Saturday, January 23, 2010

What I have learned about doing a PhD

Even though I have just dropped out of my PhD after some years, I have learned a few lessons that I'd like to pass on to anyone thinking about doing a PhD.

Why a PhD?
Think carefully about why you want to do a PhD - are you doing it for the right reasons? Is it an appropriate and relevant thing to do for your career or professional development, or would you be better off doing some other sort of study or project?

Be very careful in your choice of supervisor. Is he/she going to support you in the way you need? Has he got the appropriate topic knowledge and research experience? Does he understand what you want to achieve? Will he challenge and stretch you in a supportive way? Can he teach you? Will he give you feedback in a reasonable time frame, or is he too busy doing other things? What is his experience of being a supervisor? Is he looking out for your interests or his own? If your supervisor has deficits in some of these areas, choose a secondary supervisor or mentor who will make them up in other ways.

University support
Make sure you know what student support your university provides. Make sure you understand what processes and resources are in place to support you, especially if things do not work out as well as you would like.

Follow your instincts. Don't be pushed into doing things or following topics that do not feel right to you.

Do as much preparation as you can before you enroll such as your literature search and proposal development - this will go some way to saving you fees.

Get plenty of support from friends, colleagues and topic experts.

If you are doing or have a PhD, what tips would you pass on to potential candidates?

Image: 'Blizard Building lecture theatre' Squirmelia


Helen said...

Hi Sarah
I absolutely agree with your comments - it is important to take some time to choose the right supervisor and the right university and to trust your instinct. If one of these things isn't right, then it can make an enjoyable PhD adventure into a nightmare.

When I started my PhD I spoke with a few people about who I was attracted to as a supervisor and met with potential supervisors to 'interview' them to find out their views of the world, how much time they had and what they had to offer me. That helped me to decide who would be the best supervisor for me. As it turned out, I have two supervisors, so it is also important to make sure they can work together, and everyone is going in the same direction.

Good luck with the next part of your adventure.


Sarah Stewart said...

It sounds like you took a very thorough approach to finding a supervisor, which I totally agree with. A supervisor can make or break a PhD, so it is worth shopping around and asking the question "what can you do for me?", rather than the other way round.

M-H said...

I'm sure you know I'd have to comment on this!

I'm glad you've made a decision, Sarah. It must have been a hard one to make - you've invested a fair bit into this over time.

One thing I'd add is to make sure that your supervisor wants the same thing out of it as you do - ie your PhD completed, not a position as their research assistant, or getting a project of theirs completed. Too often a PhD student serves the sup more than themselves. Also, I was interested in your comment about fees. I know you're not an AUs resident, but I thought I'd point out that no kiwi resident in Aus or Aussie citizen should be paying fees for a PhD in an Aus uni. The govt offers fees scholarships, and there are also funded PhDs. If an Aus uni is asking Aus residents for fees to do a PhD (and I've heard stories that some do), people should go down the road - the nearest Uni will take them for free.

Jeffrey Keefer said...

Sarah, these are very helpful suggestions. The only two I would add from my own experiences having started and stopped more than one, is to understand what it means to have time commitments that can stretch one to the breaking point, as well as to have a stategy for how to handle differences: paradigms, career, goals, and WIIFMs. This tolerance for differences is something that I have found critical, and as we are often not aware when these sorts of things will really get under our skin, it is something that is easy to assume until all the little frustrations we face suddenly push us to the edge.

You will be much stronger through these experiences, Sarah. Not consolation now, but they may make you even more sensitive and compassionate with others . . .


Sarah Stewart said...

M-H: thanks for commenting - I thought you might :) How's your PhD going?

Yes, when I talked about fees, I was referring to doing a PhD in New Zealand which will cost you at least $10,000.

As for your comments about the supervisor - oh, so true!! The only proviso I would say is if you have been brought into a project specifically and then it might be a case of "doing what you're told" but of course, you'll know about that when you enroll.

Sarah Stewart said...

Jeffrey: I was talking to someone about this yesterday and they said a PhD was not about skills or ability, it was a test of endurance :)

classyadele said...

More often, the supervisors' 'true colours' only shine through towards the end of your 2nd year... Ive heard numerous stories about PhD students having an awesome start with their supervisors...but end up pretty 'cheated' of their experience towards the end. I suspect for the first year or so, both parties are still trying to 'fan the fire' aka impressing each other/making each other happy.

I have a friend who had such a promising start in his PhD topic area, he won awards for 'best proposals', etc. But after a major fall-out with his primary supervisor, he quit the program after 3 yrs. Just couldn't handle the emotional pressure, I believe. So yes, I would have to agree that a PhD prog is a test of mental AND emotional endurance.

Another issue that I'd like to bring up is the difference between 'supervision' and THOROUGH supervision. Think u can tell the point I'm trying to make here?

Sarah Stewart said...

Thanks classydale...what a shame for your friend.

If you guys are interested, here's infomidwife asking if it is worth doing a PhD - she'd love your comments.

Sarah Stewart said...

And here is another view about PhDs - that they are being over sold and setting people up for failure and unemployment.