Research life

What’s the point of a PhD?

To get a higher paying job? Academic notoriety? Solving a specific problem? Saving the world?

These might happen, but no. The point of doing a PhD is learning to be a researcher. We’re not really students (except in the technical sense, where we enrol in an educational institution … and are called students) — we’re apprentice researchers*

OK, so yes, a thesis is often centred on solving a problem. But I found that focussing on my thesis as ‘the point of my PhD’ drove me a little mental. Because if it failed, then I failed. If I didn’t solve the problem in 3 (or slightly more) years then it was all over. Every molehill became a mountain. A mountain called ‘You-may-as-well-just-quit-now’.

But shifting to ‘apprentice researcher’ mode, things become a bit more manageable. If the goal is learning about research, then it’s pretty impossible to fail. Your project might not come out how you hoped. But you should. You should come out with all the skills and experience you need. And if the project doesn’t work you’ll have simply learned how to deal with that earlier in your career than others.

With that in mind, here are a few lessons I’m trying to focus on for the rest of my PhD…

Learn to recognise procrastination.


Very apt

We all have times where we just can’t get things done. Instead of sitting at my computer being miserable, I get up and leave. See a movie, read a book, go for a surf. I figure I can get the same amount of work done taking the afternoon off as I can by checking Facebook for the 100th time. At least this way I don’t feel like I’ve been struggling all afternoon and can come back all refreshed and ready to go. (Disclaimer: there is a limit to how frequently you can do this and still be productive).

Learn when to say no. Here’s a hint – when you find yourself bursting into tears because there’s no milk in the fridge, it’s probably time to say no to that meeting or reading group you offered to run next week. Be extra-curricular in moderation.

Learn to explore. Your project is very focussed and specialised but your way of thinking doesn’t have to be. Go to seminars that are just on the edge of your field. Read papers that are only loosely connected to your work. After you’ve finished your thesis you’ll need to be able to come up with creative new projects to work on, so it helps to broaden your scope.

extreme ironing 2

Extreme ironing. Google it, it’s a real thing.

All this exploring means you’ll have to learn to let things go. Streamlining is brutal but necessary, both for a good-looking thesis and your own sanity. But keep all your darling, tangent ideas in a folder. They’ll come in handy for later projects or papers.

Learn the oboe. Or origami. Or extreme ironing. Whatever floats your boat. Just have a hobby. Have something you love just as much as doing your research. Like these guys.

Learn what works for you. A PhD should be part of your life, not an obstacle to having one. It took me a while to figure out that crazy-long hours are actually not compulsory. And also that they weren’t particularly productive. So now I try to work well for six hours instead of wasting ten. Figure out the how to get things done in the hours that suit you. Bad habits set now will probably haunt you for the rest of your career.

So, that’s my little ‘PhD skills to-do list’ (except maybe the bit about the oboe). What’s on yours?

Further reading
The Thesis Whisperer blog and e-book has awesome tips on time management and productivity in general (best $3.99 I ever spent). Same goes for Get a Life, PhD blog. Conservation Bytes recently laid out the top 5 skills for grad students here, as does Next Scientist here.

*This post was inspired by recent coffee-break chats and conference discussions with fellow QAECOstudents apprentices about the nature of the PhD program. Special thanks to Inka Veltheim for the ‘apprentice researcher’ gem.
Originally posted on my old site, December 12, 2012.  

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