This month’s blog comes from Eglė Padaigaitė and in it she talks about the advice that she wishes she had had before she started her PhD at Cardiff University. Eglė holds the Mental Health Research UK Children and Young People PhD Scholarship 2020. Her research topic is: Identification of factors promoting sustained good mental health in children of depressed parents. Read more about it at:
A PhD can enable us to become an expert in our chosen field and usually is a prerequisite for a career in academia. However, it can also be a time for self-discovery and personal growth. These are five tips I wish someone would have told me (and I would have listened to) at the start of my PhD:
1. Manage your expectations
I started my PhD full of enthusiasm and desire to change the world by performing cutting-edge research (and obviously, I still do). However, I soon realised that world-changing research usually needs a lot of time, consideration, and collaborative effort that most likely will be unfeasible within 3-4 years. Finding the thin line between being ambitious but realistic with the amount of work you can do within limited PhD time was one of the most challenging things for me. I have wasted a lot of time and energy by looking for the “right” idea instead of trying to focus on smaller and more achievable aims. Therefore, I would suggest focusing on completing your PhD first. I am sure you will have plenty of time to change the world during your academic career.
2. Done is better than perfect
Enrolled in the intense research master’s program, I was assigned more papers to read than I had time for. While skimming the articles, I pledged to myself that when I am hired to do research full-time, I will finally do it “properly”. However, research is a self-correcting, never-ending process, meaning that you might end up working on the same project for years without drawing a line. Sometimes we make PhD completion unnecessarily complicated by trying to make it perfect, and what we often forget is that we only need to pass. Strive for the “good enough” and publish your work while it still seems worth publishing.
3. Never plan more than 70% of your time
Being able to finish the job within the assigned time was one of the traits I was proud of. However, during the PhD, you have to set deadlines yourself; for me, it was tricky. Considering that it took me six months to write a 20 000 words master’s thesis, I assumed that writing a 60 000 - 80 000 word thesis would take about... two years, right? Not really. There are some things you cannot plan – delays in data collection or access, broken laptop or illness. Even if everything goes according to the plan, you might be invited to give a presentation or co-author a research paper (which is great but takes time too). On some days, you may feel too drained to do anything (at least I did), and you should consider those days too. Therefore, never plan more than 70% of your time – it will help you avoid disappointment and unnecessary stress when facing delays or the inability to meet deadlines.
4. Knowledge is only real when shared
I recall attending a lecture on blogging. One thing the lecturer said struck me: “Some professors study their subject for so many years and do not publish their work. All this knowledge dies together with them”. As PhD-level researchers, we may struggle to see ourselves as experts. Still, we should strive to share our research and knowledge at every opportunity. Are your results not “groundbreaking enough”, you would say? It might be for someone else, and this person may help you realise it too. Also, share your materials and skills with other students – academia can appear highly competitive, but it doesn’t have to be. It is one of the best ways to collaborate, build your network, and have more publications under your belt that, as early career researchers, we are all striving for.
5. Don’t forget your life outside PhD
Research is our highest priority, but focusing only on a PhD for 3-4 years (especially if you constantly face self-doubt, criticism, and rejection) may be daunting. Therefore, you should seek other opportunities during which you could learn new things and improve your transferable skills. Multiple options will become available during your PhD - from helping organise university conferences or providing peer support to teaching. Combining several activities (if not too many!) simultaneously enabled me not only to discover new things about myself (for instance, that I love teaching) and procrastinate productively but also to remember that although the PhD is my key priority at this point, it (and its failures) does not define who I am.