The A-Z of the PhD

The A-Z of the PhD

In advance of academic writing month in November, I thought I'd write about something that I think I know quite a lot about: the process of doing a PhD (not finishing, because I haven't done that yet!). As I have previously commented it seems like more and more people are deciding to start the long slog that is doctoral research, perhaps because there are more and more media entries about how horrible academia is, how sexist it is, and how we need drugs just to get through the week. I have to say that some of this is true and the last three years have not been easy. I have cried, shouted and screamed, but I haven't felt the need to turn to anything stronger than the odd glass of wine.

Several things have helped me over the past few years, not least my partner, but at the top of the list have been social media and Google. It has helped me to know that there are others out there, in a way I have taken solace that I am not the only one working a PhD weekend; misery does after all love company!

Most of what will be written in the subsequent posts may not apply to all disciplines, or countries, but why not comment if you don't agree or have something to add?

A is for Autonomy. The PhD process feels like a long and lonely one, after all you cannot really write or read in twos, or can you? The growth of PhD boot camps, reading and writing retreats suggests that maybe you can. Many blog posts out there emphasize the importance of the relationship between you your supervisors (wait for S for Supervision!), but in reality it may or may not become one of your most important relationships. You might be the only PhD student in your school; you might be more or less integrated into your department. I am yet to hear of a perfect experience and I think what matters here is that you are prepared to be alone and if you don't like that, then you are prepared to work around it. There are lots of things you can do to stop being lonely, go to conferences (see C below), join a group on Facebook, follow #PhDchat or #PhDlife, or do something away from academia like joining the gym or taking a language class. A is also for autonomous working, finishing a PhD is your responsibility, nobody will do this for you. Try not to expect your supervisors to draw up a timetable or continually push you (you might be lucky and they may do this), it is your work and only you can do it.

B is for bullying. Yes I know we thought we left that behind us on the school bus (was that just me!) but bullying and harassment happen within academia. This is not OK either in or out of the university environment, and I have spent sometime talking about this with colleagues thinking about what to write here and this is what I have decided:

I suppose this ties in quite nicely with autonomy, because if it does happen to you, only you can decide what to do. If your supervisor or another member of staff is the bully, your university will have mechanisms in place to deal with this sort of thing, so speak to the director of PhDs or another such person. Yet, one of the biggest issues here is that as a PhD student you may feel that you are at the bottom of the hierarchy being trampled on and if you don't let this happen, you might be marginalised or worse still, never be published. However, if this person is really that terrible, they are very probably a Billy no mates and have a lot less clout than you think. One way to try to stop this behaviour is to attend academic events and conferences, try to figure out who are your bully's friends and who are not, build a support network full of people you trust and who might have more experience than you and go to them, ask them what to do. I suppose I want to say to the bullies out there, what goes around comes around, PhD students have a habit of not staying PhD students forever.

C is for, yes you guessed it, Conferences. Conferences are my favourite, they are great, fantastic and we should have one to discuss this blog. When you find the right conference you feel at home, which brings me to my first point. Be careful when choosing which conference to go to as they are expensive, ask your supervisor if they can recommend one, check out which journals run their own, look at where others in your area go (you can check their CV on Academia or LinkedIn). Once you have found a conference send your abstract and ask your institution about funding, start working on your presentation/paper straight away and when you know if you have been accepted book your travel. Try not to be too nervous about presenting for the first time, you might even state at the beginning that it is your first time and enjoy discussing your area of research. If you are asked that difficult question, remember it is OK not to have all the answers, note it down and think about it later, you may even choose to incorporate it in your thesis.

Try to get the most out of your conference, you will naturally gravitate towards someone at the beginning, and whilst networking is important, nobody likes a fake, so try to build authentic relationships and have fun. Go to the gala dinner (take something formal to wear just in case) and the excursion, go to the sessions you are interested in, but don't go to them all. It's easy to get 'conferenced out' so you may want to have a lie in one day, or simply grab a coffee instead of that afternoon session. When you get home, remember to follow up with the people you met, drop them a friendly email or add them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter.

My next post will cover D, E & F...


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