Back in 2011, Steve listed 5 things he learned during his PhD. His post had inspired me as I was just diving into starting in the research world (during my master degree) and was not sure what to expect. Now, 6 years later I just finished my PhD and have decided to share the lessons I learned during my PhD.
1. Get involved
The PhD experience can be sometimes very isolating, you can work for days without saying nothing more than a simple hello to the others around you. I felt that in my first weeks but as soon as I started to be more involved to the environment, things started to be much more enjoyable. So, I decided to be more active in my department, attend meetings and workshops, talked to people, and offered help to others. I also accepted every invitation, I delivered a talk to one person (actually two with my wife), participated in events from other areas of research, and collaborated in research projects beyond my thesis. This may not be the best way to focus on your own thesis and get things done quickly but it is a good way to improve your skills, meet interesting people, and have fun. At the end of the day opportunities come to those who are interested.
2. Organise your time
During the PhD, it is common to have ten things to do at the same time. Many times, I felt like there isn't enough time to do everything I needed to, which can really lead to a build-up of stress. So, it's extremely important to develop effective strategies for managing your time. Some things that worked well for me include having a to-do list (I do it daily), setting goals for tasks (deadlines, breaking down big tasks), prioritise what is important (as a PhD student you don’t really have someone to delegate, so just put things in order of importance), and be aware of which environments is better for strengthen your focus and which distract you. Those are good strategies that worked well for me. If you have a good strategy to organise your time, let me know in the comment boxes below J.
3. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst
It took me only few weeks to learn the inevitable fate of all researchers – rejection! If it hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry it will soon. First thing you need to know is that it’s not personal, it happens to everyone (although sometimes it seems that someone is just waiting for your paper to have the pleasure to reject it). So, don’t feel discouraged or angry. The best thing to do is to move on and get all the advice possible to improve your work. Even bad peer-reviews are sometimes valuable. My strategy is always to be prepared for the worst (low expectations), keep doing my best and celebrate all achievements. This is the best way I found to deal with rejections and have some beer when publishing something. Good things come to those who wait, sometimes with less impact factor though.
If you want to read more about dealing with rejections, check it out these great posts from our archive here (link to: yesterday a paper rejected, today a grant application turned down, tomorrow…; Damn you: peer review).
4. Present, present, and present
Like it or not, every PhD student will present their work at some point. I know that most people have problems with presentation (and I’m not an exception), especially at the beginning of the PhD when you don’t completely understand everything you are doing. But the more you present more confident you become, and more you will know about your own stuff, which is great for when you have to present in a big conference. So, I tried to do that for every opportunity I had; presenting at small conferences, for my supervisors, group meetings, and for other groups. It helped me a lot to improve my presentation skills and overcome barriers, like language. Also, the best stage to give presentations is during the PhD as people are usually more patient with you and don’t expect that you know everything – so present, present, and present.
5. Show your work, see others work
No researcher is an island! Everyone needs help from other people, or even if you don’t really need help, you probably need feedback. One thing I liked to do during my PhD, which I still do, is to show people what I’ve been writing or planning. From research studies to blog posts (yes, I asked someone to read this), it is always very helpful to get someone else’s feedback. Particularly for me, it helps with small mistakes as a non-native English speaker. But mostly, it helps me to improve my ideas and open my mind for other thoughts. Another great exercise is to give feedback to others. I always learn something new every time I give someone a hand. Giving and receiving feedback is essential for developing skills and learning new things. When people collaborate with each other, they come up with better ideas.
Doing a PhD is a unique experience, in which you face constant challenges every day. So, these tips are to help research students overcome common issues and to shine a light for those struggling. If you have any further thoughts or share my sentiments, please leave a comment below. Cheers!