Posted in Education Help and Advice, Life as a Research Student, PhD Journey

What I’ve learnt on my PhD so far.

Well, it has certainly been a while since I posted on my blog, and if you don’t follow any of my social media then you probably won’t be aware that I was offered a place on a fully funded PhD course completely out of the blue at the university in which I studied my undergraduate degree (yes I have now graduated!) and have been working on it since July. My PhD is three years long with one year being an MPhil (Masters of Research) and then having to write a transfer report to get onto the next two years, which is essentially the PhD part. The topic is within educational psychology and I’m currently in the middle of writing my research proposal and ethics form, what fun! So, I thought I would share some things that I have learnt so far.

1. Don’t panic, you’ll learn along the way. 
I have had a lot of “now what?” “How am I supposed to do that?” “How do I do this?” even within the first few months, I felt very lost because there is no definitive guidance. There is no one there that is going to hold your hand, tell you when your deadlines are, tell you what to do and how to do it. Yes, supervisors are there to help you but they expect you to be quite independent, the whole point of a PhD is to develop your independence and ability as a researcher, which you certainly aren’t going to get if you’re running to your supervisor for every little thing. But don’t panic! The university will generally run little day courses, you’ll talk to other students, you’ll get sent emails about events and you’ll eventually start to figure out what’s going on.

2. Scheduling yourself is hard.

I would consider myself quite an organised person, which is obviously a very beneficial trait to have on a PhD, but what you may not realise is the amount of self-discipline it takes to give yourself a “work day”. In my university, you can either work in what is called the “research hub” where researchers in the faculty have access to computers, printers, a little kitchen etc. Or you can do your work from home. As I don’t live in the city that my university is located, I do all my work from home unless I specifically have to go in for some reason, this means I have to give myself a work day. I have to wake myself up, I have to tell myself to start work at 9am, tell myself to have dinner at 12pm and get back to work at 1pm, and allow myself to finish at 5pm. With no one there to tell you off, supervise what you’re doing, there will be a tendency to give yourself longer breaks, sometimes sleep in. If it works better for you, maybe just tell yourself what you need to get done each day, or tell yourself how many hours work you have to do, but the point is… it’s very difficult.

3. It’s completely normal to feel like you’re not good enough.
So often I have felt like I’m not smart enough, that I don’t know enough about a subject and that people will find this out and not want me to do my PhD anymore! And that’s totally normal. It’s what’s known as “imposter syndrome” or “fraud syndrome” and is defined as a high achieving individual being worried that they will be exposed as a “fraud” i.e. not being good enough. I’ve read about it in numerous articles about what to expect on a PhD and I’ve felt it several times already. You just have to remind yourself that you have gotten onto the course, therefore the university must believe that you are capable of doing a PhD and working to that level. But it is okay to feel this way, and I’m not the only one who has.

4. Don’t be scared of asking questions.
At the very start of my PhD I felt like I had a million questions that I wanted to ask but didn’t want to be a nuisance. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Supervisors will be aware that you will be a little lost at the start, so it’s okay to ask a few questions here and there. But my advice is, try and find the answer yourself first before asking the supervisor, because if the answer turns out to be written on your university website or within the student area, then they will know that you hadn’t bothered to look yourself!

5. Supervisors will make you a priority.

I am amazed at how quickly supervisors reply to your emails and how readily available they are for meetings any time you need one. I thought that it would be difficult to make meetings so I was often emailing supervisors ahead of time to try and make sure I get a meeting in, but they are always available for you when they can, one of my supervisors even replies to my emails when hes supposed to be off work! I really appreciate how quickly they respond.

6. You actually get the opportunity to teach/lecture/Mark assignments, but you don’t have to!
Due to the fact that I want my career path to be within academia and I would like to lecture and conduct research, this is a big plus for me. You get the opportunity to take a course which gives you a qualification and more fancy letters after your name and it means that you can assist in teaching, marking assignments and in the later years of your PhD you can even lecture. But if that’s not your thing, don’t panic, it’s not something you have to do and I was asked if I wanted to do it in my initial meeting.

7. Even though there is no formal teaching on a PhD, there are lots of courses run by the university to help you.
I got asked by numerous members of my family “what days are you in for lectures?” when I first started, as what most people don’t realise is that there are no formal sessions; no lectures, no tutorials, no workshops.Anything that you do go in university for, you arrange yourself. My university has what is called a “Researcher Development Programme” and they run numerous courses, that are usually a day or two long, that you can book onto if you think it could be something useful. I am going to be taking full advantage of these courses, even if I don’t think it would be useful in my current project, I’m making the most of my PhD and gathering as much information as I can. As who knows, in the future, it might be useful to say that I’d done a little course in something.

8. Jotters are a lot more useful than you think.
I’m one of those people that is obsessed with stationery. I will buy notebooks left, right and centre just because I thought it was pretty or I liked the organisation of it. Recently, after watching a few of JeansThoughts videos on her PhD experience, I decided to give jotters a go. I’d never used jotters before and was very much a person that just loved to write in huge notebooks, but jotters are actually really helpful. Because they’re so small they fill up quicker so its easier to split your work, they’re more compact if you need to take one around with you rather than carrying a huge notebook and it gives my brain its need for notebooks as they’re usually in packs of three.

9. Two screens makes life a whole lot easier.
Probably the biggest thing I have learnt and one that I would recommend every PhD/Masters and maybe even undergrad student do. Is to get two monitors. At first you might think, whats the point in that? Think about it. One screen you will have open your journal article and on the other screen you can have your word document where you’re typing your notes, its easier for referencing, its easier for splitting your work up so its not a cramped screen, and it just makes the whole process of writing a lot easier and smoother than it does if you had just one screen.

10. Endnote will be your best friend.
I had never heard of this programme until starting my PhD and it was mentioned by a girl who I was introduced to when I was deciding whether or not to take the offer. She told me that if I used Endnote from the start it would make my life so much easier, because she had only recently began to use it. What is Endnote? Well, its a programme specifically designed to make referencing easier. You know that thing that you hate doing at the end of every essay? This does it for you. You have what is called an “Endnote library” and you add references to it, which you can attach PDFs to, you tell endnote what type it is e.g. journal article, report, conference paper etc. You type in all the details of the reference and save it. Then, when you are typing your essay in microsoft word and you need to cite something, you go to the endnote tab, click insert citation and search for the reference you need. Not only does it cite the reference for you, it also creates a reference list which it updates every time you have a new reference! There are thousands of referencing styles that are programmed into Endnote and thousands more that you can download off the Endnote website. Take advantage of it, its amazing!

I still have a lot to learn, after all I’ve only been there for 3 months, but i’d like to share my journey with you as I have read a lot of these posts recently and have found them both helful and comforting. I hope someone else does too!

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