How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

This post is an ultra-condensed summary of what I consider to be the most important tips for PhD students. For a more complete guide, check out the book!

1. Choose who you work with carefully

When applying for a PhD, many students think only about whether or not a particular institution will accept them into a PhD programme, but you must also consider whether the institution, research group and supervisor is right for you. Who you choose to work with will have a huge effect on your PhD experience and your chances of success.

2. See yourself as a beginner

Most people who do PhDs will have done very well during the preceding stages of their education, and so start with very high expectations of themselves. But a PhD is not the pinnacle of the education system, it is the entrance qualification to the world of professional academic research.

You may have achieved exceptional grades in previous studies, but there is a big difference between studying for exams and doing coursework, and conducting professional (i.e. publishable) academic research. In the professional academic world, you are a beginner. Your job then is to develop the skills required, rather than to show how good you are.

3. Start early, make mistakes

Many PhD students are afraid to make mistakes, possibly because mistakes are penalised in undergraduate exams. One way to avoid mistakes is to spend months or years reading, writing and planning, but without actually doing any of the practical research. No matter how well you plan, if you have no practical experience of your research methodology then it’s highly likely you will do it badly. If the first time you do the practical work is your only chance to gather data, you’re screwed.

Instead, start getting practical experience as early as possible. Accept that mistakes are inevitable, so try to make them while you still have the opportunity to correct them.

4. Analyse early

If you start practical work early, by testing your methodology on a small scale, you can then practice analysis too.

All too often, students leave analysis to the very end. This means that they have to learn how to do the analysis while carrying it out on a huge data set under severe time-pressure.

Far better to learn analytical techniques on a small scale, and build the competence and confidence to work with your data before you have to do it on a large scale.

5. Get to know the literature

This is a tough one. The sheer number of sources available can be overwhelming, but there are ways to manage it.

Obviously you will need to read a lot, but you shouldn’t just think about volume. Some sources are more useful than others, and different sources will be useful to you at different times, depending on what you want to achieve.

I would recommend starting with just a few (no more than 5) highly-cited papers and taking the time to understand:

  • what they did
  • how they did it
  • why they did it that way
  • why it is significant

Start slow. It may take some time to fully understand, and you may have to look up some terminology, but you will get faster as your knowledge grows.

(see this post on literature and lit reviews)

6. Don’t obsess over productivity

If you aren’t making the progress you want to make, it’s only natural to worry about productivity; to set up timetables and goals and deadlines in an attempt to take control and get more done.

Although productivity techniques work sometimes, there are other times when they don’t. If – or rather when – something goes wrong in your research, then your progress will be determined by your ability to creatively problem-solve, not your ability to plan.

Knowing when and how to switch between the creative and productive modes is a crucial skill. Read this post for a more detailed explanation.

7. Give yourself time to think

As your workload and the complexity of your research increase, you might feel like you have to do more and do it faster. But if you do everything as fast as you can, you will never think of anything beyond the obvious, because you will always take the first option that comes to mind.

Giving yourself time to think is not productive in a measurable way, but it is an essential part of problem-solving.

8. Be decisive

Without a set syllabus to follow, you will have to make your own decisions about what you do. When doing original research, there are often multiple possible courses of action, and no way of knowing which is best. Sometimes you just have to decide and take action, otherwise you’ll go nowhere!

This is especially important in the final year before submission.

9. Be adaptable

Sometimes you will make the wrong decision, and invest time and effort in something that turns out to be useless. Or you will try your best at something and it won’t work. Or your equipment will break… It is the nature of research that things go wrong, constantly, and how you react in such circumstances will determine your chances of success.

If you shrink in the face of frustration, if you take it personally and think you are a failure, you won’t be in a good frame of mind to find a solution (and you’ll likely find an excuse to check email as a way of avoiding the problem). But if you are able to summon enthusiasm and creativity in response to the challenge, you will be much more able to adapt in response to challenging circumstances.

10. Separate writing for yourself from writing for an audience

Writing is a means of recording information either for yourself or for someone else.

Writing for yourself means making notes: recording ideas, things you’ve done or ideas you have. Nobody else needs to see your notes, so they just need to make sense to you. Writing for an audience is different. The purpose is not to “write and see what comes out”, but to carefully communicate ideas you have already given due consideration.

Too many people get lost in writing because they mix these two things up, writing thousands upon thousands of words as exploration, then trying to edit into a something that makes sense to a reader. This serves neither purpose well- the exploration is constrained by the formal, linear structure of a document, and the communication is poor because the structure is a total mess.

Your job as a writer is to guide the reader. If you don’t know where you are going, it will be very difficult to follow you. Explore ideas and connections between them first (I use pen and paper for this), then start constructing your formal writing with the structure of your argument already in mind. A logical argument cannot emerge from editing if it isn’t already there.

See also: writing your way to a PhD

Bonus tip: remember, a PhD is not everything

I sometimes hear from students saying things like, “if I fail, my life is over”. This just isn’t true.

While you are immersed in it, a PhD might seem all-consuming, but there is a whole world of possibilities for you outside. There are other challenges to take on and other ways to contribute to the world than this weird, highly specialised qualification.

Do your best, but don’t let it define your life. Ultimately, it’s not that important!

By Pi.1415926535 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17802584
By Pi.1415926535Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17802584

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26 thoughts on “How to do a PhD: top 10 tips

  1. I would be grateful if you provide some suggestions or examples on “analysing data” “data analysis”. Thank you.

  2. Planing to register for a Phd in the near future, I will continue to follow your blog and I believe it help me a lot easy the difficult that may be come along the journey. Thanks a lot your tips are very helpful…

  3. Thank you very much. These your guides are short and very precise. I really appreciate them. May the Lord strengthen you

  4. Loving your tips, even though I’m doing a masters thesis, not a phd. Performance anxiety totally slowed me down, so trying to get rid of that. Very helpful blog, so thank you!

  5. Thank you for the great guidance.
    I intent to start a PHD in Radiation Physics. Can I sent you my draft proposal for review and advice?

  6. Hello James, so glad this support is here, really invaluable. Found some inspirational quotes the other day whilst simultaneously trying to find ‘strength in stillness’ (YouTube Yoga).
    GRAB LIFE (and your PhD) BY THE OBSTACLES and:
    ‘It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little– do what you can!” Sydney Smith, English Writer and Clergyman

    “Resolve to perform what you ought, perform without fail what you resolve” Benjamin Franklin, polymath.

    and one of my own:
    Resolve: decide with an effort of will, separate the component parts of, make clear, settle, conclude, determine, intend, disentangle, explain, solve, unravel…
    Resolute: firm in purpose, bold, constant, determined, dogged, persevering, purposeful, steadfast, undaunted, unflinching, unshaken, unwavering
    Resolution: Declaration, determination, intention, purpose, firmness of conduct or character, act of resolving
    Actions: Be, be, be, Do, do, do, Commit, commit, commit, Act, act, act, Reflect, reflect, reflect, Repeat, repeat, repeat, Anon [‘anon anon’]

    (Not that I’ve yet managed to do any of this yet but I’m trying to make them my mantras!)

  7. As someone who completed a phd a couple of years ago, these tips are extremely accurate and important; however, only retrospectively. I am not sure whether someone going into a phd will truly understand the significance of these tips though and follow them accordingly.

      • James, appreciate your advice very much. I have just started my PhD four months ago. And I just don’t know how, where and when to start. Reading this and your “PhD: an uncommon guide” has indeed provided that much needed compass before I step into the forest ahead of me!
        You are doing a great work – keep going!

  8. Dear James,
    Thank you very much for sharing good tips in this informative post!
    I really like your bonus tip. I will not allow the PhD journey to define my life, since I also believe that there are other ways to contribute to this world.
    May God bless you!

  9. Thank you for this post, I like the bonus tip. One question that relates to that and that I’d love to read about from you is about all the things they tell you you have to do besides your PhD – like publishing, teaching, networking. While the latter makes sense for any aim after the PhD how important is teaching if I don’t want to stay in academia. Or, the other way round, if I’m not sure if I want to stay in academia, do I close that door for me if I don’t teach during my Phd? Hrrgh…

    • If you aren’t sure, it probably makes sense to do some teaching. If nothing else you’ll find out whether you like it! The main thing to be careful of is the amount of time it takes… a one hour lecture takes many hours to prepare, and then there are office hours and time spent marking assignments to consider too.

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