PhD tips from the road less travelled

Ah, the listicle. As much as people complain about them, if Buzzfeed’s enduring popularity is anything to go by, they seem to be popular. Based on empirical data from my own blog, I’ve found the listicle to be the preferred style of blog post. 

Last year, my blog on tips for conference attendees was very popular. So, in a similar vein, I’d like to share some tips that nobody will tell you going in to, or during, your PhD. I’ve now reached the final furlong in my own PhD (writing up), so now seems like a good time to share these tips!

I’ve seen an increasing number of posts which describe “How to survive your PhD” or “Ten Tips to make the most of your PhD” (looking at you, Nature). I think they’re great, but I’ve also found they’re all the same. And a lot of them are fairly… sanitised, happy-clappy versions of a slightly dingier reality.

Let’s be honest: A PhD is never going to be a bed of roses. And at the end, you are going to engage in a highly competitive process to find a job, be it in academia or in industry.

There are a lot of ways to make your PhD journey smoother, and the transition out of it less agonisingly painful. The problem is, nobody is going to give you this information for free. Lots of people who do succeed in their PhD and subsequent career cling tightly onto the information which for them was a hard-fought process to find out. Academia has a huge culture of kicking the door shut on the person behind you, but I’m not here to do that

I apologise in advance: I have rather a lot to say here. I hope that to one person at least, some of it will be useful!

Doing a PhD will take a physical toll on your body

So many people joke about their hair going grey during the course of their PhD. Like many jokes, they tend to be rooted in truth. Unfortunately, doing a PhD is going to take a negative physical toll on your body. You will have less time for exercise and getting out in the sunshine, convenience foods become your friend, after a hard day it can be overwhelmingly tempting to treat yourself to a chocolate bar or a bag of crisps. You will spend hours every day sitting in an uncomfortable office chair. You will travel internationally on long-haul flights, sometimes multiple times a year. All of this is going to affect your physical health.

We spend so much time talking about mental health in academia, we often neglect the very real physical effects of a PhD. In my personal experience, my PhD caused me to gain unwanted weight, develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and ultimately end up so run-down that I was diagnosed with Glandular fever last month, an illness that can take months to shake and causes severe fatigue. Unfortunately, I think this is common (several senior academics have shared their own stories about defending their thesis while seriously ill with glandular fever - One ended up bed-bound for six weeks following the event), and no amount of mindfulness meditation or visits to a psychologist is going to fix the physical problems a PhD can cause. 

Visits to a primary care physician aren’t necessarily available for everyone, especially in countries which lack affordable healthcare. However, a little care can mitigate many of these physical effects. Stocking up on healthy and affordable snacks like fresh veggies and fruit, ensuring you get adequate variety in your diet, limiting convenience foods high in fat and sugar, and getting some light to moderate exercise each week (such as by joining a sport club or hiring a badminton court once a week with colleagues) will hold off these physical effects, and improve overall mental health too. 

You need to talk about what you want to do after your PhD the day you begin. 

This probably sounds like overkill. However, it’s the reason I’ve personally had a lot of success. The first question my supervisor asked me when we sat down to talk about my PhD was “What do you want to be doing in three years time”. 

The answer to this question helps you and your supervisor tailor your project to your future aspirations. If they are academic, you need papers, and lots of them. If they are industry based, maybe you should go the way of patents and industry contacts. Of course, the answer to the question may change over time - and you should let your supervisor know straight away. If you’re worried they may react negatively to a change of heart, you may want to involve a mentor in that situation (see the next tip).

By discussing the question of what you want to do next early on, you maximise your chances of getting to that point. It gives your supervisor and you time to help you form the connections you’re going to need to get an academic job or an internship at your dream company. It allows you to have an overall focus for your research, and it also gives you something to aim for and a goal to reach, no matter how ambitious. More on that later though. 

I think having these conversations enables supervisors to do their job better. It outlines right at the beginning what you’re hoping to get out of your academic relationship. 

You need mentors, and they need to be someone other than your supervisor

Choosing a good supervisor is definitely key to getting the most out of your PhD. In my opinion, even having a panel of supervisors isn’t enough. A mentor isn’t there to help you complete your research or offer advice. A mentor is there to dispassionately evaluate your progress, and advise you on how best to achieve your career goals.

I advise having two mentors: one should be very senior (although not emeritus - someone who has achieved tenure in the last 10 years but no sooner than 5 years ago is ideal) and one should be within 10 years of your own career stage (someone onto their second or third postdoc, or an early faculty appointment is ideal). Both should be in a field adjacent to your own, but should not be working on the same subject as you. Both should be in a position which you wish to see yourself at an equivalent point in your career (if you want to go into industry, for example, you should not seek out an academic mentor). 

How you ask someone to be a mentor is another question, and one to be answered in a followup blog. Stay tuned for that - it’s coming in the next few days

You can be much more ambitious than you think you can

Every PhD student I have ever met underestimates their capability.  I’ve seen a lot of people low-ball their goals and ambitions during their PhD. The best thing my mentor ever did for me was to sit me down and tell me I was more than capable of publishing more than I thought, and aiming higher when it came to jobs.

Any goals you set should be achievable, but they should also be on the very edge of what is practically achievable. There is a theory of how we learn which describes something called the ‘zone of proximal development’. This basically says that there is a range of things which are already within our capability. Things which are closer to the edge of this zone are harder, but we can still get to them using the skills we already have. A PhD goal should be just outside this zone: it requires the development of new skills, but is not so far away from what we are already capable of to be unattainable and discouraging.

Goal setting is something you should work on with your supervisor and mentor. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious: it’s much better to aim high than to set an easily achievable goal and become bored in the process of getting there.

Resilience isn’t an individual thing

I was a sensitive kid. I loathed (and still loathe) unfairness. I cried (and still cry) very easily. I grew up being constantly berated by teachers for it and being told to ‘just be more resilient’. I always wondered why I couldn’t just harden up and do it. 

More recently, I have. I still hate unfairness, but I’ve learned to accept that it happens. I don’t give up on things easily. I tend to choose tasks both at work and outside which are difficult and require a great deal of persistence and occasional disappointment to achieve. I’ve experienced some extremely hard times in my life which many people may never come close to experiencing. I can definitely say that I’m a resilient person. 

I only realised recently what had changed. I went to a talk by F-35 test pilot Tucker Hamilton. Hamilton describes resilience not as an individual quality, but something developed together with the people you surround yourself with. Surround yourself with a good, solid support network, and you can overcome almost anything. 

PhDs aren’t completed by the individual. Every PhD is completed by a community: the student, their advisors, and their peers. You only have to take a look at the acknowledgements section of any thesis to know this. By prioritising relationships with the people around you, you build the support network who you can draw on when things get challenging, and develop the resilience you need to succeed in your PhD

Writing up your PhD will expand into whatever time you allow

Your PhD thesis is a liquid. It seeps into the cracks and corners of your consciousness, and it will expand to fill any space you give it. Often, students allow a large amount of time for the writing up of a PhD thesis, sometimes more than six months. I’m here to tell you that even for a traditional thesis, this is unnecessary. 

One of the best pieces of advice my supervisor has given me recently is that I should allocate as little time as possible for my PhD thesis. This has been aided, in part, by the fact I already have upwards of 15,000 words written through my published papers, however if I was doing a traditional thesis, I’d still have only allocated around three months to complete it. 

As physicists, we generally think of writing as secondary, despite the fact that writing is really our primary job. To disseminate the information we’ve obtained from our experiments, we must write. One of the many things I’ve learned as I have written papers and now written the first draft of my thesis, is that us physicists must reframe how we see writing. Moving to a mindset where we see writing as our main job, and not some frivolous distraction from our experiments, is the best way to see success. This means blocking out several hours a day, every day, just to write during your thesis writeup. You’ll be finished much faster than you think. 

I saw the success of this change in mindset when I attended ANU’s Thesis Bootcamp, an intensive three-day writing workshop where I wrote over 20,000 words and completed the first draft of my thesis. See whether your university runs a similar workshop, or arrange your own using the advice in my next blogpost on the thesis bootcamp. 

‘Shy bairns get nowt’

This was something my mother was told by her father, and by extension told me. It’s a Northumbrian way of saying ‘don’t ask, don’t get’. 

I think a large proportion of success in your time as a PhD student, and what follows, is having the audacity (or gumption, to steal the term from Sera Markoff’s excellent talk slides on job applications) to ask for whatever you want. 

I’m not saying you should be rude about it. There are polite ways to phrase a request for things like money and resources. But many students get caught up in the trap of thinking that they, as students, aren’t allowed to ask for certain types of support. 

Nobody is going to come to you and offer things. This was the hardest thing for me to learn as a PhD student. If you want something: to attend a workshop, conference, to be chosen for an outreach opportunity, get a promotion (more applicable to ECRs), a new job after your PhD, or get certain types of scholarship, you have to ask for them. The greatest attribute of a PhD student, in my opinion, is having the confidence to ask for something, and the ability to take it on the chin and not get discouraged when the answer is occasionally no. 

For God’s sake, take a holiday

A sad fact of the PhD is that you will be overworked and underpaid. In Australia, PhD students work for more than three years for less than minimum wage. Holidays can become a thing of the past as guilt sets in that we haven’t taken our work with us. I’ve even worked on Christmas day, analyzing observations. 

I’m here to tell you that this is untenable. One of the reasons that the PhD takes such a massive toll on peoples heath is because we don’t take adequate breaks. Between when I started my degree, and now, I see far fewer students taking breaks at morning tea and lunchtime (important: see the point on resilience). Many will forgo holidays, or else take work with them, due to the overwhelming sense of guilt if they don’t. 

You, reading this: I want you to get out of your chair, stretch, and go and get yourself a cup of tea or coffee. Once you finish reading this, I want you to think about when you can squeeze a 30 minute break into your day. I want you to think about when you will take your next proper holiday (no PhD allowed). I’m the random stranger on the internet telling you it’s ok to take a break, and a holiday. 

This post is now getting long, so I’m going to finish it there. I hope these points help, or provide food for thought. If you have any less commonly discussed PhD tips, I’d love to hear them via Twitter. As mentioned in this post, I have two more upcoming blog posts on the late-stage PhD: one on my ANU Thesis Bootcamp experience, and another on effective mentoring. Stay tuned for these in the next few days!