It’s been a while since I started my PhD so I’ve been reflecting a lot on my first two years and wanted to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learnt so far.
Disclaimer: as always, I am sharing my personal experiences and current opinions and thoughts. These are in no way representative of everyone’s PhD, disability, mental health, experience and opinions. They may also change over time as I am always learning and growing.
I’m now two and a half years into my PhD program temporally, and two years in registration wise as I’ve taken 6 months of temporary withdrawal so far. I passed the confirmation process (also called ‘upgrade’ or ‘transfer’ at some other UK universities) in February last year which means I’m a PhD candidate now and I have plenty of things that I’ve learnt that I want to share with you. I’ll be covering the impact of the pandemic on my PhD in a separate post so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested. Of course, everybody’s experience of a PhD is different and they work differently even between universities, let alone different countries and education systems. These points also have a bit of a skew towards the experience of being disabled in academia as that has been one of the main roadblocks for me. But I think the following lessons are fairly universal and hopefully, they might help you navigate your PhD better if you’re thinking of doing one!
Without further ado, here are the most important lessons I learnt in my first two years of doctoral study:
You need to structure your time
I guess this is fairly obvious, but it has been something I’ve really struggled with. Whereas during undergrad, I had my timetable dictated by the university which gave a good structure to my time and allowed me to plan ahead to manage my workload, my time as a PhD student is completely dictated by me. I’m in charge of booking meetings with my supervisor, booking lab equipment, making time to read, write, and analyse data. When I started out this meant I was all over the place as I hadn’t really found a good structure for me (I also didn’t disclose my autism to my supervisor for a few months so I was trying very hard to behave neurotypically as best as I could).
To overcome this lack of structure, I now implement what I like to call a ‘skeleton routine’ (which you can read more about in this post I wrote about my planning system). Research is unpredictable and you do need to be flexible in how you work. As somebody who likes predictability and routine as well as struggling with task switching, this was definitely an issue. But the skeleton routine has helped along with a reasonable adjustment to have a work from home day every Friday (which promptly became irrelevant once lockdown started and everyone had to work from home as much as possible!). This means my sensory space is completely in my control and I mitigate social fatigue from interacting with colleagues in person. I usually get the most and the best work is done on my work from home days!
Every student-supervisor relationship is different
I’m sure most PhD students have heard that you have to ‘manage’ your supervisor and there’s definitely some truth to that. It’s a really weird relationship as they are kind of your manager but also a colleague. You’re meant to bring stuff to the table and eventually be fully leading your project so the relationship also changes over time. If like me your supervisor was a lecturer of yours during your undergraduate degree then things get even more mixed up regarding knowing where you sit in the hierarchy.
Throwing into the mix a disability and some mental illnesses for good measure and I think I was a bit of a curveball for my supervisor! Because autism involves communication differences, my non-medical helper and I explained to my supervisor how autism impacts me specifically, emphasising that you need to think about accommodations on an individual basis. It’s really paid off as we now have lots of techniques in place for facilitating communication between us. For example, I find that I will sometimes go into a nonverbal state at work which is not ideal when we have our meetings as his preference is talking face-to-face. So, we’ve experimented with a few things and now we have weekly meetings via teams chat so that even if I can’t speak verbally, he can assess my progress and see my ideas. This has facilitated some great discussions and allowed me to be more confident (I am much better at both conveying my thoughts and processing what is being said to me in writing than through speech). I think we’ve both learnt a lot from each other about communication, accessibility and, of course, physics! I really look up to him both as a person and as a scientist and I know that he always wants the best for me, for me to produce great research and thrive in this environment.
Supervisor relationships are incredibly personal and it truly depends on the unique mix of personalities of the supervisor and the student. They’re not something that you can necessarily get working perfectly immediately and can take time to develop into something beneficial for both parties. Some supervisors are quite hands-on and like to have a lot of contact with you and very regular updates (like mine), but some are very hands-off and only like to meet once a month (quite a few of my peers have supervisors more like this). When applying to PhDs, it can be useful to ask current students who work with your prospective supervisor what their supervision style is so that you can assess whether you’ll be a good fit. I think that this and making sure you’re passionate about their research area are the most important things to consider.
Sometimes experiments don’t work— that’s the nature of research!
This is something I first got a taste of during my R&D internship where I worked on my master’s research project in industry. During undergrad labs, I never had an experiment not work at all. I always found that as long as I followed the lab script I would always obtain the expected results, or at least something similar to what I was expecting. It probably helped that I have a slight flair for experimental work and have discovered that I’m good at setting up and calibrating equipment. But this aside, undergraduate labs don’t really teach you what to do if your experiment doesn’t work at all or if you get some strange results that you don’t understand.
When I first encountered real-life cutting-edge research experiments, it was a bit of a shock to not always get the results that I expected from the theory. But now I love analysing it and investigating the reasons why my results might be doing something new and unexpected. Sometimes ‘failed’ experiments are the ones that give us the biggest insight and the most profound advancements in science!
So, if you can, try to isolate your self-worth from whether your experiments work or not. As scientists, we’re studying nature and finding ways to innovate with what we learn so of course, we will encounter lots of things that we don’t yet understand. If things weren’t failing, we would never make progress and learn exciting new things about our field.
Stepping back occasionally helps you look at the bigger picture
I’m such a detail-oriented person it can sometimes be hard to explain why my research is useful to people. So I’ve got into the habit of forcing myself to step back from the nitty-gritty quantum physics and focus instead on the project as a whole. So far, I’ve found that having reasonably long holidays (I usually try to take annual leave so I have two weeks off at a time) allows my brain to process my research subconsciously and to see the context better. Whenever I return to work after a break, I have so much more clarity on the impact and implications of my work which I don’t think I would get if I stayed buried in the details all the time. It can also help to explain your work to others, like friends and family as this usually forces me to talk about it more generally which inherently situates my work within a broader understanding of it.
Mental wellbeing should always be the priority
Academia is notorious for being a poor environment for mental wellbeing. I’ve written about my mental health experiences in the past here which explores this topic in a bit more detail from the autistic perspective. It goes without saying that your health should always be your top priority, but that often doesn’t seem to be the case in academia. People like to brag about how many hours they work and how they’re always in the lab on weekends. So for those of us who like to keep strict work boundaries, it can feel like we’re not living up to what is expected of a PhD student.
But this just isn’t the case. You shouldn’t be doing so much overtime that it causes you to develop a mental illness. That’s just not sustainable. As someone who already had a diagnosis of anxiety and depression going into my PhD, I already had some coping techniques in place like my medication and therapy. This, along with regular mental health check-ins with myself, helped me manage things better. But still, I fell into the overwork trap early on in my studies which resulted in a few relapses into severe depression and needing to take some withdrawal time from my program.
Since then, I’ve been a lot better at setting clear work boundaries where I don’t work in the evenings and weekends (unless it’s needed due to booking of equipment or I am in a hyperfocus state that I want to make the most of). This has helped me enormously in terms of both my energy levels and my mental health and I encourage everyone to try and set boundaries that fit in with how they work best. Don’t just work all of the time because ‘it’s what PhD students do’. The only way we can change the overwork culture in academia is to push back on it and challenge the status quo instead of falling into the trap that so many others have succumbed to in the past.
Being in limbo between being staff and student takes some getting used to
This was something that I hadn’t really considered until I was in my doctoral program. My university campus card says ‘student’ but in reality, I’m more like a member of staff. I don’t go to taught classes and all of my activities are either research or teaching-focused. I think this is a big misconception that a lot of people have and ‘PhD student’ is a bit of a misnomer, especially in places like the UK where you jump straight into the research project when you start your PhD. But even so, you’re still not a full member of faculty as a PhD student and you do sometimes feel a bit forgotten about. Owning this feeling of being not-quite-student-not-quite-staff took me so long to get accustomed to. It also plays into trying to work out where I sit in the hierarchy that I mentioned before in reference to supervisor relationships. Lecturers who taught me at the undergraduate level suddenly expected me to refer to them by their first name which just felt really odd for a long time!
Self-directed learning is key
Being a researcher is all about self-directed learning. I’ve found that my skills of teaching myself new complex concepts and seeking out information have improved so much since I’ve been a PhD student. During undergraduate degrees, we are usually still ‘spoon fed’ a little bit so transitioning to a PhD can be a bit of a shock. Luckily I had already been reading around subjects I studied during my degree but not having a syllabus to guide me still took some getting used to! As a PhD student, you sit right at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning – create: where you’re producing new or original work.
The only taste of this that I had prior to starting my doctorate was during my research placement and in writing my master’s dissertation. I’ve found that I really have to take my learning into my own hands and this includes identifying suitable people to reach out for help and advice on understanding new concepts. If you’re an undergraduate hoping to do a PhD one day, I definitely recommend reading widely and practising this form of learning whenever you can. Not only will it improve your own understanding of your subject but it will also put you in good stead for a research career.
Writing papers takes way longer than you think it will
I’ll be honest, when I started my PhD I thought I’d have at least one paper published within the first two years. Due to a myriad of factors (mostly thanks to the pandemic), this has not happened. I don’t think that I would have had something published, even if we hadn’t had this strange year to deal with. I don’t know how common this is for other PhD students, but I struggle a lot with my confidence when it comes to academic writing that I know will be seen by other academics so I’ve spent a lot of time in a state of anxiety paralysis towards papers I have on my ‘to do’ list. This seems mostly due to my perfectionism and the fact that everything I’ve been reading is a highly polished final draft that has been through the rigorous peer-review process. Of course, my first draft isn’t going to be of this standard and nobody but me is expecting it to be. I’d quite like to share the various drafts of my published papers online so that others can see the process more as I think it would help me to see more ‘in progress’ academic writing from others in my field!
I also somewhat want to push back on the ‘publish or perish’ mindset that many people have in academia. I’d like to do good and complete studies that I am proud of, even if it takes me a bit longer to expand on the analysis and my interpretation of it- ensuring that I am not falling into selection bias when presenting my findings. This is particularly on my mind as recently, a paper in my field published in nature was retracted which has caused a bit of a stir. Research integrity always needs to come first and I don’t want to get caught out for being sloppy from not spending enough time on things. So I think it’s about finding the balance between my ‘slow science’ philosophy and not being afraid to put my work out there in the academic sphere (I fear I may be using the former as an excuse to hide the latter). I’m now really pushing myself to overcome my perfectionism and have an upcoming deadline for a ‘submittable’ paper draft next month- so watch this space (I’ll try to post an update as to how it goes!).
Don’t compare yourself to other PhD students
I was told this so many times at the beginning of my PhD and I still couldn’t help constantly comparing myself to others. I work in a vibrant research group with fellow PGRs who are brilliant and who I perceive as infinitely more intelligent and better PhD students than me. Part of this is internalised ableism on my part but that is something I’ll write about another day. I think this is something that many PhD students struggle with and it links into the imposter syndrome problem that we always hear so much about. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what other PhD students are doing. Transitioning from undergraduate where you can compare yourself to others fairly easily using grades (something I always did and it damaged my self-esteem a lot), I automatically started doing the same thing. It’s something I’ve been trying to break out of for a long long time but I’m still not there yet. Maybe one day I’ll feel like I am good enough to be a researcher.
Anyway, the main thing I’ve learnt is that everybody’s project is different so you can’t possibly compare them. For example, my project sits slightly outside of the rest of my research group. It’s just me and my supervisor who are working on my material system (InSb) at my university at the moment. Many of those in my group work with silicon and all of their projects feed into each other more (note: I was given the option in my interview and I chose to work with InSb rather than silicon as I think it’s a more interesting material and it’s a smaller research area so there’s less literature to battle with). Thus, there is more group work and bigger teams working together on things like publications for other PhD students in the group. When I see how they already published by the stage I am at in my PhD, I forget this fact and use it to bully myself. Even if I was working closely with other PGRs or if I had published a paper, I’m sure I would find a way to make it reflect badly on me in my head. Let’s see if I can take my own advice and stop comparing to others!
Doing a PhD is a rollercoaster!
This is another thing that I was warned about but didn’t really believe at the time but it’s so true. There’s no escaping the fact that research ebbs and flows. There are weeks where I feel like I do nothing at all and others where I do more than I thought possible. Of course, there are going to be emotional ups and downs – you’re dedicating 3-4 years of your life to a single research project and it can feel like you almost embody your project. I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone who’s said that their PhD was straightforward and easy to manage. From equipment breaking or just not cooperating to unexpected results, you just can’t predict what will happen. That’s research for you! I’ve learnt to embrace the uncertainty and love the challenge that it presents.
If you like my work, I’d love your support!