28 April 2014

Surviving a PhD: Tips and Tools

I read an interesting article in the Guardian about people carrying out their PhDs - something I haven't done myself. However, I have worked with a lot of PhD students providing them with research interview transcription support.  

It seems that some PhD students are concerned that universities and supervisors are not giving students enough support. Whilst the nature of a PhD is to do independent research, some feel that more support and pastoral care is needed. 

'Why is it, you might be asking yourself, that very bright, talented individuals clutching phenomenal CVs and apparently facing a world of opportunities, are suffering constant self-doubt, depression, anxiety and burnout?'

It strikes me that doing a PhD can be a very lonely place for some students. However, there is a brighter side with some useful survival tips and tools. 

I've tried to pull out the poignant points from the author of the article and comments from PhD students, although for more detail and to see the contributors I advise you to read the article and comments yourself by following the link below. 

PhD Survival Tips and Tools

  • Focus: one of the most important tools to get through a PhD - embrace the fact that we don't and can't know everything and that a PhD gives us the possibility to "learn for a living".
  • Exercise was mentioned both in the article and in the comments on numerous occasions as a way of keeping mentally and physically fit during a PhD. It's also a good way of making time for yourself without feeling guilty about not working as exercise will enhance your performance. 
  • Keep up with your friends who have jobs - make time to see them and don't hide away in your ivory tower.
  • Treat your PhD like a job - this might involve overtime, bosses you don't like, unpleasant colleagues etc, but that's life.
  • Don't define yourself by the PhD before, during or after the process. You are a human being with a life that includes a PhD. 
  • Don't compare your progress to others. Different projects and different strengths = different trajectories. The speed of completion is of little to no matter once you've got the PhD.
  • It's your PhD. Not your supervisor's, not your department's. Obviously they guide you, but they should not and do not have power of veto. Levels of control tend to vary by discipline, but ultimately you should be able to choose your own approach (and defend it of course).
  • Take time off. It doesn't matter if that's weekends, mornings, evenings, or 12-3 every day. Whatever rhythm of work suits you. But do take it off, and enjoy it - you do not have to constantly work.
  • 'nagging guilt that haunts relaxation'
  • Work expands to fill the space dedicated to it. Therefore early on you should leave space in your working week to expand into. You have much less going on early in the PhD, and it will get busier. If you begin by doing 10 hour days, 7 days a week in the first year, you won't have any room to expand into in your final years. Clearly there's a minimum level of time commitment required, but I'd advise first years to work 4-4.5 days a week, leaving room for expansion. The people who I saw struggle most in years 3 and 4 were those who'd started off working 45 hour + weeks.
  • Consider house mates: living with people in your department can create a powder-keg of comparison, competition and stress. Households with PhD students from multiple-disciplines often work well - the different working patterns, stories and expectations you hear from other disciplines can provide context for your own work.
  • Admit when you are struggling and seek help.
  • Focusing on the moment helps us separate our feelings about our PhDs from the task at hand. We need to identify the negative associations that have tainted the picture of it over time, and then set them to one side.
  • You are responsible for managing your PhD, but others (your supervisor, primarily) should help. If the relationship is not going well, there is a lot of advice on how to improve it – just type ‘managing your supervisor’ into Google.
  • Taking part in wider courses or training that isn't directly related to your research is still important. It can act as a distraction from research, may open new opportunities and, most importantly, is useful from a future career standpoint. 

Other tools and advice were: 
  • cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) 
  • meditation and yoga 
  • others found strength in religion, or insights from ancient Greek philosophy 
  • creative outlets and sports for motivation and health
'I'm convinced that we can learn from each other and don't have to constantly reinvent the PhD wheel of wisdom.'
The article I used to collate the above information is called 'How to stay sane through a PhD: get survival tips from fellow students posted by Inez von Weitershausen in Guardian Professional on 20 March 2014.

I hope you have found something in the above that will help you through your PhD journey. 

My name is Sarah King and I own KATTS offering professional transcription services and specialising in interview transcription. As I mentioned at the beginning, I have helped many PhD students with their research interview transcription

Please visit King Audio Transcription & Typing Services for more information about the transcription services I provide and feel free to contact me if you would like a transcription quote. 

If you feel inclined to like and share this information I would be very grateful. 

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