And Here Marks Halfway- Looking back on the first half of my PhD.
To say time flies doesn’t even come close to cutting it. It’s hard to believe that the first year and a half of this PhD is behind me and before me lies the second (and slightly scarier half). I’m intimidated to say the least. But the one, almost kind, irony is that I’m too busy to be scared. The halfway point of a PhD is an interesting space to find yourself in. Gone are the days of reading papers and sorting things out, and before you is the truly terrifying prospect of writing up and actually finishing. Here you are knee deep in data collection, analysis, writing up papers and going to conferences. It’s busy and exciting and stressful, and all wrapped up in a bow of the haunting lie-awake-at-night question of “What comes next?”.
Looking back at this past year and a half I’m very pleased to say that I don’t think there’s anything I would have done differently. I may regret those words in a few months time, but for now I’m able to comfortably offer some retrospective advice. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the first half of my PhD.
- Choose your supervisors wisely.
I’m very lucky in this respect as, despite me not actually putting too much thought into it (and rather jumping at an opportunity that presented itself), I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself with some great supervisors. I can’t imagine how much more stressful this experience would have been had that been different. There’s definitely no one size fits all relationship so I advise you to find what works for you. I’m a person who likes feedback but also likes a certain amount of autonomy. I’d advise you to find your style of working and try your best to find a supervisor who’s got a similar style, or at least is willing to meet you somewhere half way. Knowing what the expectations are on both sides of the supervisory relationship is key.
2. Find your support team.
We’ve mentioned it many times before on this blog but I’m very fortunate to have a team of incredible and supportive colleagues who all routinely save each others asses. Now this is often out of your control so what I will say is try your best to find a team of people in your corner. You will need them. Be it a professional mentor who can assist you with the navigation of your professional world and climate, a friend who is particularly great at stats, or an office administrator who can show you how to work the printer. Although an independent piece of work, a PhD is nothing if not a group effort. Behind every tired and slightly delusional student is an IT guy who knows how to find that one email they deleted, and a parent or partner or friend who’s made them many a cup of tea.
3. Start everything as early as possible.
Oh you have a slightly calm week in terms of workload? Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Map out articles, start your literature review, update your schedule, anything you can do now that helps to lessen your workload in the future is worth doing now. Future you will thank you.
4. Good file naming etiquette.
Don’t be that guy. Don’t be the one with a million documents on your computer with various names like “project 1 monday” and “project 1 monday 2”. This isn’t going to work and it is going to make your life awful at one point. I’m by no means perfect in this respect but I do my best and follow my supervisors rule of “Name of Document- Version Number- Initials” (ex. 10 week review.v2.SO). That way when you’re looking for something you can jump straight to the latest version. It seems almost silly to mention this but trust me it is so very worth it.
5. Keep a regular work schedule
This is something that I have done from the beginning and hope to do till the end. Approaching my PhD as I would any job has allowed me to only have a few evenings of work and to keep my weekends free. This will inevitably falter a bit as my writing load increases, but for now keeping a regular schedule helps me stay on task, allows me to follow a plan to get things done on time, and helps me feel like I’m making consistent progress. I’m also a bit of a sucker for a schedule and definitely a creature of habit so I’m quite happy sticking to it.
6. Jump at all the opportunities that interest you (and the occasional one that doesn't).
Right now, your main responsibility is to be a student. Whatever your plans after, academia, industry, run away and join the circus, now is the time to broaden your horizons. Although an incredibly focused piece of work, a PhD also invites you to be a part of a wide reaching community. Your University will inevitably be hosting a variety of talks and lectures and events and now is your time to access as many as possible. Go to anything that interests you, even if it’s not exactly right within your realm of expertise, because you might just find your new favourite thing. If anything, you may never get this opportunity again so why not go learn about zebra fish.
Before I sign off I’d like to offer a few quick fire bullet points of reflection:
- Take advantage of a PhD student schedule-there’s real luxury in taking a Wednesday afternoon off to buy groceries.
- Back up everything. Then back it up again. Then save it someplace else just in case.
- Never underestimate the power of a thoughtful thank you note
- Be kind to everyone. A good life motto in general but when you’re surrounded by equally stressed out researchers a bit of kindness really does go a long way.
- Keep an active life outside of your PhD. Yes a PhD is a defining few years but there’s nothing to say that you can’t maintain a life outside of it. Keep those hobbies and interests alive and nourished.