Friday, 6 February 2009

PhD advice

I received an email the other day from a friend. She is currently doing voluntary work abroad but thinks she may want to do a PhD when she gets back. She sent me an email asking me about my experiences and how to get started on the application process. We're fairly close so I was brutally honest about my experiences, it made me reflect on my experiences and what I wish I'd known when I started. Excerpts below are edited high/lowlights.

I summarised the finding somewhere to do the PhD as decide on topic - find suitable supervisor - this finds your university for you...

Bear in mind that a lot of the below is fairly standard for social sciences/humanities but probably reflects my experiences (both good and bad). I'm also very aware that I ended up in one of the most sociable geography departments in the country and there's no way the experience would have been as good without the amazing people I've met along the way and shared an office with (as reflected in my current PhD acknowledgements!). Also I am in the final stages and am sick of writing up so any negativity has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The other thing is that I was offered my PhD place along with the job (with the department paying for my tuition fees) which was enough to make me turn down the PGCE course place I had (and I can always go back). Having said that one of the reasons I didn't want to do a PhD originally (despite attempts from various lecturers) was partially the funding issue and the relationship I was in at the start of my final year (but thats a whole other story). I've also been fairly honest about my experiences to temper the good with the bad, some of it may be TMI but its mainly around things I knew before I started.

Would I do it again? definitely yes everyone I know reckons that I would have ended up doing one even if it had been in education!

Despite my current trials and tribulations I would never not start on my PhD, the chance to do my research, work in the field, disseminate, go to conferences, do some teaching. You never get a better opportunity to work on something you choose (within limits, see funding stuff below) for three odd years at a time. I'm a total geek and its given me more confidence than ever (despite still having imposter syndrome), partially because you get to work in with a bunch of people as into the subject as me and therefore its perfectly acceptable to talk about subject related stuff in the pub or something vaguely related. There is no other experience (and taking into account this is my weird post-doc as a pre-doc research position) that I could have done that gave me the opportunity to research, travel, teach, convene a fairly high profile conference session, be a scientific secretary as part of the 3rd largest division of a European Science Organisation, meet some amazing people, talk to farmers in the field one day and government advisors the next and learn how to administer a research grant (and discover that organising academics is worse than the UL at peal weekend, something I never thought that would be surpassed!).

Something I wish I'd considered more before I started is why I was doing a PhD, as soon as I figured that out it meant I was more focused. For me the reason I do my PhD at the moment (and to be honest the reason I didn't walk away in the last couple of months, which have been really really hard, how hard very few people know about) is that it is a passport, if (and hopefully when) I get a job in the USA the fact I have a PhD means its easier to get a visa (by definition you are the only person in the world skilled in that subject). However, this is the main reason at the moment the thing that got me into it was the chance to research the thing I'd got interested in as an undergrad, but couldn't get further without lab work (which is $$$ per sample), other reasons include the fact you need a PhD to lecture and stay in academia, another slightly amusing (to me) reason is the chance to get rid of a title that identifies me as female straight off. I want to go into academia as I don't want to do just research or just teaching and in theory it will be fairly adaptable for when I settle down and start a family.

How many other students and who you know in a place is an important consideration, its so useful to have a support network outside of uni to escape sometimes. Ringing is perfect for this but its a consideration if trying to decide between places.

Something that people gloss over a bit is the emotional side of doing the PhD. It is lonely, by definition its all your work, you are the only one who can do it and the only person responsible for writing it (I also have a problem writing for myself, if its work its fine and easy to do). Its tough on relationships (romantic and friendships) as its hard to explain to someone who doesn't fully know whats going on why its so involved and time consuming at the same time you can't survive without these friendships. If you get through the final stages of writing up a PhD its a friendship for life! Things external to the PhD seem to have hit me harder than they would have done otherwise but at the same time I know what I want more and am less prepared to compromise on what I want out of life.

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