The hitchhiker’s guide to the thesis – Life, PhDs and everything

Four PhD students draw out some key aspects of the postgraduate experience

Being a self-funded full-time PhD student is a tough, but potentially achievable, juggling act between sporadic work, studies and personal life. Time management of both semester and day is key for me. For example, when there’s marking to be done at the end of a semester, the PhD takes a back seat; however, at the start of a semester, it’s all about recruitment into my study. One of the bonuses of PhD study is this flexibility. Sometimes I have to postpone supervisory meetings, or if I have been working during the week, I can catch up on my thesis at the weekend. In addition, combining study and employment gives me a breadth of experience and referees that will be helpful in securing a job post-PhD. Being able to apply for bursaries has been invaluable in affording conference and training opportunities. It’s not all about work though, the support and understanding of friends and family, even with some of them being 5000km away has been invaluable in keeping happy, healthy and ready to write.

Agnieszka Lech, 2nd-year part-time PhD student at Kent University       
I am at the end of the first year of a PhD. It’s fully funded, which covers fees, some research expenses and a maintenance allowance. This represents a significant cut from previous salary, and I have three young kids, but the funding means I can focus exclusively on my studies. I also do some demonstrating and seminar hours  at the university when available, which builds additional skills for my CV. A typical day starts with some analyses, literature reviewing, and the write-up of preliminary findings, finished off with a trip to my supervisor for comments and advice. This year I have really focused on a comprehensive review of the literature, figuring out the gaps  I could fill. I may also chat with my PhD colleagues, so we can learn from each other’s research experiences and conclusions, learning further skills which will help us in the workplace. The flexible nature of the role means I can spend some quality time with the kids before a couple of extra hours on the thesis when they’ve gone to bed.

Paul De Cock is a full-time 1st-year PhD student at the University of Ulster
I work as a psychology IT technician and am coming to the end of a part-time PhD.  My PhD paperwork covers the house and my job varies in intensity, so I am ready to cram in a couple of minutes work (with the support of my employer). A typical research day would see me up and ready by 9am at the latest, coffee in hand by ten past, and laptop on knee surrounded by acres of paper moments later, working potentially until late into the evening.

I dash through work deadlines, organising references, to searching for journals and information, and back again.

Evenings I structure around my family life, which consists of swimming coaching, Scouts, and all the usual household tasks, not to mention an occasional social event.  Consequently, it can be difficult to find any time to write. Aside from the obvious financial benefits in holding a permanent post, the benefit of carrying out my PhD part-time is the opportunity to do longitudinal research, and be a little more flexible with my own research questions Glenda Pennington is a full-time IT support officer and final-year part-time PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University

So what does a postgraduate do? From the statements above, it’s (among other things) a combination of thesis-writing, teaching, marking, meeting supervisors, reading articles, collecting or analysing data, contacting participants, writing and submitting journal articles, attending training courses or conferences, applying for funding, contributing to departmental research or external committees, consultancy, networking, paid employment or voluntary activities. Emphases change from first to final year. At the start, students juggle priorities, and search for a routine. The middle period can vary widely, dependent on data collection demands, while the final year is often a race against time to produce a quality thesis. No two days will be the same, and it is this flexibility and ability to get really involved with your topic, which is one of the great advantages of PhD life. Social support is also key. Everyone from supervisors to family members are stakeholders in your work. Befriending other PhD students and networking at events such as ‘Postgraduates who Teach’ workshops or PsyPAG conferences build both supportive relationships and create professional contacts for the future. Family life can be fitted around your learning, and having friends or relatives not doing a PhD can help you take a thorough break.

Funding is a key aspect of PhD life. Students have to think hard about the impact of funding on their PhD, and use available hours wisely. But paid, additional work doesn’t just generate funds: it provides a range of specific, transferable skills that can help career prospects.

The PhD experience is not just about the individual student – it enables you to get your work into the wider psychological arena, contributing to the body of knowledge, and making a real difference to your field. 

The final rush to complete may involve you abandoning most things in pursuit of finishing. You may become crazy, amotivated, and have writer’s block or writer’s cramp interchangeably. You stop thinking of days as consisting of hours, but as units in which you can perform statistical analyses. Instead of thinking about food, gin or personal interaction, you will wonder whether you have included all the relevant articles in the field, or whether you have missed out the key one which makes a mockery of your work. You will get cranky if your supervisor doesn’t pick up the phone before the third ring finishes, as this is perhaps a sign of having a life outside your PhD crises. You’re also excited about finishing, but slightly unsure what you will do with all of those units of statistical analysis time free. You will start napping in your office, and your day is structured around caffeine administration and phoning the takeaway to deliver their delights to said office. You will have rambling incoherent thoughts, and have a tendency to start every sentence with ‘consequently’, ‘however’ or ‘someone’s name (year) found’. You have concerns that when you get to the viva, you will be exposed as a charlatan. Other than that, it’s plain sailing till hopeful graduation and the whole experience is ultimately a great preparation for your career. Gillian Smith is a research associate and a final-year PhD student at the University of Ulster

- Gillian Smith is a research associate and a final-year PhD student at the University of Ulster


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