starting the doctorate – finding good advice

It’s that time of year. Across the world potential new Doctors have rejoiced. They’ve been accepted by the university of their choice. They are now getting their heads and lives geared up for a new intellectual adventure.

I usually write a few posts for new doctoral researchers right about now – you can find them if you search starting the PhD. Or just click the link here.

I’m not the only one who writes about beginning a doctorate of course. There is a lot of stuff out here in blog-land that is very helpful for those just embarking on the doctoral “journey”. And I’m afraid there is also some advice that might not be so helpful. So I thought that I might start this year’s posts on doing a doctorate by reflecting on the proliferation of advice – advice dedicated to all the enthusiastic, excited and ever so slightly nervous new PhDers. 

Let’s face it. You will probably read and hear a lot about how hard the PhD is. And the various troubles that PhDers experience. This is unfortunately all true. But it’s not automatic that the PhD is awful. I’ve been asked on various occasions why there is so much about doctoral difficulties and told that it’s off putting. That’s something that concerns me, as I’m in the advice game too.

I understand that hearing about possible hard times may not be what you want to hear at the outset of your PhD or prof doc. You may find it extremely tiresome to be starting out on several years worth of a higher degree where the odds seem stacked against you having a clear run. I am sure that many of you ask, Is it always so tricky? 

Well no, it’s not. Some people do breeze through. So do you really want to know that some people sail through their PhDs? That many people find the doctoral experience really stimulating? Challenging yes, but also at the same time rewarding and enjoyable? That some people finish under not over time? That some people get on well with their supervisors/ committees? Yes that is actually true.

But perhaps you are someone who does want to know about the possible problems you might face during the PhD. Perhaps forewarned is the best way for you to approach the PhD. Perhaps knowing what could happen helps you to take steps to avoid or minimise risk? 

I am sure most people do want to understand what you can do to stay mentally and physically well – and I’ll deal with that in the next post. But this is not the same as getting immersed in the stories of the terrible experiences that some people have had. Do you really want these stories now? I suspect that different people want different kinds of advice right at the start.

So this means being somewhat discriminating about the things that you choose to read and follow on social media. it’s good to think about the kinds of advice that you normally find helpful. 

  • Do you have an actuarial sensibility – you like to know the risks so that you can think about what you can do to avoid them and what will be of assistance if they happen?
  • Are you a risk taker who believes that thinking positively, having a strong sense of self-belief and agency are crucial to success -and that part of this is dealing with difficulties when and if they happen? So there’s no point in dwelling on possible difficulties now. Better to approach the PhD in an optimistic frame of mind.
  • Or are you someone who is in-between these two ends of the spectrum – you’d like to take some precautions and be pro-active now. Do you want to be prepared at least in part for some of the more common/likely postgraduate scenarios?

Understanding yourself is a key to sorting out what advice to seek out and what to take seriously. Understanding yourself is a big part of research all the time. not just at the start – that’s another post coming up – and it is certainly useful to have a think about what you, as opposed to anyone else, want to know and do about the PhD as you begin. 

Because there’s a plethora of advice it’s good to get into the habit of checking out available sources and resources. There are now a load of people whose job it is to offer support and advice to postgraduate researchers. You do need to consider how trustworthy these courses and resources are. 

Some sources of advice and support will be employed by your university or other institutions. Now. Here’s the thing. Just  because something comes from a university doesn’t mean it is automatically going to be helpful. Apologies colleagues, but it’s true. And just because something is in a book doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be great either. There’s a lot of bad and conservative writing advice out there, and a lot of misleading advice about research conduct. 

Other advice comes from people who are literally in the advice and support business. Just because someone is a business doesn’t mean that they are shonky and only in it for the money. There are some great coaches and highly professional support services available to doctoral researchers now.

So do look for CVs, where you can see what people have done and learnt. Check for credible recommendations and not just hyperbolic endorsements. Many institutions and self-employed people offer free taster materials which allow you to see how their resources work for you and your particular needs. And do watch out for the snake oil salesperson with their I-did-it-my-way-and-it’s-the-only-way pitch. 

It’s helpful too to remember that what you need at the start of the PhD may not be what you need as you go along. Advice, support and resources are not only different for different people in different disciplines, they also change as the research and the researcher develop. so take note of things that dont seem relevant now, but might be good to turn to later on. Just in case, perhaps.

Crap detectors at the ready then, as Howard Rheingold would say. Once you are aware of what kind of advice you prefer and would find useful, and what is available, you can take full advantage of all of the material online, face to face and in hard copy in libraries and graduate schools. You don’t have to do this doctorate entirely alone.

You might begin by looking at the blogs featured on the Whisper Collective website, and those regularly republished by the LSE Impact Blog and the blog posts on Insider Higher Ed.

Photo by Thea on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in advice, poor advice, starting the PhD and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s