Advice / Commentary / Reflection

Reflections on completing my PhD

This post is by Dr Fiona Saunders (School of Mechanical, Aerospace & Civil Engineering). It was originally posted on Fiona’s blog (http://fionasaunders.co.uk) and is reproduced here with the authors consent.

You can follow Fiona on Twitter @FionaCSaunders

I passed my Viva Voce three weeks ago today and I can honestly say that I am still riding the crest of an amazing emotional high.  I chuckle to myself regularly as I reflect that I am now officially Dr Saunders.  Friends, family and even my kids have had to get used to addressing me as Dr Fi, although I am sure that the novelty of this will eventually wear off – for them, if not for me!

Looking back, I was a reluctant PhD student. Much cajoling and a couple of metaphorical kicks were required from the Head of my Research Group, Professor Andy Gale, before I took the plunge and enrolled on a part-time doctorate at The University of Manchester.  My youngest was only 2 at the time, and it seemed folly, bordering on madness to attempt to squeeze serious intellectual endeavour into my already jammed-packed life.  And yet, now that I have finished I am so proud of my achievement that I wanted to share some reflections for those considering whether to embark on their own PhD journey.

There are five things to bear in mind when considering whether a PhD is both doable and desirable

1) How much do you really want to be a PhD?

My motivation for getting a PhD was fairly straightforward. I was already employed as a Lecturer at The University of Manchester and wanted respect from and equity with my academic colleagues. Coupled with this was a nagging sense of being under-qualified for my job, and a desire to prove to myself that I could rise to the intellectual challenge of a PhD. Lastly, and this dream did keep me going at times, was the thought of graduating in front of my children and role modelling the importance of lifelong learning to them.   There are many other motivations for doing a PhD – love of learning, resolving a pressing scientific or social problem, desire for a career change into academia etc.  None are more worthy than others.  What is true though is that if you don’t have sufficient motivation for completing a PhD, it is more likely that you will give up when things get tough, so it’s worth really bottoming out this question before you sign up.

2) What available capacity do you have and what support mechanisms have you got in place around you?

Think through how much intellectual, logistical, emotional and financial capacity you can spare for your PhD – This will vary depending on whether you are considering a full-time or part-time doctorate, what life stage you are at and what other career or caring responsibilities you have.  I knew that I would only be able to dedicate 1 day a week to my PhD in the first year, gradually rising to 2 days a week, once my children were each at pre-school and then primary school.  I knew too, that I wasn’t prepared to spend weekends for 5 years locked in my study.  This decision slowed the pace of my PhD, but made for much happier family life.  Alongside understanding your available capacity is the need to establish support mechanisms – partners, family, friends, mentors- who will stick with you on the journey and appreciate that for a time you may not be so available as you once were.

3) Get the topic area and the supervisor decision right

This sounds so obvious, but it is really, really important to pick a topic area that will sustain your interest for between 3 and 7 years.  Don’t just take the first available PhD topic, or pick a topic to suit your supervisor.  The PhD is YOUR project and only you can write it, so identify an issue, problem or field that fascinates you personally. Yes there are other considerations – such as working in a contemporary and well-funded discipline, the presence of star colleagues, or the availability of PhD funding, but don’t sell yourself short here.  With a PhD you are potentially building a research and scholarship platform for life, so try to find a niche that grabs your attention and will drive your research.

A brief word only on supervisors here as others have written much more eloquently on the topic (see for instance Tara Brazon’s excellent article Ten truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you and Evelyn Tsitas’ Perfect PhD supervision match. How to find your academic sweetheart? )  Again, don’t just accept the first supervisor that you are offered. Try to meet potential supervisors, talk to their current or past PhD students and get a handle on their PhD track record, their supervisory style, email responsiveness, approachability and own recent academic publication record.  My two supervisors were both incredibly busy Professors, with a plethora of other internal and external commitments.  However, as a relatively mature student I considered their expertise, industry contacts and long experience of successfully graduating PhD students would outweigh their lack of availability on a day basis. A decision that proved right in the end!

4) Form good habits early on

One piece of top advice given to me early on by my supervisor was to form good habits – a regular working routine, ways of writing, good data management systems (for both literature and empirical data), the importance of a plan and avoiding distractions (like social media).  It was a revelation to me that the brain is remarkably plastic, able to learn and cement new habits and practices in as little as 3 weeks.  Do remember too, that what works for you may not work for others. For instance, I was and remain a fan of binge writing (in chunks of several hours, over several days to draft a paper or chapter), rather than writing, say, for 1 hour each day.  The key is to find out what others do, reflect on your own personality and working preferences, experiment a little and find the habits that work for you – but gain these habits within the first 6 months, rather than the last 6 months of your doctorate!

5) Keep on, keep on going

It is so true that a PhD is 10% inspiration and 90% sheer dogged determination.  I can genuinely count on one hand the number of Eureka moments in my own PhD.  Mostly, I ground out my PhD over a 5 year timeframe; reading one paper at a time, collecting one piece of data after another and drafting, revising and completing chapter after chapter in a slow, often tortuous plod to the top of the PhD summit. Several times I felt utterly lost in the fog, unable to see or even visualise the next step. At these times, there is no alternative but to keep moving, keep doing, keep thinking until eventually (and it may take several weeks) the fog clears and the next section of the path becomes visible again.  Do not give up when you become lost in the fog.  It is utterly normal.

So was it worth it? 

Yes, yes and yes again.  I have learnt so much through my PhD. I have served an apprenticeship in research, produced a pretty coherent 85,000 word thesis and published 5 journal and 4 conference papers.  My PhD stretched me intellectually and emotionally, but I am immensely proud of what I have achieved and actually enjoyed much of the journey.  And the buzz of completing (and hearing yourself addressed as Dr Saunders) beats hands-down those few times when I despaired that I would ever make it.

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