Having had a few conversations recently with people who regret doing a PhD or didn’t manage to complete their work it made me think about some of the things that I am grateful that I did in my work. So here is my list of things to consider when doing a PhD. It’s based on my experience and conversations with friends.
1. Love your topic
I really mean LOVE your topic. When I started I was told that I would come to hate what I studied and I don’t (well not yet!) Instead, whenever I look at archives or read through my notes I think about how lucky I am to be able to do what I do. My advice for choosing a PhD project is find your passion. Its not good to choose something that you didn’t hate, or are curious about, or kind of works, it has to be something that you love otherwise you will end up hating what you do. Once you have found your passion then find your scholarly angle.
2. Know your supervisor
I was lucky that I had the chance to work with my supervisor during my masters work so I knew what I was getting into. Not everyone has that opportunity, but it is so important that you can find someone who works for you. Email your supervisor, ask what their working style is – do they like you to write lots, how do they motivate students, what is their schedule like, have they supervised people before? You will spend a lot of time with this person and it’s so important that you choose the right person. Of course, they have to be appropriate academically, but they also have to be appropriate for you. Ask questions, know what you are getting yourself in for.
3. Look at the postgraduate community at the university.
Southampton Humanities department has a fabulous postgraduate community. We hold social events, organise an international conference, publish a peer reviewed journal and hold training sessions. Not only are these great things to put on a CV but getting involved with the community helps to combat the lonliness that inevitably comes with working on your own project for three years.
4. Think about why you are doing a PhD.
Just doing it because you want to be a doctor isn’t going to be enough to sustain you throughout your project. I’m sure there is a part of every PhD student that is doing it because they want to be Dr so and so, but there are other reasons too. What do you want to do afterwards? If you want to pursue an academic career then great, but if you want to teach 7 year olds and you don’t quite love your topic then perhaps doing a PhD isn’t quite the right fit at this point.
5. Can you imagine yourslef at University for the next three/four years?
The chances that you will be done in 2 years is very slim. If you can’t imagine yourself being at the same university for maybe 4 years (perhaps even longer) then maybe you should think again. You have to like the city, the university and you have to enjoy the act of studying. If you have gone straight through your academic career without taking a break, perhaps take a year off and think about if spending a few more years in university is right for you or are you just doing it because getting a ‘real job’ is scary.
6. Realise that being a postgraduate is different from being an undergraduate
So many people think that I live the undergraduate lifestyle of partying multiple times a week, perhaps working for a few hours a week and pulling all nighters right before a deadline. Being a postgraduate is not like that at all. It’s a job. People work hard – often 8+ hours a day, you won’t find many postgrads in the local clubs until 4am on a week night, and I don’t think I know anyone who has pulled an all nighter to finish their work. Most of us, at least after the first months, treat our work as a job.
7. Realise that you may well have no real money for the next few years.
I am writing from a humanities perspective – my understanding is that it is pretty different in the sciences. In humanities there is not enough money. Most people don’t get funding (at least in the UK) and for those that are lucky enough to be funded the money is usually just about enough to cover you each year. If you are one of the lucky ones and are funded, do not complain that you don’t have enough money to your fellow postgrads – any of the people you talk to could be unfunded and hearing funded students complain sucks! For people who haven’t got funding if you love your project and are preprared for hard work you should do your PhD. I have spent my first two years unfunded and have managed just fine with part time jobs, teaching and a very sympathetic supervisor. It can be done, but be prepared that it will not be easy.
If you think about these points before you start I don’t think that you will end up regretting your PhD choice. I am sure, for many people, there are still moments when you think it would be easier to just have a ‘proper job’ but the more prepared you are going in, the less likely you are to really regret your choice.
So that’s my list. What do other people think?