Notes from the first year of my PhD

(medium length)

For context, I spent the past year completing a Masters in Social Research Methods alongside starting up my PhD research (most students have to complete this MA before properly starting their PhD if they’re funded by the ESRC, it’s called a 1+3).

In September, I decided to create an ongoing note on my phone to document my reflections on navigating academic life and things I’ve learned.

Here they are.

It’s okay to admit you don’t know something.

I used to have a complex about confessing that I hadn’t heard of X concept or hadn’t read X ‘canonical’ text, but it’s actually incredibly liberating to admit you don’t know something and ask someone to explain it to you. Granted, PhD students and academics may know an intimidating amount about a specialist topic, but you come to realise that nobody knows everything about everything – and that’s okay! I wrote more about this in it’s ok to have nothing to say.

Weekends and evenings are vital.

Treasure your weekends and evenings. Don’t get me wrong, during busy periods and when deadlines are looming, on the odd occasion I may work into the evening, but try not to make habit of it. Take the time to relax, or you will burn out. Contrary to popular belief, being overworked and over-tired isn’t an indication of how good you are at what you do, and taking time for yourself isn’t a sign of weakness.

Find time to read for pleasure.

Preferably something unrelated to your research area, even better – fiction. Another academic (@apmumford) also told me that reading fiction improves your academic writing style, and he’s not wrong. 

Don’t (don’t) compare the stage you’re at with someone else on a similar journey to you. Don’t.

A current PhD student said this to the new entrants at the White Rose DTP introductory talk and it really stuck with me. If someone in your cohort has been published, or if they’re ahead of schedule to you, or if they’ve started/finished an assignment before you, that doesn’t mean you’re failing or behind. Everyone works at different paces, and people prioritise tasks and milestones differently. Don’t worry. Just focus on your journey because it’s completely unique to you – and be happy for your friends when they reach a milestone! 

I really like earl grey.
Really, it’s great. 

How to deal with the so you just want to be a student forever comments.

If you get comments from people doing ‘real 9-5 office jobs in The City’ about how you’re ‘putting off life’ by doing a PhD, you’re not alone. But you shouldn’t feel as though you have to over-justify your choice of career because of this, or use corporate office language to emphasise that you’re not at Propaganda every night and eating Dominoes at 3am. Be proud of what you’re doing, it’s amazing in it’s own right. More advice and bitter commentary on this here – You’re only doing a PhD so you can be a student forever.

I love reference management software. 

Okay, I don’t know how it took me until my fifth year of study to find out about this but if you aren’t using reference management software, get it! Especially if you have random folders full of journal articles named 10.4324_97817563-17.pdf. I can’t explain all of its wondrous features here, but in sum it’s essentially an iTunes library for nerds. 

It’s okay to say no to things.

There will always be a talk, or an event/conference/course you could be going to, and someone you know will always be going. But you can’t go to everything, and that’s okay. Most of the time you can get notes retrospectively from these kind of things anyway. Again, remember to take time for yourself.

I can’t live without headspace.

The nature of research/studying is that it’s never ending, it’s hard not to bring work home with you. Headspace has really helped me when I find it difficult to shut my brain off and relax (also, as a student you can get Headspace and Spotify premium for £4.99 a month – dreamy) #notspon.

If you’re doing unpaid work and it doesn’t feel right, query it.

It’s sometimes ‘normal’ in academia to get paid in exposure (or the prospect of) instead of real money. But, if you’re doing work for another academic/your supervisor etc. that you feel deserves payment and they haven’t mentioned anything, don’t be afraid to query it. You’re well in your right to breach this topic, and you should.

Go to talks your Uni puts on.

As well as acting as a means to expose yourself to other research and support your colleagues, it’s a good way to learn things in an hour or so when you don’t want to/are too tired/can’t be bothered to actually read things.

If you can, get some non-academic professional experience.

I know I previously mentioned about not feeling like you have to use corporate office language, and I still mean that. But the best thing I did was get a non-academic job in the professional services side of the University. I’ve grown up personally and professionally a lot in that time; I got over my fear of public speaking, I learned how to email people professionally (seriously, I didn’t know how), I learned how to manage projects and deal with difficult people. Those are skills you don’t really get from doing a (or even four) degree(s). 

You’re still being productive, even if you’re ‘just reading’.

I fall into this trap All. The. Time. I constantly have to remind myself that even if I don’t write anything profound, an entire day of reading is still incredibly productive. It’s still work and it’s still contributing to your knowledge/research.

Your peers will become your support system. 

It was exhilarating entering into a community of people who get it. I only spent a year outside of University whilst still dabbling in academic-related work, and it was very lonely. Your peers will become your support system, utilise them, be nice to them, and put time into your social life.

Don’t forget to look behind you.

A nice one to end on – academia can make you incredibly prospective, always looking for the next success, the next grant, the next you’ve been successful email. It’s so easy to forget how much you’ve achieved. Remember, your greatest success doesn’t always have to be in front of you, sometimes it’s behind you.

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