Patience and persistence

You didn’t start a PhD because you thought it would be easy. You knew it would take time, and you knew it would involve difficulties along the way.

But, still, it’s easy to get frustrated when things don’t go your way.

During my own PhD, I felt demotivated because I wasn’t getting results as quickly as others were. I got frustrated when experiments didn’t work, and I never fully invested myself because I didn’t want to take the risk.

Of course, these responses were the opposite of what was needed. It was only when I slowed down and started doing things carefully, without worrying about the end result, that my fortunes changed.

I developed the patience to do things slowly and the persistence to keep trying. And, crucially, I maintained these attitudes when I faced challenges throughout the rest of my PhD.

The challenges you face in your PhD are really just tests of your patience and persistence. How will you respond?

See also

The invincible mindset

Dealing with research stress

What are you waiting for?

This is the year when I’ll finally do [complete the blank].

Whatever it is you intend to do this year, if you haven’t started moving towards it yet, do something about it today (even if it’s just a small step).

It’s easy to set goals for the future, but it’s equally easy to think of reasons why you can’t do it yet. You don’t have the money. You don’t have the time. You don’t have the experience or the skills. You need to finish [complete the blank].

Conditions will never be perfect. There will always be more urgent needs. There will always be competing demands on your attention.

Nothing can stop you if you really want to do it. But you have to do something about it today.

Announcing The Writing Course

In just under a week, we’ll be starting the latest edition of The Writing Course. It’s a course to help you build your writing skills and guide you step-by-step in writing your thesis.

Ultimately, the aim is to transform writing from a stressful burden into a useful tool.

It’s the only course of it’s kind, based on 8 years of development with PhD students from all over the world.

Starts 9th January 2019. More details here!

Free webinar: How to write your PhD thesis: An introduction to the fundamentals

What is it?

A free webinar introducing the basics of thesis writing

When is it?

Friday 21st December, 1 pm UK time. The webinar will last around 90 minutes.

What will I learn?

  • Why academic writing is so difficult
  • Why the standard approaches often don’t work
  • Why there’s no such thing as writer’s block
  • How to solve problems of expression
  • How to structure your writing

And more…

What if I can’t make it live?

You can register anyway and watch the recording

How do I register?

Just fill in the form below! Or click here.

Contradictory beliefs

When you have two (or more) contradictory beliefs, it’s as if you have two forces pulling you in opposite directions.

I have to write the best thesis, but I’m terrible at writing

I won’t pass my PhD, but I can’t quit

I am capable of anything, but I can’t do this

These contradictory beliefs put you under immense strain. They take up so much mental energy, but it’s purely destructive because the energy has nowhere to go.

What contradictory beliefs do you hold? What beliefs can you let go of?

How to define terms in your thesis

First, here’s how not to do it.

“[Name of the thing] is defined by Smith (2001) as …”

I know this is how many people define terms, but it’s not always good to put the name of the thing you are defining at the start of the paragraph. If this is the structure you use every time, it quickly becomes repetitive and dull.

Instead, set up a context or situation that gets the reader interested.

For example;

The exact definition of … is the cause of some disagreement in the field. Perhaps the most influential definition is that of Smith (2001), who described it as …”

This places Smith’s definition within a context. The reader knows that it’s influential but that there’s some disagreement, and it’s perfectly set up to then discuss other definitions.

One of the key criticisms of Smith’s definition is that it does not take into account… To address this, Jones (2010) proposed…

Then you can say which definition you are using for your work.

If there is no disagreement and you’re describing an accepted term, you can approach it in a slightly different way.

If it’s a technique, state what problem it solves;

Until the late 1980’s, there were no practical methods for determining … This was until the development of …, which uses…

Again, this puts the term you’re defining into a context. This is one of the easiest ways to bring your writing to life.

How to get into a PhD programme

Of course, it helps to have good grades from your previous studies, but everybody else applying for PhD positions probably has good grades, too.

If you want to stand out, you have to do something different. The way I’m going to show you isn’t easy or quick, but it works if you’re willing to put in the effort.

The first step is to find academics who do the kind of work you are interested in. You can do this in a few different ways;

  • If you are an undergraduate or master’s student, find out what research is being done in your department (and who is doing it)
  • Search the literature for interesting work (the kind of work that makes you go, “wow, that’s cool”)
  • Find books on the specific subject, then look up the supporting references

Identify a few people who you think would be interesting to work with. Then read, deeply, some of their work. Engage with it. Think about it. Then think of a question to ask the author.

If you contact someone with a smart, informed question about their work;

  • You show that you’re interested in the work, not just getting the PhD
  • You show that you’re proactive
  • You put yourself ahead of the 99% of other candidates who don’t do this

In the initial email, though, you shouldn’t ask about PhD positions. You can mention that you’re thinking about doing one and that you came across their paper while reading around the subject, but don’t ask them to be your supervisor yet. 

Engage in conversation and keep it exclusively around the technical questions you started with. See it as a foundation phase; making contacts and getting a feel for who you might want to work with.

After going through this process a few times you can start making applications. Contact people you’ve had correspondence with before, let them know that you’re now applying for PhD positions and ask them if they would be interested in supervising you.

Doing things this way takes time and patience, but it’s a fantastic way to prepare yourself for a PhD and find good people to work with.

Note #1: If you see an advertised PhD position, go through the same process, but faster. Read the work of the potential supervisor and contact them directly and independently of the application with a question about their work.

Note #2: This process also works for applying for postdoc positions, too

See also:
Who you work with is just as important as what you do

The world’s leading expert in your field [A Rant]

“Getting a PhD means that you are the world’s leading expert in your field”

No, it doesn’t.

Lots of people have PhDs. If they are each the world’s leading experts in their fields, then each is the leading expert in a field of one.

I have never heard of a PhD examiner saying, “it’s good work, but I don’t think you’re the best in the world, so sorry but we have to fail you.”

It’s ridiculous, if you think about it for more than a few seconds.

Getting a PhD is the beginning of your career, not the pinnacle. If you carry on in academia, that’s when you can develop your skills and reputation and body of work. Maybe you will become the world’s leading expert, but it takes a long time.

PhD students are under enough pressure. These kinds of ridiculous-but-pervasive ideas really don’t help.

See also:
What is a PhD, anyway?
How to do a PhD; top 10 tips

Read your supervisor’s writing

The first barrier to getting your thesis accepted is your supervisor. And the best way to know what they like is to read their own writing.

Are they concise or expansive? Do they hold strong philosophical beliefs? Do they have clear preferences for one kind of research over another? These are things you need to know.

You can use this to imitate their writing style (especially if the feedback they give you is unclear), but even if imitating their style isn’t necessary, reading their work is something you should do anyway.

It’s easy to get caught in a literature bubble, only reading things that you think are directly applicable, but it’s important to expand this and to develop an awareness of other work. Being interested in the work of those around you is the best place to start.

See Also:
Is your PhD supervisor a facilitator or a barrier?
Who you work with is just as important as what you do