Thursday, 10 February 2011

Things I wish I’d known before I started my PhD (by Liz Brewster)

Be utterly systematic
In your file names, keywording, referencing – this means you won’t spend hours later on in your PhD looking for what you need. Also, set up alerts on all your relevant database searches, get the tables of contents of relevant journals emailed to you, and keep up with the field as it continues.

Do things other than your PhD 
Go to conferences, do some teaching, write some journal papers, submit bids to get funding to go to conferences. It’s all part of building your skills and profile, and disseminating your research.

Make contacts
Ask for help – it’s your PhD but you can’t do it in isolation. If you’re working with research participants, you need to talk to the people who might provide access to them – the gatekeepers.

Offer something in return
Reporting on your research to participants is good practice. They might be interested in what you’ve learnt and how it can impact on service provision or innovation

Time management
Everything that you think will take five minutes will take an hour, and everything you think will take an hour will take five minutes. Unless it takes two hours.

Academic journals operate in eons, not weeks
The academic journal peer review process is one of the slowest things in the world. When you’ve finally written a paper, you send it off, and wait… and wait… and wait. A journal have had a paper of mine for three months now, without a word. If there are corrections, it can take even longer to get it through the process. My last paper took nine months to go from finishing the first draft to online publication. And about three months before the end of your PhD, someone will say to you that it’d be a good idea to have a paper out before your viva. Be prepared.

Good supervisors help make the PhD
Mine are excellent. I also like having a team of supervisors – they have different skills and different perspectives, and the PhD is richer for it.

The amount of work you think you can do in three years is totally different to the amount of work you can actually do in three years
When you start, there’s a tendency to be over ambitious. You will almost certainly need to refine your proposal. A lot.

Confusion is normal
You won’t really know what you’re doing for the first year, and that’s OK. You’ll just spend the first year planning and thinking and probably quite confused and that is utterly normal. At the end of your first year, something will click and you’ll know what you’re doing.

So is hatred
At some point, you will be bored by your PhD, or hate it, or both. It’s such a common phenomenon that the counselling service at Sheffield run a workshop entitled ‘On hating your PhD.’ These two phenomenon link with the next…

Keep going
You’ll get through it with perseverance, self-motivation and sheer bloody-mindedness.

No one expects you to change the world
Your PhD is not a paradigm shift – and no one expects it to be. It is a training process, and the most important thing you will learn from it is how to be a researcher

Be realistic
It is not necessary – or possible – to read everything ever written on your subject. You’ll never get anything else done.

Be friendly
Your fellow PhD students will be an important source of support, humour, biscuits, information and may just help to keep you sane throughout the whole process.

Liz Brewster

(with thanks to Liz Chapman, Mark Hall and Juliet Harland for sharing thoughts…)


  1. Thanks very much for sharing these tips - I found them very helpful (and have already identified a couple I could be working on...)

    I hope you hear something positive about that journal article soon!

  2. Liz - Very helpful tips, but a little bit optimistic about the rate at which journal articles take to emerge. I've had them sit with referees for over 6 months!