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  • Oct 03 / 2014
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Starting your PhD: A view from the summit!

So, you’ve made the decision – and it’s a big one – to do a PhD. One or two people will now play a big role in your life for the next few years – your supervisor(s). And – if you feel a bit daunted and unsure of how that relationship will develop, your supervisor probably feels the same way!

You can Google “What is a good PhD supervisor?” and you’ll find a lot of articles. Or – my own favourite – you can go to Jorge Cham’s PhD cartoon strip. But, the supervisor there is male and bearded and I am neither – honest. So, drawing on my own (fairly long ago!!) experience of being a PhD student and of supervising a fair number of (I’m pleased to say) successful PhD students, here are my 10 tips.

1. Don’t be shy.

Initially you and your supervisor need to lay out some ground rules about meeting – frequency; content; expectations. I tend to see my student once a week, at least during the first year – that gives us all flexibility. But, as you move into the second year we may meet less frequently – you will have a plan and be getting on with it. Weekly meetings might be a disruption. You need to decide what suits you – and tell me. But, if you need to ask me something, I should be contactable – if not in person, at least by email. So, don’t be shy about contacting your supervisor and agreeing a way of working that you are both happy with.

2. You’re not the only one in my life!

This brings me to the next really important truth – your PhD will probably become all-important in your life (especially if you are full-time). However – you are one of many activities for your supervisor. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t important or they don’t care, but you will be one of many competing priorities. So – you might not get an immediate response to your email. If you need a quick reply, chase me. But try to judge when to chase and when to wait. HOWEVER ….

3. It’s OK to make me wait.

One of the problems for an academic is that our sense of work-life balance is terrible!! So, we might decide to reply to your email – or send a request – at midnight, or on a Sunday, or any other really stupid time! The sensible supervisor DOES NOT expect a reply then. If they do, they’re wrong (unless you have pre-arranged it for a very good reason). So, it’s OK to make me wait.

4. Teach me new things.

Supervisors – believe it or not – don’t know everything. So, if you find a really interesting paper, a new theoretical approach or a research approach that might be useful – tell me about it. Chances are it’s passed me by. Likewise, I will try to do the same for you.

5. It’s your PhD.

I might have had the original idea – or you might have come to me with the PhD idea. Either way, it’s your PhD. My job should be to steer you away from the inappropriate, the wacky or the plain non-starter. It shouldn’t be to stop you doing something, just because I haven’t thought of it – but you will need to convince me.

6. It’s a training process.

Sure, getting academic papers is great (for you and me) – but you also want to get the training that can take you on into the work of academic research (if you want) or into other areas. So we should always be thinking and talking about that too.

7. Please, please, please write …..

I will try to get you writing from early on in your PhD – sections for chapters, protocols, a thesis skeleton. Lots of people HATE doing that. Couple that to the fact that PhD students are pretty high achievers and self-critical and ….. you can’t hand in a piece of writing that isn’t “finished”. Guess what – supervisors are just the same when they write their own papers. So, we understand that feeling. But, the point is – if you do find writing a challenge, much better to come to it early. Then you and I can work on it together. (Though, going back to point two – remember to give me time. A deadline helps here!)

8. I’m your first port of call (I hope).

A PhD can be a long and hard road. There is plenty written about the toll that doing a PhD can exact on people – both physical and mental. So, if you are finding it over-whelming ….. please come and talk to me. The more experienced a supervisor is, the greater the chance they have heard this before and know how to help you, or point you in the direction of help.

9. If I’m not your first port of call (or if I’m the problem)….

Talk to others – fellow students, student advisory service, advisors/reviewers or (at Glasgow) your Postgraduate Convenor. But mainly, talk to someone….

For me, supervising PhD students is akin to having kids! You start new to the whole, extended research process of a PhD and need a lot of support. But slowly, steadily, you develop and find your feet and confidence. And in time – it’s the best feeling in the academic world to stand as a supervisor and see your students graduate and take off into the wider world.

Oh, and before I forget:

10. Bake

I seem to have a bunch of very talented bakers …… just saying!!

Good luck.

Kate O’Donnell is Professor of Primary Care Research and Development, in the Department of General Practice and Primary Care, University of Glasgow. She is also the outgoing postgraduate convener for the Institute of Health and Wellbeing and supervisor to more than one of the IHAWKES bloggers. You can follow her on twitter @odo_kate.

  • Oct 03 / 2014
  • 0

Starting your PhD: Views from the foothills…

Congratulations! You’re starting your PhD. Right now you are probably feeling swept away on a wave of excitement and shiny new stationary, but you may also be feeling a bit nervous and wondering, so…what now?

We asked our intrepid team of IHAWKES PhD bloggers, five things they had wondered when they were taking their first tentative steps into PhDhood.

1. Reading: There’s so much to do, how can I keep up with it and how do I know if I’m doing enough?

Olivia: There will always be another new paper to read and it can be really hard to keep up. Why not set up search alerts on Web of Knowledge for key words or important authors in the area. That way, the information comes to you!

David: You will also stay ‘current’ by speaking to colleagues, following key authors on Twitter, and attending relevant conferences.

Matt: Try to do 30 minutes a day or a couple of hours a week on Google Scholar or another relevant digital library. It doesn’t need to be a systematic search but you will gradually accumulate a lot of knowledge.

2. I was always one of those last minute people during my undergraduate/masters degree. Can I still wing it?

Anna: It’s going to be impossible to do that with a PhD – it’s a pretty large piece of work! If you’re someone who tends to leave things until the last minute it might be useful to set up a series of deadlines to make sure you’re keeping on track.

Matt: The difference between PhDs and UG/masters degrees is that there often aren’t clear deadlines. As long as you set these for yourself and stick to them then doing it last minute can work.

David: Hmmm… in a word, no! A PhD is very much your own – you will get out what you put in. If you try to ‘wing it’, you are unlikely to come away with a PhD at the end of the day.

3. How many hours a day should I work?

David: Get into good habits of working on your PhD even if you don’t feel at your most creative – you can also do more administrative or process-based tasks until that creative spark returns

Anna: There are always going to be times when you end up working late into the evening, or over the weekend. However, the more you can treat your PhD like it’s a job, the more chance you’ll have of maintaining a social life and feeling like you’re being productive.

Olivia: The key thing really is sustainability- you may be pulling 10 hour days now and flying through your work, but in 2 weeks time, will you be flat on your face? It’s also about productivity too: do you ‘work’ for 7 hours a day, but only really produce anything for 5 hours? Ditch the extra 2 hours and do something else.

4. Should I come to the office every day? I hear lots of people do this working from home lark.

Rosie: This might need to be negotiated with your supervisor. Generally you should work wherever you will be most productive but don’t forget that an office environment can also provide social support from other students.

David: There are pros and cons (mainly various distractions) to both. Many people find being flexible – perhaps working at home one day a week – is the best approach.

Matt: At first, it might help to go into the office to give yourself a routine. After a while though you should have the drive to complete the tasks you’ve set – you’ll be able to sit at your laptop for hours at home, leaving The Wire boxset untouched!

5. Should I ‘manage’ my supervisor?

Rosie: Yes. Set out your expectations of them from day one, and ask them directly for their expectations of you. Write these down and make a formal agreement but revisit this if things change.

David: It’s good if you can write an agenda for your meetings and email it to your supervisors beforehand. Similarly, it’s a good habit to circulate minutes of your meetings afterwards, for your records but also to check you’re all on the same page.

Olivia: I would say learn your supervisors, rather than manage them. Do you get a faster response if you email them first thing in the morning? Is the decision making process smoother if you give your supervisor a list of possible options?

Whilst we really hope some of these pointers are helpful to you as you set out on your PhD journey, we know that the internet is awash with advice about the best way to keep up with reading or the best way to organise your writing. The true secret? There is no one PhD ring to rule them all; it’s about what works for you and finding your own best way of doing things. Oh, and asking the final year buried under a mound of paper in the corner, they’re a goldmine of information! Good luck!

Anna, David, Matt, Olivia and Rosie are all PhD students within the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow. They blog at IHAWKES about research and methodology, health-related current affairs and the PhD experience.