While PhD students can start at any time in some universities, in some there is a semester by semester intake. This means that some people will be starting their PhD this month. How should you approach this process to get the most out of it?
Judith Krauss, now Director of Studies for Sustainability, is still surprised she a) got through her PhD and b) had any friends left by the end of it. At the Global Development Institute (GDI), University of Manchester, she used in-depth fieldwork in Europe and Latin America to investigate cocoa sustainability initiatives and the environment, incorporating voices from cocoa producers via civil society to consumers and companies. Building bridges across constituencies partly stems from her background of working and volunteering e.g. in Morocco, South Africa, France and Germany in diverse private-sector, public-sector and civil-society settings, from a children’s safe house to the World Bank. As a post-doc, her focus in helping to establish GDI’s Brooks Doctoral College was on creating the best possible environment for PhDs, encouraging them to make their voices heard in academia and beyond. In all research, teaching and being, her aspiration is that people think for themselves and believe in themselves, extending also to volunteering e.g. for the Sustainability Challenge and Manchester Central Foodbank
After I passed my PhD defense in March 2016 (thank you God), friends in earlier PhD stages jokingly tried to see if I could somehow rub off on them. This is the hope of this post – sharing some thoughts on (surviving) the journey. Naturally my PhD principles are specific to my department, the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester (UK) and discipline of development studies, but I nevertheless hope some observations will be useful to everyoneon a PhD journey.
Work on your supervisor relationship(s).
There is a fundamental asymmetry worth recognising: whereas you work almost exclusively on your thesis, your supervisors will have several candidates to supervise, research to conduct, students to teach, books to write, etc. You are entitled to supervision, but try to be respectful of supervisors’ time: meet deadlines, negotiate when they will have time to read your work, both of which is in your own interest.
Clarify your relationship from the outset – what are the terms of engagement with primary/secondary supervisors? This may also involve telling your supervisors what kind of supervision you need from them. To relate across all differences in personalities and background, having continuous, open conversations from the beginning are crucial.
Listen to your supervisors. Mostly.
Especially early on, I was continuously amazed by how the things my supervisors said, while making no sense to me at the time, came back to me about three months later accompanied by a huge light bulb over my head. While I was exceptionally lucky with my supervisors, Prof Stephanie Barrientos and Prof Dan Brockington, there were issues on which we disagreed – some I conceded to them, but some ideas I also stuck to if I had a good reason to over-rule their academic counsel, often rooted in my practitioner experience.
I realised about 30 minutes into my first-year annual review that ‘I did this because my supervisors told me to’ was not going to be a satisfactory explanation any more. I decided to do what my supervisors recommended only if I could justify it as my decision for my thesis.
Break it down into manageable chunks.
Coming from the world of work, I found a deadline three whole years into the future difficult to wrap my head around. So I did what I have told many students since: translate it into manageable chunks. What does the overall word count mean in terms of chapters to draft, words to write, in what time frames?
In our first week, somone told us that a PhD was a constant assault on our self-confidence. It is. The only way forward is through. I discovered that continuous work was the answer to my frustrations with myself – I never had bursts of 3,000-words-a-day productivity, but just persistently read literature, worked on chapters, engaged with stakeholders, until my nonsense would start making slightly more sense. And, surprisingly, it did!
In order to keep going, it is also vital to devise strategies for how to give your brain space to breathe, and come back to work with fresh eyes (in my case: volunteering). And whatever happens, remember it is still an immense privilege to spend years of your life thinking, reading, researching. Appreciate the opportunity!
Engage with others’ work.
However lonely the PhD journey may feel occasionally, there will be others working on similar questions as you. Find them! Try to engage with whatever reading or research groups you can, ideally in your own backyard or further afield.
I was very lucky to have two reading groups in my department which were instrumental in helping me finish in three years and with no corrections (Global Production Networks/Environment and Development): these fora made me privy to a lot of brilliant people’s thinking, while forcing me to look up from my work to recognise the broader debates. Wherever you can get this additional input from – seize it! It helps make you a better thinker and raise questions you had never considered.
Appreciate all who contribute.
You cannot write your thesis alone. And ‘all who contribute’ is likely to be a large group of people –family, friends, supervisors, fellow postgraduate researchers who lend moral and other support (and vice versa!), but also anyone who contributes to your work. Appreciate them! Be clear that you cannot promise funding or support to stakeholders, but try to feed back findings to the public and your contributors.
That can also mean keeping them apprised of what you are doing, not necessarily only reporting back after you have made sense of it all. Strategies I chose were organising public engagement sessions and putting some outputs online, e.g. stakeholder reports and podcasts in three languages.
On a side note, the principle also includes your examiners – I would strongly advocate having nice people in your thesis defense. My examiners, Prof Bob Doherty from York University and Dr Rory Horner from my department, were not only a great fit academically, but made the viva a positive space for engagement.
After being on education’s receiving end for such a long time, it can be incredibly rewarding to give back and engage with students (not necessarily in lectures if that terrifies you). In essay-writing support and dissertation supervision, I found myself repeating to students what my supervisors had said to me, which helped me re-question if I was really making my argument clear in my thesis? And it can be comforting to know that beyond the hours spent staring at a screen, you are benefiting, and learning from, students.
Have a life.
Not as obvious as you think. To thrive in and enjoy (at least occasionally) your PhD, you need activities that have nothing to do with your work – triathlons, meditation, volunteering, whatever.
You need people in your life who have no idea what a methodology is, and frankly also don’t care, because they care about you, not your thesis. Incidentally, having to summarise your PhD for them may help you identify what is most important in your work.
The best of luck on your journey! What are your principles?