as a phd student. Even well meaning posts on how to work productively and squeeze every last inch of energy out of yourself I find really off-putting and unhealthy! Where is the balance? Where are the people reminding you: you are not your PhD. Of course we all want to finish quickly and get a job but we also have to keep in mind that our worth is not measured by our work productivity. So, I like this guy’s point, afterall – focus your energies on the important things and give yourself permission to say no to the bs work that only adds to your unpaid labour

  5. It’s hard to assess the value of all this advice.

    Is the Thesis Whisperer giving advice based solely on their own observations and experience? Has there been systematic study and literature review of these issues? Fair enough that friends and family give advice based on little evidence but surely people whose expertise is based on formal study should provide a more rigorous base to give advice. Have I missed the point?

  6. The genius of this advice is that it suggests not blindly doing things that seem in general to be worthwhile but may not be in your specific case. No matter who you are, you need to EVALUATE opportunities, training, publications, etc. You need to set priorities and then not be distracted from your priorities by fear.

    This is even more important for those who may be disadvantaged in the labour market, because doing more things isn’t going to save your from discrimination. Doing excellent work, with a clear focus, might.

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  8. As a single, middle-aged woman of colour, self-funding PhD student, with a full-time job, stressing about balancing pension payments and university fees, and no domestic help, I found Dr Evans’ post very timely. There are several demands on my time and resources.My take-away – prioritize the thesis.

  9. I agree that the author may be situating his outlook from a headstart in comparison to other people in different positions, but I thought a lot of this advice was useful across the field. After all, PhD researchers feel they need to be professionalised to within an inch of their life by their institutions, but to what end? And who has a stake in that professionalisation? Often those of a generation who seemed to have nothing like the same conflicting pressures!

    We should be questioning our commitment to seminar leading/lecture assisting as graduate students when rates of pay are often lower than the equivalent private teaching – or sometimes nothing at all. (Yes, teaching pay varies but I found it surprising as someone who teaches TEFL one-on-one and teenage students for their GCSEs that this type of tutoring can pay really well – admittedly boosted by living in a large city).

    Anyway, I’ve mentioned this article in my blog in case it is of interest:

  10. Totally agree about the conferences. I got a fair amount of pressure to attend an international conference that one of my supervisors was going to, but its relevance was more to her field than mine, so I turned it down, despite being offered $ to support my travel and expenses to the other side of the world. My colleagues thought I was nuts, but it would have added yet another two weeks to the finishing time, for no particular gain and no relevance to getting a job later.

  11. I would agree that attending all the conference, seminars and training is not beneficial unless it is directly related to your area. It distracts the PhD candidate from writing and doing what will actually help him/her graduate.

    • I completely go with the point @Sanwal55. Attending all the PhD conference, seminars and training Seminar which wont help rather going with the expertise it is directly related to the area. Ex: attending medical writing training in the special education consultancy like Tutors India, PhD Assistance or Medical writing Experts will give a large benefit and clear cut idea(what should and what should avoid) from getting experts advice

  12. I both agree and disagree with many of the responses made to this post. That said, I’d like to thank the author and The Thesis Whisperer for posting it. Heeding advice from anyone or any source is subjective. Use and apply what is useful, and disregard what isn’t applicable to you.

    In my experience, there is a deluge of ‘cure-all’, one-size fits all approach given to PhD students, and really, we just have to weed through it all to figure out what’s best for us.

  13. I both agree and disagree with many of the responses made to this post. That said, I’d like to thank the author and The Thesis Whisperer for posting it. Heeding advice from anyone or any source is subjective. Use and apply what is useful, and disregard what isn’t applicable to you.

    In my experience, there is a deluge of ‘cure-all’, one-size fits all approach given to PhD students, and really, we just have to weed through it all to figure out what’s best for us.

  14. This posting reminded me of a similar one from last year:

    I think the advice of the two postings applies to everyone: that the point of a PhD program is to get a PhD, so grad students should be selective when choosing which “extras” to partake in. For me, this is hard – there are always interesting diversions that could prove to be useful to me in my career. I have had to learn to ignore them.

    A whiteboard in my (shared, grad-student) office says “eyes on the prize” and I look at it every day.

  15. Thanks Thesis Whisperer for the thorough information. I think you have shared valuable experience. It is worth noting that self funding PhD is very expensive these days considering tuition, materials/books, cost of attending conferences etc. One will need some form of support in a form of bursary, loans, scholarships etc during PhD studies. Thanks

  16. I self-funded my entire PhD by doing it part-time and working alongside it (I am in the UK by the way). I made that choice because I loved my research and wanted to do it. Yes, at times it was challenging to get the balance right, sometimes I resented my job for taking me away from research (I should say three jobs as I changed post a couple of times, and did some teaching), and it was occasionally hard to see full-timers who started after me finishing before me. However, it also gave me great experiences outside the world of academia, my CV is full of transferrable skills which lately enabled me to get a project manager role in my department. I also got the chance to get away from my research when it was being tricky and do something else for a while! I’m submitting in three weeks and I’ll finish the PhD with no debt and a massive sense of accomplishment. There are all sorts of ways to do a PhD, and as this post suggests, it’s important to find the model that works for you,

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