Things I wish I had known at the beginning of my PhD

Jillian Sullivan, PhD student at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge

Being in the final year of my PhD and preparing my dissertation, a thought often pierces my intense concentration on multiple regression analyses: ‘If I could do this all over again, I would have done some things very differently’. A PhD is, at its core, a learning experience designed to teach you how to effectively design, conduct, analyse and disseminate research. Unfortunately, unless you have had a great deal of experience being a research assistant before your PhD (and if so, you are very wise indeed), there is a cruel paradox: the most crucial and long-lasting decisions for your study, in the design stage, are done precisely when you have the least amount of experience. Below is a list of advice that I would have very much appreciated at the outset.

The study itself
You are in charge of your PhD – do a project that truly interests you. Not only is it easier to write and conduct research on something you enjoy and are hungry to answer, but it will also be of higher calibre.

I spent the first year of my PhD with a very vague goal in mind, and it wasn’t until writing my first-year report that I was able to hone in on a more specific and personally interesting question. Once I had this, the progress of PhD accelerated exponentially and my stress levels decreased at a similar velocity.

Your PhD question will evolve and mutate over the course of your degree. Be flexible and be ready to become an expert in an area that you have never even considered. I went from looking at developmental trajectories of cognitive abilities in autism to scouring medical textbooks on synaptic growth and sensory deprivation in typical development. I could not be happier.

Don’t even bother planning your study until you know the exact question you want to answer. I went with ‘just collect as much data as possible and you’ll figure out what you want to do with it later’, and now have piles and piles of data that I can’t answer any questions with.

Related to this, it is better to just answer one or two questions with your first study, and use these results to direct your course for the next. You will not solve your overall PhD question (or indeed the biggest question in your field of research) with one study.

Remember that your dissertation must tell a story, not be just a collection of loosely related studies. Even though it may seem intimidating, read the dissertations of past students in your department for a better picture of the work you will be expected to do.

Even if you are not planning to continue with a research career after your PhD, but especially if that is your plan, writing journal articles on your research is one of the most important things you can do. Plan your studies with journal articles being one of the aims. If nothing else, articles demonstrate effective communication and writing ability and can be stepping stones for your dissertation.

Collaboration – a lifesaver
You do not have to, nor should you, attempt to do your study without help from your colleagues. You may think you are being independent and/or that your PhD must be filled with only your own sweat and blood, but this is foolish: those who collaborate or at least ask advice do better. Full stop.

Similarly, those who collaborate get their names on more journal articles, make more contacts, and make a name for themselves in their field. Seek and accept help, but also proactively seek to help your colleagues on their own projects. This will come back to you a thousand-fold. One especially fruitful route is to talk to the PhD students who are starting at the same time as you.

It is quite frankly a waste of time and resources to go ahead with your study without checking:
 - whether others are already recruiting similar participants who you could work with; recruitment is by far the most difficult aspect of a study, especially if you are working with a clinical population;
 - whether others are interested in working with you;
 - the advice of more experienced colleagues on your study proposal and design; you may be overlooking a critical measurement, performing unrealistic tests for your population, or underestimating the timescale or costs – listen to them;
 - effect and power analyses; you can easily waste your time performing studies that you will be unable to use in your dissertation or journal articles because of small participant numbers.

Contacts, contacts, contacts
One essential goal of your PhD should be to make as many contacts in your field and related fields as you can. Go to conferences and seminars and, importantly, talk to both the big and small names. Don’t be intimidated: if they are a true researcher, they will be genuinely interested in discussing their topic and considering yours.

Your university is an incredible resource. Make appointments to meet with researchers outside of your lab to discuss your study plans; most professors will be happy to do this. They may have a fresh perspective on your plans that those in your lab may be unable to see, and each meeting chalks up another contact in your book.

Well-being – you really do deserve it
The horrifying recipe of literature reviews, proposal drafts, waiting for feedback, ethics applications, administration, and recruitment always results in a significant delay before anything can be accomplished. This happens to everyone and is a normal part of a PhD (and indeed any research).

It took nine months before I was able to test my first participant and a few months after that until my first study was in full swing. Deeper (initially shame-filled) investigation in my lab revealed that this was about average. It may feel like everyone is more efficient, capable and further advanced on the above timeline than you are. Everyone else thinks the same thing about others.

This was the first advice given to me when I started my PhD, and although I proceeded to immediately ignore it and stress about my inadequacies, it turned out to be 100 per cent true. You were accepted on to your PhD programme: you deserve to be there.

Your psychological well-being is just as important as the well-being of your study. Your first year is when you will meet the majority of the friends you will have when you finish. Join societies, go out with your housemates, go to university events: don’t hide away in your lab or with your eyes glazing over on PubMed.

This is possibly the only thing I did right – my first year was an amazing time and, although not much progress was made on my studies and I stressed about it, it turns out that the inevitable red-tape-breaking waiting period was favourable to creating a social support network that I now rely on in the truly difficult patches.

Don’t forget to take holidays and breaks from your work. Every lab and university is different, but all expect that you will take vacation days. Believe me, you will need it. Somehow, my productivity and thought-process is always infinitely better after a week off in the sunshine.

Which brings me to the final piece of advice. You will have bad spells, times when all you want to do is give up your PhD and run away to the Caribbean islands for the idyllic life of a bartender. You will also get through them. 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber