How I survived my PhD

How I survived my PhD

I graduated from Newcastle University with a PhD in Sociology. To me, PhD was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one of the most exciting experiences. Now, when my four-year journey has come to its logical end, I am looking back to realize that it was not just a program in its conventional understanding with clear stages to complete, tasks to accomplish and deadlines to meet. PhD was an entire period of my life with its joys and difficulties, successes and failures, expectations and challenges. To live that life, to get most out of it without losing your heart, I developed certain rules that I followed during a PhD. Those rules helped me to persevere many challenges of a PhD and stay the course towards the successful completion of my doctorate.

Below I share only some basic tips on how to preserve a PhD journey and hope that people considering a PhD can relate to some of those tips.

My tips to survive a PhD

We all have our individual PhD experience. There is no such thing as a standard PhD experience, and those described below were most important to me.

1. Find your work routine
As a former PhD student, I have to say that establishing a routine is critical because otherwise, your PhD might easily take over your life. I guess it is unavoidable that PhD is always there during every second of your life. At the end of the day, you are a PhD student and your research is the reason why you are here (at the university doing research) at least for the next few years. Yes, it is important to keep on track and be consistent with writing/research schedule, but that is not a good reason to think about research day and night, during breakfast, lunch, dinner, swimming, walking, going out, and whatever we do. That is exactly what I did during my first year of PhD when it almost took over my life! Luckily, I realized that such a way of doing a PhD was not working out, either in terms of efficiency or in terms of my health. That is why it is important to establish a routine that would help you to designate a certain time for research or thinking about research, and time for other aspects of your life.
Although your School guidelines might recommend you follow 9 am-5 pm schedule, it does not mean that you have to push yourself to meet this schedule. As long as you spend 40 hours a week working on your PhD (working on your PhD might include anything related to your PhD: reading, taking notes, writing, planning your fieldwork, browsing literature, even thinking about your research), you will be fine. I have never been a morning person. I used to arrive at the PhD office by 11 am and finish work around 7 pm. That schedule worked just fine for me. Weekends were reserved for social activities, friends, and of course laundry) Try not to work during weekends. That will only make you exhausted. As my supervisor used to tell me: Your PhD is only a tiny contribution to science, you are not competing for a Nobel Prize. But who knows! I still have a chance.
So, do not work yourself to exhaustion. Be realistic about your strength, energy, and expectations. I wish I knew that during my first year!

2. Take care of yourself.
PhD can be overwhelming. It is not always possible to keep the stress under control. There are many ways to help with PhD stress, such as a healthy diet, 8 hours of sleep, exercise, getting out with friends, talking to people, etc. You should find what works for you. To me it was long walks after a day in the office, talking to friends and getting out (cinema, galleries, and short trips around the city).
Nearly all universities offer free and confidential counselling services to students. It is important to take care of your emotional health as well as psychical health. If you feel that you are getting too much, speak to your supervisors, school managers, ask them on the ways the university can help you. There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to your health! During my PhD, at some point, I felt that I was exhausted emotionally. My first point of contact, of course, were my supervisors, who helped me out to find a way to schedule my work in the way that I can maintain a healthy life-work balance. I also attended workshops organized by the university and specifically designed to help PhD students to cope with pressures of research. Always good choice is psychical activity. It is a good idea to sign up to sports centre's membership. Usually, university sports centres have special offers and discounts to students.

3. Take as much as you can from your PhD experience
PhD is not only about writing and giving it all to your research, but it is also about engaging in the fascinating world of a PhD in its broader sense. Try to engage into the activities of your department, make friends in your PhD community, volunteer to organize PGR-lead workshops, conferences, and any other research-related activities that might not be directly related to your thesis, but that are part of academic world (e.g., developing or writing for a PhD blog, joining or creating a new research group, reading circle, seminar series, showing films, so forth). I joined the research group on broader themes in sociology within the department. That helped me to broaden my area of interest and knowledge outside of my research filed and to make new friends within the department, including the faculty and PhD colleagues. I also helped my supervisor to organize a PGR workshop, present my research in postgraduate students (PGR)-lead workshops and school conferences.
Teaching is also a part of that PhD experience. You can teach one or a few modules per semester. That would enrich your PhD life. You will learn new areas of theory, develop your teaching and communication skills, as well as gain invaluable teaching experience which is important if you plan to pursue an academic career.
I would recommend you apply for a teaching job later in the PhD course (2nd or 3d year) and focus more on developing your research in the 1st year.
Making friends with your PhD colleagues in the office is crucial, especially if you are an international student. Becoming good friends with my peers was one of the key factors in surviving and succeeding in my PhD. PhD can be a lonely process. We are work on our research and feel enormous responsibility for it, which often feels overwhelming and stressful. This can cause a feeling of loneliness and isolation from the world. That is why talking to your PhD office mates is crucial. These people are probably also experiencing the same challenges, fears and insecurities of a PhD journey as we do. There was a period in the middle of my PhD journey when I started to feel exhausted and stuck, because of the amount of reading, writing and thinking about the research. During that time of my life, my PhD peers from the office helped me a lot. The feeling of having people around me, who are involved in the same process of research and probably going through the same issues made me feel less isolated. I started talking to my PhD colleagues more often about my thesis, sharing my worries and specific problems I faced in the process of doing a PhD. Talking to other people and listening to their worries and concerns made me feel that I was not alone and that is that there are people who I could rely on whenever I struggled with my PhD.

4. Speak about your research as much as you can
Present your work as much as you can. Conferences are invaluable sources of feedback from the research community, as well as an opportunity to build your research network. I attended conferences and research workshops within my university as well as international conferences in the UK and abroad, where I acted as a speaker, discussant, and even a coordinator of the event. It was an invaluable experience to me in terms of testing my research ideas and methodologies at the beginning of my PhD journey, my arguments and the data in the midway, and my preliminary conclusions towards the end of my PhD. I remember how after getting written feedback (yes, some researchers are kind enough to provide written feedback if you ask) from an expert in my field after one of the conferences I ended up making substantial changes to one of the thesis chapters, because I had a chance to look at my work through the eyes of the external expert (outside of my department and even university). It was frustrating and took a lot of work and courage, but in the end, I was rewarded by a better chapter! Constructive feedback is a good thing.
However, conferences are not the only place to speak about your research. Although I spoke at some other events, including student-organized events, I now realize that I did not present my research to as many different audiences as I could have during my PhD. During a PhD, you can talk to many different audiences, including your peers, people from other schools, and even to your family. When I was doing my PhD, I talked about my research to my friends, my peers, even to my landlord. In my first year, I talked at a university-organized conference where any university student, staff or faculty who are not experts in my filed and even in social sciences could attend. I had to explain my research to a non-expert audience, and it was challenging to speak about very specific issues I examined in my thesis to people who had hardly heard of them. Yet, presenting at such events is a good way to practice explaining your research in simple sentences. It served me well when I got to prepare for my viva voce.

5. Make use of your supervisors
Supervisors invest their time and energy in our research, and they are the only people who understand and know our research almost as much as ourselves. Use your monthly meeting with your supervisors effectively. Always come prepared for the meeting. Prepare your questions, concerns about research before the meeting. Normally, each meeting is devoted to a specific topic, for example, a section or a chapter of your research that you have to send them in advance. Supervisors are your first point to address all questions on your PhD research and enormous sources of guidance. To me, supervisors were the people who supported me the most during my PhD not only by guiding me through this journey but also by supporting me emotionally during the entire course. At times it may be tempting to rely on your supervisors on every little aspect of your PhD, especially during your first year. However, depending too much on your supervisors may make you feel insecure about your research. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to lead your research.
These were a few rules that helped me to keep going when things seemed hard. Hopefully, you can find your ways to deal with a PhD based on your own experience.

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