I have just submitted my PhD transfer report to my supervisors. What a relief! I was dreaming about this day for weeks, and am so glad it has finally arrived. Although I really hated the process of writing this wretched report to begin with, by the end of it I actually acquired taste for it, and saw the benefits. This important milestone in my PhD life made me reflect on my year of doctoral studies , and the things that I should have done, or have done better! So I thought I would write down some of my thoughts that might be useful for all those who have just started their PhD, and want to avoid disappointment.
- Start with…passion. When you start working on your project, the topic that you choose may be too broad, and needs narrowing down. Well, make sure that you narrow it down to something that YOU want to do for 3-4 years, not something that your supervisors or advisors want but something that YOU are really passionate about. My topic was too vague to begin with, and it took me ages to find the right focus but now I am quite happy that I am working on a research project that will contribute to the existing knowledge but at the same time can make a difference to policy and practice! The only disappointment is that it took me too long to focus the topic.
- Read more around the topic. The first year of your PhD is possibly the only time when you can really plunge yourself into the world of reading. If you are lucky, you can make sense of it all soon… before submission of your first report. I regret that I was not systematic with my reading… bits and pieces here and there. Well, this probably reflects what a disorganised person I am! But I am learning…slowly. So do be systematic! The books that I found really useful are Doing a literature search and Doing a literature review by Chris Hart. They provide a pretty good picture of how you should go about your reading and writing in the initial stages of your PhD. Record everything you read and save references. There are a number of great web-based tools available out there. I personally use Zotero for organising research papers, and Delicious for bookmarking useful websites, blogs etc. Choose whatever suits you! But take my advice, start using them from the very beginning, and it will save you loads of time later on.
- Make a better use of your supervisors. One of my supervisors always says: We are not supervisors, we are collaborators on your project! Only now I probably understand the full meaning of these words. Don’t simply sit and wait for your supervisors to tell you what to do (that’s what I did at the beginning). When working on collaborative projects, people challenge each other, share ideas, and create solutions to the existing problems TOGETHER. Supervisors are members of your team! I agree, your situation might be different, and some supervisors have a very traditional Master-Apprentice approach. But still, the sooner you take the ownership of you project, the better! Remember, in 5-6 months you will become an expert in your field!
- Establish ‘love’ relationship with theory early on! What is the theory underpinning your study? I’ve been struggling with this bit for a year! It’s not relevant to all social science studies since some of them adopt a grounded theory approach. But even to arrive at the conclusion that the existing theories don’t meet the needs of your study, you need to know them first. I thought I hated theories until I started understanding them. It’s actually really cool when you realise that there is enough brain in your head to see the shortcoming of some theory, criticise it and try to find an alternative approach.
- Learn to manage yourself! Still struggling with this bit… PhD is the time when you learn so much about yourself, the ways you prefer to work, and what motivates you to work. I am interviewing PhD students just now, and a number of them mentioned that a key to success in your PhD is DISCIPLINE! Can’t but agree with that. There is always a temptation to do some other things rather than concentrate on writing your thesis chapter. Learn to set the priorities! Priority matrix by Steven Covey might be helpful to you in this.
Well, enough regrets for one PhD year, I guess… But I think we should remember that PhD is a learning process, and we are allowed to make mistakes. The main thing is to reflect on your experience and try to improve it.
What are your PhD regrets?