What’s the point of a PhD?

The point of a PhD is really simple…

It’s to prove that you can conduct research on a professional academic level.

Ok, so you’re supposed to contribute something too, but that’s just how they test that you’re capable.

So you set about your project probably not really knowing what you’re doing.

Then you realise how hard it is, as you run into more and more problems.

But gradually you solve them. You find better ways of doing things, faster ways, easier ways.

And when you’ve solved a problem once, it’s much faster next time it crops up.

So after a few years, you’re a much better researcher than you were at the start,and all those problems you solved add up to a detailed and unique practical experience.

First year students come to you for advice and you can instantly see what they’ve done wrong. To you, it’s just because you made the same mistake years ago. To them, you seem like a wizard.

What are your best time saving or productivity tips?

If you could pass on one piece of advice that will save other students masses of time, what would it be?

Leave a comment below and share your wisdom!

How to choose your thesis topic

It’s hard to commit yourself to a thesis topic. You don’t yet know if the idea you have now is a good idea or not, and if you commit to it, you might not be able to pursue a better idea you could come up with later.

So here are a couple of guidelines to stop you going round in circles.

1: Stop looking for the one big idea

Start investigating something… anything at all, and see if it grabs your interest.

This might not be what you end up researching, but just exploring your subject can lead to unexpected flashes of inspiration. You might try 3 or 4 (or more) ideas before you hit gold.

2: Talk to people

Share ideas with people in your department, and see what they think.

But also find out what other people are doing. There may be a what’s hot in your subject at the moment. Are there big gaps where nobody else is looking? Should people be looking there?

3: What do you want to learn?

A PhD isn’t just about your contribution. It’s also about what you learn, and the skills you can use later in your career.

What skills and knowledge do you want? What are you already good at and want to improve? 

4: What do you like doing?

Choosing your research topic is choosing what you’re going to be doing every day for the next few years.

What do you enjoy the most? What do really dislike doing?

5: Combine ideas

Once you’ve followed the above steps, if you are still stuck but have a few ideas to play with, try combining ideas in new ways. Applying technique A to area B.

There are very few truly original ideas, but there are always new perspectives on old problems.

When you find a combination that could be interesting, useful, or even exciting, go for it!

[hr]

This post was written in response to a question from a reader. Use the comments section to let me know what you’re struggling with, and I’ll do my best to help!

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.

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.