I accidentally a PhD – one year in

So one of the stories I tell about how I ended up quitting a corporate job to go research porn is that it happened by accident. It’s the truth, though not necessarily the whole truth. I went from “Yeah, I kinda still wanna do this, when I retire” to “Fuck this, I’m doing it right now, I’m applying for funding and finding myself a supervisor” in the space of two months. And seeing as I got asked a couple of weeks ago to tell our new PhD students what I’d learned about the process over the last year, I thought it might be a good time to look back on that year in this blog too.

Self-Inflicted Problems

The good news is, I still don’t regret leaving my old job. There are some small things I miss – being on conference calls with people from literally around the world, the business class travel was nice, and I do have to live on less money now. But overall it was the right decision. I think one of the biggest changes has been moving from a job where the majority of problems were externally created (systems, organisational cultures, budgetary restrictions) to doing a project that is entirely mine and all the problems are completely self-inflicted. My data isn’t behaving? Well, it was my choice to look at this data set to start with, so it’s not the data’s fault. It’s very difficult to rant about something when it’s completely self-inflicted. The good news is that my data started behaving again this morning. Or rather, that I took enough of a step back to stop looking for something and start looking at what was there and how to make sense of it. The other good news is that if most of your problems are of your own making, they’re also broadly speaking within your control to fix.

Wrangling Supervisors

I spoke to a lot of people who’d finished their PhDs, and I’d seen at least some of the gory details of two people very close to me going through the process, before I embarked on this journey. And one of the common themes was the importance of the supervisor. So loud and clear was this message that I basically went and interviewed a bunch of potential supervisors before I applied for funding – much to their startlement. In the end, the funding materialised at an institution where I’d barely spoken with anyone, I was assigned a supervisor I’d never met or heard of… and promptly misplaced him on the first day of my PhD as he left for a job at another university. These things happen, and I’m lucky it happened on Day 1 rather than two years in. I’m also lucky – and very happy – with my current supervision team, even though I’m pretty sure I give all of them headaches at times.

So yes, the PhD student-supervisor relationship is a unique one: they’re not your boss, and they’re not your peer, and they’re not your mentor. They’re a bit of all of the above and none at the same time. Learning to manage your supervisor(s) early on in the process is key. Have a conversation about how they see their role and yours – and how you see it. Work out their strengths and their failure modes – leverage the strengths, learn to work around the failure modes.

I have three supervisors, which has upsides and downsides. On the plus side, there’s always someone there. Even if two of them have disappeared off to conferences, there’s always someone I can get hold of if I need something urgent. On the minus side, getting all three of them in the same room has proved impossible. Which is actually ok. I learned early on not to wait for everyone to be available and to meet with people as and when I could or needed to. The other big lesson has been not to go for more than four weeks without speaking to at least one supervisor. I tend to go into phases of thinking I don’t need to speak to anyone and I’m doing ok, and that’s generally a sign that I’m stuck with something, or not making as much progress as I’d like to, or haven’t done something I said I’d do. Having that looming supervisor meeting in the diary is a good motivator to go get things done – or ‘fess up and ask for help.

The other thing about having three supervisors is that I get a lot of very different input and insights that I might otherwise not have access to. The downside is that occasionally they end up all pulling in three different directions. That’s where the bit about your supervisor not being your boss comes in. It’s my research, and I get to decide what input to take on board and how. Occasionally I just have to decide that that thing my supervisor’s really excited about is a squirrel and let it go. It is tempting sometimes to only take on board the good feedback, the praise, the comments I agree with, and ignore the rest. That’s a bad idea. A habit I have got into for anything that my supervisors say that I wildly disagree with is to at the very least work out why I wildly disagree with it. That way, when my external examiner in my final viva inevitably asks why I didn’t do Thing X that Supervisor Y told me to do two years ago, I’ll have a (hopefully) good answer.

The Deep Hole of Knowledge

A big challenge for most PhD researchers is isolation. Regardless of whether – like me – you’re working by yourself on a project you designed from start to finish or you’re part of a team in a lab, that tiny little piece of new knowledge you’re creating is unique. No one else is doing anything quite like it. You are – to borrow a phrase from my supervisor – digging yourself into a deep hole of knowledge.

The trouble with digging yourself into a deep hole of knowledge is that the deeper you go, the easier it is to forget how to talk to people – both about your research, but also about things like what you want for dinner and who’s supposed to clean the cat litter. This is a bad thing. You may be a misanthrope like me and be fine with the latter, but the former is vital to your PhD. See, what they don’t tell you in the doctoral descriptors is that producing that shiny bit of new knowledge isn’t quite enough: you have to convince your examiners that it is indeed shiny and new. Which you need to do by… talking about research. So in order to not forget how to do that while digging ourselves into that hole, community is hugely important, and I would argue community comes in at least two flavours. (There are actually more but this post is already huge.)

Meeting people who are broadly going (or have gone) through the same experience as you – regardless of whether they’re in engineering, linguistics or practice-based performance art – can help with a lot of things. They’re the people you can go to and say things like “My supervisor’s doing my head in.” They’re the people who can provide comfort and understanding when your data’s not behaving, when you hit second-year slump, or when the output of an entire day’s worth of work is a single paragraph which is somehow supposed to encompass a month of research. Postgraduate societies, training sessions, and departmental events (with free lunch!) is where to find these people. Once you’ve found them, don’t let them go! Exchange email addresses. Meet up for coffee. Join a faculty PhD student meet-up. If there isn’t one, start one – that’s what I did.

The second flavour of community are your peers in your specific field. They’re the people in the deep hole of knowledge next to yours. They’re the people you can take your misbehaving data to and go “WTactualF?” and they might be able to help you make sense of it; or throw some useful reading at you; or ask you that one question that somehow you hadn’t considered. They’re the people who will end up on the Acknowledgements page of your thesis followed by words like “fruitful discussions”, “useful comments”, “invaluable insight”.

Where, then, does one find one’s peers (except masquerading as Reviewer 2 once you start submitting papers to journals)? A few of them might be in your department; most will not. So you may have to venture out. Go to conferences. Join mailing lists. Check out academic networks and associations in your field. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, you can even lure your peers to you. I’m currently organising a conference pretty much with the sole purpose of meeting other postgraduate researchers in my field and seeing what they’re working on.

And Next?

Some people start a PhD with a very clear goal in mind for what they want to do afterwards. (I want to stay in academia.) Others are just glad that they’ve got money and something to keep them busy and out of trouble for another three years. Regardless of which group you’re in, I’d say it makes sense to at least think about your options fairly early on. That way, you can make sure that as you go through your PhD you acquire the skills and experience you’ll need for the next stage.

Now here’s a neat trick for those who do want to stay in academia. You will hear things like “publish or perish” quite a lot. And frankly, they’re true. If you’re in the UK, having four published papers when you start knocking on doors and asking for a postdoc place will make it a lot easier for institutions to employ you because of the Dark Art that is the REF. (If you don’t know how the REF works, find out. It’s a system you can game to an extent, and it’s well worth learning how to do that.)

So how do you produce a thesis and four papers and go to conferences and do outreach and and and? From personal experience, here’s a thing not to do: spam five conferences with abstracts in your second month, in the hope that one of them will say yes. The reason not to do it? All five of them will say yes, and you will be very busy and (depending on your institution’s budget) very broke for a few months. Also, you might give your supervisor a headache. (I thoroughly enjoyed all five of those conferences though.)

What I have found really helpful is to use conferences and journal publications as a way of breaking down the massive amorphous thing that is a PhD into smaller manageable chunks with clear scope and deadlines. This means only doing papers that will somehow contribute to your thesis. They may not end up being chapters (and depending on your university regs, you might not be allowed to straight up use your publications in your thesis anyway), but they might help you get your head around a particular chunk of your data, a particular methodology, or some especially tricky part of the theory in your field. One of the papers I’m currently writing will actually end up as a significant chunk of a thesis chapter further down the line. Another will give me the chance to practise auto-ethnography (of which I’m terrified), plus it’s a paper obviously missing in its field and I happen to be in a position to write it.

So this is all of my “end of Year 1” wisdom. Here’s to Second-Year Slump, Reviewer 2, misbehaving data, and the Deep Hole of Knowledge. May we emerge from it blinking victoriously into the sunlight.

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