Who you work with is just as important as what you do

December 2, 2014

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As a PhD student, you will have much greater independence than you had as an undergraduate, and you will be expected to take the initiative and make your own decisions about your work.

However, this does not mean that you should be completely independent of others; the people you work with will have a huge influence on your PhD’s progress and the development of your skill.

I was exceptionally lucky in this respect. I had an excellent supervisor and got to work in a research group with some amazing people, many of whom are still very good friends.

An important aspect of the group culture was the level of informal interaction between the lecturers, postdocs and PhD students; we would often sit together for coffee or lunch and so we students would get to know the staff members quite well. Beyond simply creating a nice, sociable atmosphere, it was a great opportunity to see the world of academia from their perspective; an opportunity I’d never had (or never sought out) as an undergraduate. Through these informal conversations, I also got to know about other people’s work within and beyond  the research group, and I would often hear about developments and controversies in the field that I might otherwise have missed.

Not every research group works this way. Being experimental physicists, the vast majority of our work depended on us being physically present in the lab, but in other fields of study you might be much more location-independent. Even if you don’t see your colleagues every day, regular interaction with other academics is, in my opinion, absolutely essential.

One of the reasons why universities exist is to bring together people with a variety of expertise. This collective expertise allows for a cross-fertilisation of ideas leading to innovations that would be impossible for any individual to think of alone.

Choosing your PhD supervisor

Choosing a supervisor isn’t easy. When you apply for a PhD position, it’s likely that your main concern is whether or not they accept you, but you must also think about whether the supervisor is right for you.

A good supervisor will act as a mentor and guide, taking at least some responsibility for your development as a researcher. Unfortunately, not all supervisors do this, with some taking very little interest in their students’ projects.

An uninterested supervisor is bad enough, but I have heard many horror stories (which will remain confidential) about bullying, even abusive supervisors deliberately making life miserable for their students. Once committed, it is very hard for a PhD student to speak out, change supervisor or leave, even if this is the best course of action.

It’s not easy to know, before you start, how your relationship with your supervisor will turn out, but at the very least you should ask what they expect of you, and what level of support you can expect from them.

Also find out how many PhD students they have. If they have thirty other PhD students under their supervision, how much interaction will you have with them? If you only see your supervisor once every six months, you aren’t getting any benefit at all from their expertise. It may seem like a good idea to find the most famous, most published professor you can, but the number of publications someone has is no indication of their character. It is more important to find someone you get on with and who takes an active interest in your success than someone with a famous name (though plenty of famous academics are very good supervisors).

You also need to consider whether they have the appropriate expertise to guide you through your particular research project and whether their research interests and ideologies align with yours.

Speak to as many potential supervisors as you can; give yourself options, and choose carefully.

Online & remote PhDs

While some online PhDs may be good, the lack of direct contact with other academics can make it a very lonely process. If you plan to do an online PhD, find out how much actual interaction your tuition fees will entitle you to.

While I believe in open access to education, the isolation of remote study can mean you miss out on vital contact with other academics. Although there are online forums you can use, these are a poor substitute for actually getting to know other academics and  seeing their research in progress (something you don’t see if you just read published papers).

If you decide to do your PhD remotely, you will have to make extra effort to make up for the deficit in contact. Arrange calls with your supervisor, find local PhD students from other universities to meet up with; anything you can think of to give yourself contact with other academics.

Discussing work with your peers

The purpose of a PhD is to develop the skills of a professional academic, and one of those skills is the ability to discuss your research on a peer-to-peer level with other academics. This is why many universities use viva-voce examinations or discussions in front of a panel of experts as means of assessment.

It is absolutely essential to get experience discussing your work. If the examination is the very first time you do this, then it isn’t likely to go very well; partly because of a lack of experience, but more importantly because it means that you have never had any feedback on your work from anyone more experienced than yourself.

Excluding those who just don’t do any work, the people who are most likely to fail a PhD are generally those who have had no feedback or guidance, and the first time they have shown their work to anyone is at the examination.

So take any opportunity available to present and discuss your work with others, whether that’s your supervisor, other academics, a conference audience or other PhD students. Seek out feedback and criticism, and you will be better able to strengthen your thesis by addressing the points people raise.

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