PhD Practical tips research

Doing everything in the early days of a PhD

I suspect one of the advantages of starting a PhD a little later in life than many is having a greater sense of how and where to look for help. Three weeks in (officially), I’m a little overwhelmed with the scale of the job that I have taken on – but I’m “assured” (not reassured) that this is normal and also that this feeling never really goes away. (I’m also pretty sure that my knowledge of where and how to find help is marginal but I at least have a glimmer of an idea)

I’m also grateful to know a number of people that have already been there and are willing to share their hard earned experiences. Stubborn, younger me would’ve paid less heed to these lessons, needing to make my own mistakes (and there’s still plenty of time for that) and work everything out myself. Happily I’ve moved past that phase. I have a housemate in the 9th year of her Linguistics/Autism/something research, a number of friends (more sciencey) that are done and dusted and basically everyone that I work with that have also been there, done that.

This post isn’t about setting out to become one of the many how-to PhD bloggers – but I’m very happy that they’re out there. Particularly Inger (Thesis Whisperer) Mewburn, who I met before I even knew about that side of her and before I even saw myself doing this thing. She’s already been very supportive and helpful and being able to toddle along to her workshops is great. Her blog and that of Pat Thomson (“Patter”) are constantly talked up and are high on my to-read list.

The university offers a great range of workshops on all aspects of research and writing – sadly I’m a 3.5 hr bus ride away but I’m still making the weekly trip to the Thesis Proposal Writing Workshop and getting a lot from that. So far we’ve covered the basic bones of a thesis (and a proposal) and the fact that while there is some flexibility in structure, you’re still generally looking at ILMRaD (Introduction, Lit review, Methods, Report of research findings and Discussion). As someone from a story writing background, I’m very interesting in finding ways to spin a compelling story and so I think that the preference for putting the methodology up front is going to present some challenges here. (Arguably putting it up front would work if it was the story of me doing research but I feel like the thesis is more the story of the content and putting it at the start feels like explaining the magic trick before you’ve done it. I guess that’s the difference between academic and creative writing and it simply is what it is)

My (employer) college and university offers a similar range of training opportunities and is being quite generous in letting me make the most of them. I’ve also been pointed towards a host of books and articles, including “How to write a better thesis” by Evans (2014) just last night.

I have no doubt there will be many trials ahead but I find it entirely comforting that there are so many people that have gone before me that are willing and happy to share their knowledge and experiences. I haven’t even mentioned the gentle yet focused guidance I’ve had from my supervisors, Peter and Lina. We’re still talking about how regularly to meet and at this stage, where I’m gingerly stepping down the beach to the sea of possibility, I’ve been unsure how vital early meetings are (it seems like I just need to do a tonne of reading) but my housemate made a very helpful point last night that this is also a key relationship building time, which I guess is something I can overlook at times in the midst of all the other things going on.