We’ve all been there- the beginning of our PhD journey, when we were still naive enough to believe that our research would somehow change the world and that all the PhD students who’ve gone before us were clearly just as not organized, efficient, experienced or professional as ourselves. Over-runs? I love a deadline. Writing despair? No worries, I’ve written dozens of reports/papers/articles. Interview participants? The more the merrier. And thus begins a journey of much heartache as yet another generation of Phd students under-estimate the demands of a PhD and over-estimate the importance of a PhD as their ‘major life work’.
What many supervisors and universities struggle to communicate to PhD students is that your PhD is just an apprenticeship in research. Apprentices in any other trade are not given the biggest most important job in which to learn their skills. Apprentices take on small, achievable tasks and get really good at them first, before moving up the chain. The difference in a PhD is that as an apprentice- you have a large say over what your tasks are & unless you’ve got a great supervisor (and sometimes even if you do have a great supervisor) then it seems that the natural bias is to swing towards creating large PhD research projects rather than the small and compact.
So, if you are just starting out in your PhD- how can you avoid this trap? My suggestions would be:
- Think depth not breadth. You’ll have to grapple with the epistemologies, ontologies and theoretical frameworks at some point. Don’t plan for dozens of case studies/participants/surveys. Plan for the minimum number that you can get away with- even if it seems too easy at this planning stage!
- Talk to other PhD students or graduates who’ve gone before you. They will give you a big reality check. Interrogate them about how long it actually took to do each part of their PhD research. You’ll find often that field work is short and sweet whereas write up, transcripts, analysis and actual thesis writing takes years. Yes, years.
- Participate in as many workshops & presentations centered on managing your PhD as possible. My academic institute has a “12-month-in” compulsory assessment (formally known as a Doctoral Assessment but should be known as Reality Check 101) to present a literature review and research plan to peers and a few invited academics. I attended at least 4-5 other students Doctoral Assessments before my own. Even then I had my head in the clouds (“what do they mean reduce my number of interviewees?”)
- Read this: Mullins, Gerry,& Kiley. "'It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize': how experienced examiners assess research theses." Studies in higher education 27.4 (2002): 369-386.  After you’ve read it and as you’re planning your research, read it again.
- Think about how many case studies/participants/interviewees you’d like to do. Half it. Aim to do <70% of this number.
- Remember that a PhD is not the same as your professional work/consulting job/teaching. What you can achieve in your work life is not the same as what you can achieve in a PhD. You’ll need more time for reflection,exploration, introspection and creative thinking.
- Accept that changing the world is a lifelong goal and don’t try to squeeze it all into your research apprenticeship.
Thanks to Nicole Thornton & the ISF Post-graduate program for helping me to keep it real in my PhD.
Do you have any advice on managing expectations in your graduate studies? Let us know in the comments below.
[Image by flickr user tracktwentynine and used under a creative commons license]