One of the things that I’m finding with this study is that there is a wealth of advice out there and it still feels vaguely productive to pore over that instead of pressing on with actual “work”.
Here are some scattered tips and things that I’ve read and been told in no particular order.
The PhD is essentially a research apprenticeship. While one of the stated goals is to make a contribution to the scholarship, a large part of it is about demonstrating that you are able to competently carry out research and use it to build a solid argument. It doesn’t have to be massive or incredibly sophisticated – indeed, there’s a respect paper (yet to read but it’s on the list) titled “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize” by Mullins and Kiley (2002).
In the early stage of your research, it’s all about the reading. You don’t know what you don’t know yet or where the literature will take you so it’s just about reading, reading and more reading. Everyone has said to enjoy this phase because you generally never get to be this indulgent again. (I’m happy with this advice but I also want to make sure that I make the most of the reading that I do so I’ve been fiddling around the edges looking for ways to capture the information, quotes, ideas and further reading to be found in it – partially in a bibliographic/citation tool (Zotero) and partially in blogging about it)
How to read is also a thing. Given the ridiculous amount of material out there, reading cover to cover isn’t going to get it done. I’ve repeated had it suggested to skim the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion, references and if this seems relevant, dip into the methodology. Then decide whether to proceed. This part I’m finding harder, as I’m yet to feel confident that I can make this judgement but I’m sure it will come with time. It seems sensible to put a little more trust into readings recommended by my supervisors and clever colleagues and so far, so good.
Building some solid organisational systems is a no brainer. This is something that I particularly enjoy – probably more than the work part that actually comes after it. Working out categories and folders and backups is great but I’ll have to press on pretty soon.
Emotional resilience is a pretty common theme in the advice literature. It’s a long, draining process requiring us to put our ideas and intellect on display to the world and there will inevitably be some tough feedback. There’s also a lot of talk about imposter syndrome – the fear that people will realise that we aren’t are smart as we make out. (I initially typed smark there, so I’m not sure what that says). This seems reasonably healthy to me – kind of the inverse of the Dunning Kruger effect.
I’ve already felt fairly conscious of the fact that many of my peers seem to be using more theoretical (dare I say jargony) terms in their writing and I wonder if I am judged for not doing this. (I have a political thing about “plain English” and accessible language but I do understand that there are some terms and concepts that are far more effectively communicated in “jargon”). At the moment, I feel that the best thing for me to do is to use the language that best enables me to share my thoughts. (I have found a glossary tool that I’ve added to this blog and will be populating at some point that adds mouse-over definitions for terms in the text. One of my favourite things about reading on the Kindle is being able to highlight words for an instant defintiion. The Trowler book that I’ve been banging on about has a nice linked glossary section at the back, that has helped me to get across concepts like ontology and epistemology, endogenous and etic, among others)
Communicating early and often is also a key theme in the advice so far – as a fairly self-reliant person this is certainly something that I’ll need to work on but I definitely see the value. Many hands etc etc. In the past I’ve liked/needed to thrash an idea out in my head to come up with some kind of solution that I was willing to share with others but I just don’t think this is going to cut it this time around.
Being open to ideas from seemingly unrelated areas is another great piece of advice. A lot of these have come from Inger “Thesis Whisperer” Mewburn’s blog and “How to Tame your PhD” book, I must add. Going to talks by other researchers might lead to any number of brain waves as you extrapolate their ideas to your context.
I’m not super close to the writing stage yet but like the idea of setting time limits to get certain things done. Avoiding that whole “work expands to fill the time available to it” trap. I’ve long been an advocate of Pomodoro technique (the hardest part is starting the timer) and I understand the notion of “the perfect is the enemy of the good/done”. All of this writing will go through umpteen drafts, so it doesn’t have to be good the first (or the fifth) time, it just has to be written.
Talking to people about what you’re doing and what you’re planning (particularly supervisors) can be an effective way to add some deadline and social pressure to do the work. (I’m still trying to work out exactly what I need to be doing yet – it seems like just reading is too easy)
There are a lot of people around that want to help us to succeed and are willing to help – there is research training, library skills training, communities of practice and reams of published advice. For all of this, I am particularly grateful. Thanks.
Mullins, G. P., & Kiley, M. M. (2002). “It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize”: how experienced examiners assess research theses
Trowler, P. (2014). Doing insider research in universities.
Mewburn, I. (2012). How To Tame Your PhD (1. edition). Akimbo Productions.