“I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show”

Nobody wants to send an email to their PhD supervisor saying they’ve achieved nothing in the last three months. The more time passes, though, the harder it becomes.

An example:

Let’s say, for whatever reason, you are unable to work for a whole month. You have two options with regards to what you tell your supervisor:

  • You can just tell them you have fallen behind, or…
  • You can say nothing and wait until you’ve caught up with where you should be.

The second option avoids a potentially awkward conversation, but it also places you under a much higher burden of expectation.

Another month goes by, but you haven’t yet caught up with where you should have been after that first month (perhaps because you under-estimated how long that piece of work would take). It’s now been two months, so you want to produce even more before you say anything.

The more time passes, and the more you feel you should have produced, the harder it gets to reach out. You avoid being reprimanded, but you also become more and more isolated.

By far, the most common cause of PhD failure (or extreme difficulty) I have seen is isolation and a lack of feedback from other academics. So if you’re in this situation, don’t wait to re-establish contact. Do it today.

I know it’s been a long time since I sent an update. I’ve fallen behind quite a bit but am doing my best to get back on track. Right now I’m working on …, but am not sure how to …

Keep it brief, don’t make excuses, and if you’re having technical problems, ask for guidance.

It’s so easily avoidable…

I’d recommend emailing your supervisor every two weeks with brief updates, no matter how well or badly it’s going, saying what you’ve done, what you’re working on, what you plan to do next. For example;

“Just a quick update: I’m still working on the analysis of …, which is taking a little longer than expected as I’m having to learn (technique) as I go. Realistically, this is probably going to take another week or two, and the next step will be to…”

It only takes 30 seconds of their time, and it ensures that they always know (and you have a record to prove that they know) what stage your project is at.

Don’t try to hide like a kid who hasn’t done their homework. Be professional, be honest and communicate.

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

How to do world-changing research

Most research is incremental, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important; the gradual accumulation of knowledge through collective effort is how society progresses.

But every now and then, someone does something that blows the field apart; fundamentally changing the way the field thinks about and carries out research.

Often, this comes about from questioning, testing or abandoning a long-held assumption.

This is not an easy path. In order to publish your work, you have to get it past your peers. Any paradigm-changing ideas will always, rightly, be held to a higher level of scrutiny, but it’s also worth noting that these are, potentially, people who have built their career and reputation on the status quo.

In principle, reviewers should be impartial, focusing on the ideas and the quality of the research above all else. But this just isn’t the way humans work. In general, we’re very good at rationalising emotional reactions. An academic with a position to protect is even better at it (even if they don’t realise what they’re doing).

But there are always a few. A few who are open and secure enough to be interested, then convinced. It’s those first, brave few who will spread your idea.

So it’s not enough to do the work. It’s not enough to be brilliantly insightful and meticulous in your analysis. You have to sell your idea before it can change the world. You have to fight through the rejection and find the few who’ll listen.

The value of a PhD

What’s the value of a PhD?

For some, the value is clear. You want to do pharmaceutical research? Get a PhD and it’ll open up the possibility of a well-paid career.

For others, the value of a PhD comes from the way it’s perceived by others. It’s perhaps less quantifiable, but in some circles the status of having a PhD can be more valuable than the skills you developed on the way.

Then there are some for whom doing a PhD carries no obvious economic, social or practical benefit. It’s expensive, time-consuming and stressful, so why do it if there’s no tangible gain?

The value of a PhD, here, is whatever you believe it is. It comes from the story you tell yourself about what it means to be the kind of person who has a PhD. This is as good a reason as any to do it (and certainly more interesting than a cost-benefit analysis).

Other people with different beliefs and different stories might never understand, but that’s OK.

See also:
The “good” PhD student

Live Q&A sessions

I’m thinking of doing live Q&A sessions. You can submit questions in advance, then everyone gets to hear the answers and join in the conversation.

Before setting this up, I’d like to gauge interest. Enter your email below and I’ll let you know when the sessions are going ahead. Your email will only be used for updates about free live events, nothing else!

Finish it

No, I’m not talking about the whole PhD. I’m talking about the small tasks that make up the whole.

There’s always pressure to do more. Start the next thing. Follow up on the latest idea. But every time we take on something new, it takes attention and energy away from the other things you’ve started.

One of the best habits you can develop is to finish the thing you’ve started before moving on to the next one.

It means ignoring the pressure. It means putting off that new idea. It means facing the discomfort of solving the problem in front of you.

See also:
Your final PhD Year, moving towards completion
“Just finish it”, Scott Young

Running the PhD marathon

A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. Or so they say, anyway.

Actually, the marathon part of your PhD is your thesis defence; a difficult and exhausting-but ultimately rewarding-challenge that lasts a few hours. The rest of it is training.

The result of your PhD marathon (and the amount of pain or elation you will feel) will depend not so much on what you do on the day, but how well you’ve prepared over the preceding months and years. It is the cumulative effect of what you do consistently over time.

See also:
How to prepare for your thesis defence
Metaphor and analogy in academic writing

What to do when your PhD experiments just aren’t working

It’s the nature of experimental work that things will go wrong. How you react to this is one of the most important determinants of PhD success.

A natural response is to just try again. And again. And again. But, as Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result”.

Another natural response is to try something different, but if you keep changing your approach completely then you’ll always be starting again from zero.

The key, I think, is to slow down and break each step of the process down into its component parts, putting meticulous care and attention into each one. You can then test each step to find out exactly where it’s going wrong, instead of waiting until the end.

I know there’s pressure to get results, and to get them now, but focusing just on the results takes your attention away from the process (which is the one thing you can control).

That way, even if the experiment still doesn’t work, you know you’ve given it your best shot before trying the next option.

See also

How do you react when things go wrong in your PhD?

Reporting negative results