Five tips for PhD students

by Liz Law

I’m not going to pretend I am an expert on this. Far from, I just submitted my thesis last week! But fresh in my memory, I thought I would share five little gobbets of advice from my experience as a PhD student.

1. Make it easy for people to help you

Your supervisory team is there to help. But you can help them help you. Good communication is essential!

For example, before going in for a meeting with your supervisors, make sure to draw up a quick list of a) what you have been doing and where you are at, b) what you plan to do next, and c) any specific problems or questions you have. Send this to them prior to the meeting. This way they are clear about what your project is about, where you are up to, and how they can help.

Another example, when sending drafts to supervisors and coauthors, specify any sections that you would like them to focus on. For instance, say you would like help trimming down discussion, or if they could concentrate just on the main points and not worry about the fine details for now. This helps them give you the feedback that you want and need. They might be clever, but they’re not mind readers!

Remember your supervisors are people too! They usually have families, and other students, and teaching responsibilities, and, and, and… So give them enough time to process drafts, etc. This way you will get the best feedback. However, we all struggle sometimes to make deadlines, so if you do find yourself heading towards one and will likely only have something ready last minute, make sure you tell them that in advance – let them know the deadline is looming, when they might expect material from you, and when you need the feedback by.

Make sure you are getting strategic advice on your overall thesis. Often with a large team of supervisors you may get lots of little bits of advice, but no one clearly in charge of your overall vision. Make sure each of your supervisors knows how (and when) they are contributing, and that at least one knows how your thesis will fit together.

If you find you are not getting what you want from your supervisor or your PhD experience, first make sure you have made it clear what you want and expect. If this doesn’t help, think wider afield, a mentor perhaps, or your thesis review team. Talk to your postgraduate coordinator. If things still just aren’t working, remember you can take a break, and you can change your supervisor and/or project. This can be a really tough decision, but more common than you may think. I know several people who have done this, including myself. If you want to do research, don’t let one bad experience mar this vision. Another research environment may suit you better.

2. Write papers with people other than your supervisor

This is a great way to engage with other research groups, and get some fresh ideas and perspectives. This could be though workshops, or just identify some people relevant to your work and propose they be authors on your next paper. The worst is they say no. The best, you might get to go visit their lab, learn about other research environments, get great feedback, make new friends, and open more doors. Aim for a mix of national and international research partners. Also, particularly if you are looking to head to the America’s for future work, consider writing a sole author or minimal author paper. This shows you are clearly able to do your own research.

3. Write and format your thesis as you go

I’m sure you are probably writing your thesis as papers. Not only does this give you a great extra line on your CV, but you get useful feedback along the way to writing your thesis and conducting research, and can make the thesis compilation and review process easier.

While sometimes it can seem like you are wasting your time during the (sometimes lengthy) journal review process, consider this as time gained during that tricky period after you submit your thesis and before you are conferred – a time in which you are no longer on the PhD payroll and most likely are gearing up for another job, if not already doing it. I was so glad I could just reformat a couple of my papers as chapters, and know these were polished.

Formatting is perhaps the most tedious activity ever. However this could be made more manageable by deciding on a format from the outset, and formatting your papers for your thesis as you publish them. I didn’t do this, but after spending what seemed like over a week just formatting towards the end, I sure wish I had.

Make a folder for each chapter/paper, and keep additional notes in regards to how each paper fits into the overall context of your thesis, which authors contributed to different parts of the paper development (and how much – as per the format of the thesis preliminary pages documents, available online), and any caveats or discussion that may not have made it into the paper, but are useful for your overall thesis discussion. Often you’ll have a lot of material that was cut from drafts during the publication process – save these for later, they are often handy for the overall thesis introduction and discussion.

4. Backup your data and hardware, and look after yourself!

I’m sure you know to back up your data. If you haven’t done it recently, do it now. Consider having your main current working documents in an online storage such as Dropbox- I had a shared folder with my supervisor, which made it super easy to share drafts and receive comments without clogging up my email inbox.

Sure you know to backup your data, but also consider having access to some spare computer hardware. I spilt tea on my keyboard one day towards the end, and had to borrow another one for a week until a replacement came. While only a minor inconvenience, it certainly slowed down my workflow as I normally use a nice, slim, ergonomic keyboard, and the temporary replacement was the classic big chunky clunky thing. I was also prone to making spelling mistakes, which were often auto-corrected, not always correctly. It is amazing how these mistakes can then be missed in editing and proofing, particularly at ‘manic’ stage.

Expect to develop some sort of RSI problem, so listen to your body and take steps to mitigate it early. Get an ergonomic keyboard, try different mice products or learn to use your other hand, try a standing desk, remember to stretch and take breaks (or find a little free app to remind you, e.g. Focus Booster).

5. Take opportunities, and if you find yourself running out of time…

You will be given a lot of opportunities as a student. Conferences, workshops, courses, grant applications, coauthor papers, etc. Take them! Being a student doesn’t last forever.

But also, make sure you are on schedule, or close enough to. Remember things often take at least three times longer than you expect. Set yourself intermediate deadlines, and if required pull long days in order to achieve them. Do this throughout your PhD, not just leading up to really important deadlines. Long days are easier to manage in short doses. Know what times you are best at doing ‘thinking’ tasks, and when is best to do menial jobs like formatting or sorting references.

If you aren’t going to make a deadline, try and get this extended as soon as possible. If you are towards the end of your candidature, and your scholarship has run out, or you have substantial other obligations, consider dropping to part time. While it is great to get it over and done with, you do want to do it a certain amount of justice, as for most people, this will be the only PhD you do!

But most of all, try to find a way to make it fun. If research is your thing, you’ll want to be doing this for the rest of your career. Talk to different people about their experiences, try a few different approaches. Find a way to make it work for you.

Elizabeth Law