12 things you need to know when starting a PhD

1: Beat your first deadline

Whatever your supervisor gives you to do first, beat the deadline by at least 24 hours.

2: Get to know people who can make things happen

You might not need them yet, but saying hello to secretaries, technicians, porters etc is a very good idea before you need a last minute favour later. Then…

3: Thank people who do things for you

Especially your PhD supervisor. It’s easy to complain if they aren’t there for you, but recognise that they are almost certainly busier than you are, and show that you value their time.

4: Get to know other people’s research

This will give you a broader knowledge base, and stop you getting too narrowly focused on your own research. You’ll learn far more (and faster) by talking to people than you will by reading.

And your colleagues are more likely to be interested in your work if you show an interest in theirs.

5: Get really, really good at one thing

Nobody knows everything. You’re not expected to. But try to get seriously good at at least one thing.

Even better if it’s something useful to other people.

6: What you write now, you won’t like in 3 years time

3 years from now, you’ll know far more than you do now. That’s the whole point of the PhD.

The value of doing a lit review now though his to learn the basics. Focus on basic concepts, and don’t let writing get in the way of starting research.

7: Downloading papers doesn’t count as reviewing the literature

I mentioned this in 17 random tips for PhD success, but it’s worth saying again. Check out this post on an easier way to review literature.

8: Publish

Everything you do should be working towards getting published. If your work isn’t going to be publishable, it’s not going to be worth a PhD.

9: Make contacts outside your department

Contacts are the lifeblood of your career. Get to know people at conferences, get their business card, add them on LinkedIn, and that CV you send 3 years from now won’t be coming from a stranger.

10: Write everything down

Write notes as if they are for someone else working coming in to take over your work after your shift ends. Your future self will forget!

11: Time goes faster than you think

Sometimes the days will drag, but the years will fly by. Set yourself a target for what you’re going to achieve in the first 6 months.

12: Make mistakes

If you make no mistakes, you’re not taking risks and you’re not pushing yourself.

Just make sure you learn from them, take responsibility for them, and try not to make the same mistake twice.

How many thesis drafts do you need to write?

There will always be more you can do.

But there’s also got to come a point where it’s good enough to submit your thesis and get on with your life.

So here are a few guidelines to revising your thesis from one draft to the next.

First Draft

The content shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to your supervisor if you’ve been communicating during your research.

At the very least, you should discuss what you’re going to put in and a rough outline before you start writing.

Still, it’s going to come back with quite a lot of suggested changes, whether it’s spelling mistakes, factual errors, or changes in the structure or style. That’s OK, as long as you’re clear about what they want you to do to make it better.

If there’s even the slightest doubt, ask.

Second Draft

Any major changes should have been made, and it should be pretty close to the final thing, though there’ll probably be a few new mistakes in there.

At this point, your supervisor shouldn’t suggest any major new sections. If they do… well why didn’t they say so after the first draft? This is why it’s so important to clarify what they want you to do after the first draft.

Third Draft

By this point, there should be no obvious technical mistakes or bits missing.

There will still be spelling errors, there will still be more you could do, but from this point on, any further rounds of revision will have a rapidly diminishing effect on the quality of your thesis.

The hardest thing to edit…

The most difficult thing to edit is your writing style. If in doubt, keep your sentences as short as you can. This will generally make them clearer, and clarity is king.

How to avoid endless rounds of revision

Of course some chapters might take a fourth draft to get right, but if it’s going up to 6 or 7, then it’s just silly. Here’s how to avoid getting into that situation.

  • Discuss the thesis structure with your supervisor before you start
  • Plan chapters before you sit down to write, so you know what you’re going to include before you start
  • Give chapters to your supervisor one at a time, rather than drafts of the entire thesis
  • Don’t keep doing new research once you start writing. If you do need to do some extra, stop writing, finish the research!

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Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 2)

<<< Read Part One

5 things you can do to make it easier to write your thesis in a second language

1. Don’t translate

The more you think in the language you’re writing in, the easier it will be to express yourself clearly.

If you translate a fully formed sentence directly from your native language, it won’t flow naturally since different languages have different ways of structuring ideas.

So switch your brain to think in your thesis-writing language. It’ll save you a lot of time and improve your writing.

2. Edit

Don’t worry about getting a sentence perfect first time. Everybody has to edit, whether you’re a native speaker or not.

The first version of any sentence is for your eyes only, so it doesn’t matter how good it is. Get it down on the page, then try to make it better if you can.

3. Keep it simple

Shorter sentences are clearer.

When you edit your work, try to make your sentences short, clear and simple.

It’s easier for the examiner to read, and easier for you to write.

4. Play with the language

When you get stuck editing a sentence, is there another way you could say it? For example;

  • Are there alternative sentence structures?
  • Can you write it a different way?
  • Could you rearrange the sentence?
  • Is there a better way to get your point across?

One problem you can have is when the same sentence structure repeats again and again. It doesn’t matter so much when you speak, but it’s very noticeable when it’s written.

Look at the first words in each line of this post. You’ll notice that “when” repeats in two lines close to each other. Normally I’d change that.

Still try to keep it simple, and don’t change things if it’ll make your sentences more complicated, but there are almost always alternatives to choose from.

5. Plan ahead

Your thesis is all about leading the examiner through your research, so you have to know where you want to take them.

Plan the key points you want to cover, first by writing down every idea you can think of on paper, then by putting them in order.

That way when you’re writing you can concentrate on one section at a time, without worrying about what comes next.

 

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Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 1)

OK, this one’s tough…

… But I’m not interested in why it’s difficult. If you have to write your thesis in your second (or third or fourth) language, how can you make it easier for yourself?

Ideally, it should start long before you sit down to write your thesis, so here are some things you can do from day one.

Practice Writing.

If you sign up for a postgraduate degree, you know what language you’ll have to write in, so start practicing as soon as possible.

That doesn’t mean pulling out all your old grammar textbooks, learning the rules and going through set exercises. It’s not only boring, but also a terrible way to learn a language.

Practice by using the language in writing at every opportunity. Need to send an email? Try new sentence constructions and new vocabulary.

Don’t over-complicate things, just try to just push your ability a little bit each time.

Why email?

One of the basic principles of learning anything is that it’s very, very difficult to learn or improve a skill under stress.

In conversation you have to speak without thinking too much. People understand, but it might not be technically correct or the way a native speaker would say it.

Even when corrected (which might not often happen), you’ll soon revert to the way that you’re accustomed to speaking.

Zero pressure

Writing email, you can take your time, stop, check and rethink phrases without any pressure. You’re also practicing writing the things you naturally want to say, rather than what a textbook author thinks you might need.

(If you don’t have a native speaker to email, try to find one. Or you can probably email your supervisor in English. There is always a solution.)

Practice Reading.

Pick a research or review paper written by a native speaker, and related to your subject.

But don’t read it from start to finish, just read one section or paragraph at a time over several days, and look at the language style.

Is that sentence written the way you would write it? Is there a difference in meaning because of the word order? Or is it different in tone or formality?

I don’t understand that… How can I use it?

When you notice something new, or something you don’t understand, before moving on with reading you should ask yourself, “how can I use it?”

Keep a notebook, write down no more than 2 or 3 things then try to use them in real-life writing over the next few days.

Language Resources

My favorite is definitely Wordreference.com

It doesn’t do translation (online translation is unreliable anyway), but is an amazing resource. Full dictionary definitions, verb conjugations and so on, and online forums where you can see native speakers’ translations of phrases and ask questions.

If you have any great language resources you want to share, comment below!

Coming up in Part 2…

Stuff you can do once you start writing the actual thesis…

How to write your academic CV (and how not to)

When writing your academic CV, as with any kind of writing, it’s not just the information you put in.

How you present that information can make the difference between getting a job you love or finding yourself stuck in a job you hate. In other words, it can alter the course of your whole life.

Writing your academic CV: the 2 basic rules

1: Individual CVs for individual jobs

The absolute number 1 golden rule is that you shouldn’t just write one CV, but should tailor it to each individual job you apply for.

If you’re applying for academic jobs, the CV you send will be different to the one you send to work in a bank or bakery, but you should also tweak every CV you send to the specific job you apply for.

The facts don’t change, but you might choose to emphasise certain skills and experience over others.

2: Not all content is equal

Just like in your thesis, not all potential content in is equally valuable.

Not everything you’ve done is equally interesting to an employer. You want them to read you CV and want to know more about you, rather than skimming sections looking for something interesting.

Once you’ve listed your PhD, master’s degree and undergraduate degree, there’s no need to say where you went to high school. If you have a ton of experience as a computer programmer, saying you can use Microsoft Office is pointless.

I’d say 2 pages is a maximum for a CV, but if you had to reduce your CV to one page (which is OK to do), what information would be indispensable?

Think about what information you want them to ask you in your interview, and what they might want to know and make those the focus of your CV

Structuring your academic CV

Part 1: Who are you?

What are you going to put first? Your name, obviously needs to be clear in large bold type at the top of the page. Put your contact information in small type underneath, like a sub-title. Contact information is only useful to the reader when they decide to contact you, so giving it a third of the space on the first page doesn’t make much sense.

What’s the next thing you want a potential employer to see?

Give them a quick summary (about 3 to 5 lines, probably no more) of what you do and what your experience is. For example;

“Recent PhD graduate* in (insert subject), specialising in (insert 1 or 2 skills or areas of expertise, relevant to the job your applying for). Also highly experienced in (something else), with practical experience in/ working knowledge of/ familiarity with (some area you might not be as confident in, but the employer may be looking for).”

In other words, if they only read the top half of the first page, they’ll know everything they need to to decide whether you’re at least worth talking to.

Tailor the statement to the job, or if it’s a speculative job enquiry, to the research group in question. Be brief, but anything you think makes you good for the job, include it here.

Everything else you put in your CV needs to support that opening statement.

Part 2: Can you do the job?

It’s safe to assume that everyone else going for that postdoc position has got good academic qualifications, so is that what you want them to see next? It won’t necessarily help you stand out from everyone else.

So thinking about what to put next… well what do academics care about most?

Publications, publications, publications.

If you’ve published papers or presented work at conferences, then it demonstrates professional competence and backs up your opening statement.

When you come to apply for your second research job or a lectureship, you might want to put your research experience in the form of an employment history, but fresh out of your PhD, demonstrating just that you’ve been published is the most important thing to highlight.

The big difference between an academic CV and non-academic CV is that if you’re applying for jobs outside academia, the specific publications might not be so important. To a  non-academic employer, they simply serve as proof that you were competent at what you were doing before.

Part 3: How did you get here?

Once you’ve shown your publications, you can give your qualifications. For your first “real” job, this will double up as an employment history as it accounts for your time over the last several years.

It’s good to structure this as a timeline, working backwards from the most recent, or what you’re doing now.

The bar job you took to pay your way through your masters probably isn’t relevant to the job you’re applying for, but if you had a job for a significant length of time then put it in. You want to avoid gaps in your history because these cause a bit of suspicion about what you were doing.

Wherever relevant, put some detail in about what you were doing at each place, again to reinforce what you said in part 1. Those things you said you have some knowledge of, this is where to say where you got that experience.

Part 4: Anything you’d like to add?

Finally, if there’s anything else interesting you want to say about yourself, then include a section about your other experience. You could list interests, but its way better to frame it as things you’ve done or achieved.

It’s not interesting that you like running or music, but it is interesting if you’ve run a marathon or played in an orchestra. Interviewers like these kind of things!

A few things to avoid…

DON’T: rush your application by sending a generic CV

DON’T: List everything you’ve ever done to try to make your CV look fuller, you’ll only dilute the good stuff

DON’T: send your CV without checking for errors at least twice. Get someone else to read over it if you have difficulty checking it yourself.

DON’T: use big, dense chunks of text

DON’T: include anything you wouldn’t want them to ask about in the interview (either because you think it’d be boring, or because it isn’t true)

*If you haven’t finished your thesis yet, just replace “recent graduate” with “PhD researcher in…” , and finish the paragraph with “Expected thesis submission date: (insert date)”. If you think you could do the job and can demonstrate that you have the right skills, the fact that you haven’t yet finished doesn’t rule you out.

3 harsh truths about pursuing an academic career (and how to succeed)

After you finish your PhD thesis, you might be tempted, or even excited, to pursue a career in academia. Or you might be looking at postdoc contracts because you don’t know what else to do.

A career in academia does suit some people quite well, but you need to know what you’re getting into before you set foot on that path.

harsh truths

1: There is no academic career ladder

There is no academic career ladder. It’s a pyramid, and it’s crowded at the top.

Most postdocs never progress to permanent positions (or tenure) simply because there are fewer available. and there are more people trying to get into that top tier than are retiring or dying.

It’s certainly possible to get up there, but it takes determination, which means being certain that’s what you want. So you can make the decision to leave now, delay the decision, or make a determined effort to make progress in your career.

Not knowing what else to do is not the same as “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

The question to ask yourself is this; do you ever wake up early because you are excited by your work?

If yes, continue. If not, do something easier and better paid.

2: Being smart and working hard is not enough

Being good and waiting to get noticed just isn’t enough. Lots of other people are as smart as you, and just as hard-working.

So how can you get ahead?

You have to know what you’re aiming for, set yourself a target and a time frame, and make the decisions necessary to get you there.

If you decide, before your first postdoc, that you are aiming for a permanent position by the age of 32, that gives you a framework for making decisions.

Is that next contract going to advance your career, or just delay your exit? Is it just the first thing that came along?

Are you publishing results just to stay alive, or to make a name for yourself?

3: Contacts are the lifeblood of your career

Who you work with is at least as important as what you do.

It’s vital to find people to work with who are interested in your long-term career, people you can learn from, and people you can trust.

Absolutely the best way to do this is to treat conferences and seminars as networking events, rather than expenses-paid boredom (or stress when you have to present).

If you go to a conference and don’t introduce yourself to at least 10 people, you are wasting your time.

Those contacts are the lifeblood of your career.

It’s OK to search through job listings, but it’s better when the opportunities come to you.

If nobody knows you through your work yet, the only way to start is by meeting people personally. Get out there and get known, because nobody else is going to do it for you.

Balance: How to write a thesis the examiner wants to read

What’s the point of your thesis?

Why are you writing? Well, you want to pass the PhD. You want to be able to put “Dr” on your credit card, and so on.

What do you need to do to succeed? You probably think that you need to write a thesis that convinces the examiner that you’re worthy of the honour.  Well that’s true, but there are good ways and bad ways to go about it.

What effect does your writing have on the reader? The way they feel while reading your thesis really matters. If they have to read any sentence three times to work out what you mean, then you’re taking up their time unnecessarily.

Now of course there are some expected standards of formality, but clarity should always come first. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to make your writing clearer.

Shorter sentences are easier to understand (and to write)

If in doubt, make your sentences as short as you can. Flashy writing is optional, clarity is compulsory.

The Flesch Readability Score takes account of the average number of words per sentence, plus other factors such as length of word used, number of words per paragraph, to determine how easy it is to read a piece of text. A low score means it’s harder to read. A negative score is bad news.

For example, comic books score around 90, general plain English between 60 and 70. A university professor will obviously be comfortable with long sentences, with readability scores of 10 or less. But that doesn’t mean that every sentence can be complex.

It’s a good idea to balance long, complex sentences and paragraphs with simpler ones.

Balance: alternate long and short

MS word can give you an average readability score for the whole thesis, but the way you fit long and short sentences together matters more.

Here’s an example from my thesis, with (number of words, readability) after each sentence;

It should perhaps be unsurprising that certain geometric arrangements of matter are preferred by nature (15, 28). Perfect tessellation can only be achieved by triangles, squares and hexagons- of these, the hexagon has the shortest perimeter length per unit area enclosed, and hexagonal packing arrangements are known to be the most efficient (35, 19). Spheres enclose the largest volume per unit surface area, and are intuitively stable forms (14, 47.5). Nature uses the same forms at every length scale; leading to self-similarity and fractal characteristics (15, 30).

The more complex sentence, with 35 words and a readability of 19, is balanced by simpler ones. This brings the average word count per sentence to 19.7 and readability to 34.4. That’s somewhere around the New York Review of Books in terms of readability. Even more complex ideas can be explained the same way;

Figure 1.6 shows the electronic density of states for bulk, 2-D, 1-D and O-D structures (thin films, wires, and nanoparticles) (22, 57.6). The alteration from a continuous to discrete distribution of states arises when the confinement of the structures prevents the formation of a long-range Bloch-type periodic wave potential of the type that is present in an extended crystal (37, 16). The electronic structure approaches the idealized particle in a box potential well (12, 25.4). In the case of quantum dots, the situation may be considered as an intermediate condition between molecular and bulk properties (20, 30).

average (22.7, 34)

Please don’t think you have to measure the readability of every sentence you write! Just be aware that longer sentences make your writing more tiring to read, so you can balance them with shorter ones. It’ll give your writing a natural sense of rhythm.

If you have two very long sentences in succession, try to cut at least one of them. If you can’t, think about making each sentence a whole paragraph. If in doubt, make your sentence shorter.

Start small

The first paragraph of any thesis chapter, section or subsection should usually consist entirely of short sentences (around 15 words maximum). This will help ease them in before the technical detail.

Structure: give the reader a break

Sentence length isn’t the only factor in readability. The arrangement of paragraphs, subsections and sections, as well as the visual presentation, has a massive influence. Like sentences, shorter paragraphs are easier to read. If you run over 100 words

Shorter subsections are always easier, giving the reader a regular break. The examiner will probably, at some point, flick through to see how far they have to go. If there’s another 20 pages before the next break, consider putting one in where you can.

Use your judgement

These are only guidelines to use generally. Sometimes a long sentence is needed, or just feels right. Just don’t forget the reader

____

In case you’re interested, or even if you’re not, the average sentence length in this piece is 14.4 words, with a readability of 56.7

Dealing with PhD research stress

September 2005: While queuing to sign the paperwork to register for the third year of my PhD, I was talking to a student from astronomy who mentioned seeing one of his fellow students struggling to get his thesis finished before the final deadline. It wasn’t the usual case of being a bit stressed and tired in the run up to submission, desperate to do the final editing, or a last-minute crisis like trying to get it printed and bound. The poor guy had been awake for over 36 hours trying to write new material. It just wasn’t finished. The words that stuck in my head were, “his face has gone grey”.

I didn’t want to be that guy, but it scared me that I could easily imagine myself in the same situation. I’d been there before. I could feel his pain; the racing heartbeat and the gut-wrenching self-recrimination, knowing that he was perfectly capable of doing it earlier.

I had always been a serial procrastinator. During my undergraduate degree, I constantly left work until the final possible moment (or later). There was a set pattern; after coursework was set, I never worried about it until the deadline was looming. Even by the time it became urgent, I’d still find myself doing other things; anything other than work. Still, I managed to get through on late nights and buckets of coffee.

When I reached the final year of my PhD, I had little in the way of results, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and was wasting huge amounts of each day stuck on the internet. It felt like I was working – I was expending energy anyway – but without any forward momentum.

It seemed I had no control over the outcome of the research. I’d put hours in; sometimes it’d work out, more often I’d get nothing, and sometimes I’d end up undoing work I’d already done. My default would be to go and waste half an hour on the internet when something went wrong, or when I just couldn’t find the motivation to do anything productive, so then I’d end up feeling guilty about not doing enough work.

In the summer of my final year, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I didn’t have enough results, time was running out, my personal life was a mess, and I absolutely believed that I was going to fail. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and the whole thing seemed pointless. I had trouble sleeping, which in turn meant I couldn’t function during the day, and the whole cycle just continually reinforced itself.

I’d become extremely irritable, even shouting at a first-year student for doing nothing more than asking how it was going.

PhD’s are supposed to be difficult; at a basic level that’s the whole point of them. But when it affects your mental and physical well-being, something has to change.  In July 2006, two months before my funding was due to run out, I hit rock bottom. The mental defences I’d built up against my situation, which largely involved carrying on as normal, were blown apart.

I was depressed and desperate, but was forced to actually face up to reality rather than simply trudging on waiting for something to change. I realised that if I was stressed, miserable and getting nowhere, then I was doing something wrong.

Where do you go when things aren’t going to plan?

So what did I do? Work longer hours to try to make up for lost ground? No. I relaxed. I started looking after the simple things, like my mental health, by taking a walk around the campus when things weren’t going right, rather than defaulting to checking email. I could think the problem over and go back to it when I was ready.

That one habit alone saved my PhD. Without spending any more time in the lab, and far less time at a computer, my productivity rocketed. I started getting results, started to regain confidence, and started to think that I might actually pass my PhD.

Where you go, physically and psychologically, when things aren’t going exactly to plan can have a massive effect on how quickly you can get back on track. My old default habits of reverting to the internet to fill up time and avoid the problem whenever I lost momentum were destructive, but not in an obvious way. It took a bit of trauma to force me to actually asses them.

Often, physically stepping back from the source of stress can help gain a new perspective, but I think the key is not to let information in as a distraction, and let the brain engage with the problem in a relaxed way. In any kind of research, things will go wrong at some point and we can’t always control everything, but we can always choose how to respond. The point though is that it needs to be a conscious choice, not just reverting to habit.