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.
There 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.
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.