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How to: PhDoit

If you’re one of the people who chose to be called a doctor, although you’re not, this may interest you. This may interest you even if you’re just considering to start a PhD, or having second thoughts about it. It’s a quick guide in navigating life through a PhD, with dos and don’ts that could save you a lot of anguish.

Patience is a virtue

Everyone knows this, and it applies in all aspects of life. However, a PhD is not like any other job. You’re doing the work, hopefully guided, but there’s a long line of people above your paygrade waiting to criticise you. This includes advisory committees, external experts, interviewees, people whose data you want to use, journals you want to publish in, conference organisers, co-authors, and above all, supervisors. They say that anticipation is worse than the actual outcome, and it’s true. But you don’t want to piss off any of the people mentioned above.

Choose your supervisor(s) and project(s) wisely

The supervisor is a person you need to keep pleased; therefore you have to be able to talk to them calmly, take their notes and implement them. If, at any level, there is too much conflict between you and them, it will get in the way of the actual work. If you’re purely theoretical and they’re purely practical, that’s a problem. If you’re black and they’re a racist, that’s another problem (on many levels). It goes without saying, there’s slim to none chance that you can find the perfect match for you, so there will always be a bit of disagreement – the trick is to make it productive, and not all-consuming. Same goes with the topic of your research; it doesn’t have to be tailored to you, but there has to be some common ground.

Be creative

In the way you frame the thesis, the arguments, the articles, the charts. You could be one of the same, replicating what other people have done in your field, but where’s the fun in that? Use graphical means of communication or metaphors or other intriguing tools to convey information. If an article gets rejected, do a revamp and submit again; the work is an empty canvas and although you may have to check specific boxes, you can still do it in your own style. Adding a personal touch may be just the thing you need to make a good paper great.

Take critique like a boss

Your job as a PhD student is to be judged. Every word you write and every calculation you make will be scrutinised and criticised. It’s up to you to take the comments, the notes and random ideas and turn them into something that makes sense. Even if you don’t always agree, or if they guide you down one path and abruptly change it, there’s probably a good reason for it. Supervisors and mentors have far more experience than you, and that includes more than academic skills. Diplomacy is an art and you can’t really learn it from books, so don’t be in a haste to brush off the bad comments.

Set targets and stick to a plan

Overdue PhD projects are not uncommon, and if you want to avoid the prolonged student status, you should start mapping out the goals you want to achieve. There should be a timeframe for each mark you want to hit, so every few months take a look back and make sure you’re on track. Even more than that, make sure your supervisor(s) are on the same page and keeping as close to a schedule as possible.

Maintain some flexibility

Maybe you started out with the perfect plan to tackle a serious issue and you’re keeping to your schedule, but things change and research is fast-paced, so if your topic seems out of touch by the time you’re done with it, find some new way to spin it and fill that gap in literature. Flexibility is also very important for sanity, because none of the things you outlined will go exactly as planned. Finding a way to make things work is one of the most important aspects of a PhD, and an assured way to enjoy it. Being a control freak will only make you suffer.

Get a life

Seriously, don’t just study and attend meetings. You need to be able to keep a good mental state, if you’re going to be a monster of patience, absorbing all that critique and producing something valuable. Treat yo self.


There’s many more tips for prospective or current scholars, depending on the motivation. This is mostly a “do it and enjoy it” type of list.

By JoanK

Nerd Supreme.

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