Surviving a PhD – 10 Top Tips…

I was awarded my PhD in January this year following a successful viva in November 2011, so thought I would try and summarise my experiences over the last 3-4 years and see if I could come up with some key points of advice from start to finish…

Tip 1 – Academics need you: Most are keen to speak to any potential student who has a good research idea as a good record of successful PhD supervisions is essential to build a successful academic career. Don’t be afraid to approach a potential supervisor directly. There were not any suitable advertised studentships in the are which I live (and I did not want to move as I have a young family here),  so I decided I needed to make my own opportunity. I developed a rudimentary research proposal and emailed every academic I could identify in my local region whose research interests seemed to fit. In the end I worked up a proposal with Newcastle University which we submitted for an ESRC 1+3 studentship in the open competition (I was awarded the scholarship but did not take it up, instead I opted to study via a different route – more on that in a subsequent post – but I thought the advice may be useful).

Tip 2 – Its YOUR PhD – Take ownership: Whether the research idea is your own, or you have been appointed to research a topic as an advertised position, YOU are the one working day and night and living the research. Whilst your supervisors will have opinions or perhaps an agenda which will shape the direction of your research, It is YOU alone who will have to defend it in the viva. I have spoken to many PhD researchers who felt that their research was not their own and they were merely doing the bidding of their supervisor. The result can be mixed – some drop out as the lack of control leads to a lack of interest or focus, some work day and night to please their supervisory team and burn out, many are successfully awarded their PhDs but feel that they are a sham as their work was not entirely their own. 

Tip 3 – Write up as you are going: I am always amazed when I speak to PhD students who are in the third year and entering their “writing up stage” and tell me that they havent written more than a few thousand words. They feel daunted and overwhelmed by the huge task of meeting that 40-80,000 plus word count (depending on the discipline). “But you must have the literature review almost completed at least?” I say – but many just have pages and pages of notes. I had written complete drafts of my Introduction, Background, Literature Review, Methodology and Scoping Study by the Midpoint of my PhD – 18 months since I began. Sure, I would have to update and re-draft these sections – some of them extensively, but the knowledge that I had written about 40,000 words of what became a 90,000 document was of great comfort to me. I could also then pass these sections off to my supervisors for review whilst I embarked on my data analysis.

Tip 4 – Love to Hate your Thesis: You will at some point hate your thesis, trust me…This is OK, its normal – most people seem to go through it at some point – usually about two-thirds of the way through. This is completely normal and to be expected. Don’t panic, take a break – yes a break. PhD students need a holiday too, even if its just a break from the research to do something different. When you return your brain will have sorted out some of the problems you are struggling with on its own. 

Tip 5 – Finished is better than perfect: I am a perfectionist by nature – but I have had to learn over the last few years the finished is better than perfect. Perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are lucky enough to reach the mythical land of perfection (which only exists in your own head), it is still highly likely that readers, and more importantly, examiners will find fault. This is what examiners are paid to do. The same advice applies to writing papers too. This leads into Tip 6 below…

Tip 6 – The written Thesis is just part of the PhD: The majority of PhDs have some form of wording on the fist page which states something like the document is “submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy” . Spot the keyword? “partial”. Before and during the viva the examiners will be considering many criteria in addition to the thesis such as the administration of the PhD, your training record,  publications and impact activities to name a few. The point is, the Thesis does not have to be – nor is expected to be – perfect. The examiners will always have an opinion on how you have presented the results or the approach you took. You will not know what this opinion is until you put the work in front of them – so don’t try to second guess but ensure that you can defend why you took a certain approach as opposed to another. You made the decision (see Tip 2) based on the evidence in front of you at the time and you are the expert in this subject. So defend. 

Tip 7 – Enjoy the Viva!: No, really. This is your chance to comunicate your research, your passion, to at least two leading academics – sounds scary, but they will be genuinely interested in what you have done. Most examiners want to pass a student – despite the horror stories that are popular amongst PhD students. The truth is in the majority of cases they will have already made a decision about whether to pass you or not. You can read about my viva experience and top viva survival tips here

Tip 8 – Have a plan for life post PhD: By this I dont mean start looking for a job etc…although of course this is important – more how are you going to fill the void? And it is a void. You will have been immersed in a particular subject and culture for at least 3 years, probably more. Once you have completed any changes demanded post viva and submitted the final completed thesis – the silence is deafening…

Tip 9 – It is worth it: Completing the PhD, for me at least, was an anti-climax. There were no trumpets or angels, no being carried through the university on the shoulders of my peers, no huge pay-rise or immediate offers of employment, not even any champagne (although there was, strangely, many flavours of Schnapps..). However 6 months on from the viva and corrections it feels worth it. Its a validation of your research skills and prowess., you feel a little more authoritative when speaking to peers or students (although inside you know that you are not any smarter that before), and you have survived – almost mentally intact….

Tip 10- Ignore tips 1-9: In the words of Richard Butterworth,

The only way to find out how to do a PhD is to do one. Therefore all advice is useless….

113 thoughts on “Surviving a PhD – 10 Top Tips…

  1. Congratulations to you. One more year of undergrad, furthering my education is something I need to look forward to, after reading this post. lol

  2. Congrats on your accomplishment. After I received my masters some years ago, I said I would never go back but I’m thinking more and more about it. I did a quick look at some programs a couple of months ago and didn’t really find a good fit given the location. Like you, I’m not too open to moving at the moment. Your first tip has given me a different perspective.

  3. Congrats on completing your PhD!

    From the perspective of five years post doctorate, I think you’ve given great advice. If only I’d had this while in the throes of writing mine. 🙂

  4. Congratulations on your achievement, my friend. I very much like your fifth tip: “finished is better than perfect”. This certainly rings true to a perfectionist such as myself.

    Thanks for the post.🙂

  5. Reblogged this on mariajordanoreilly and commented:
    I have to agree with the sentiment, but being a bit of a perfectionist I find it hard to let go of something I think can be improved on. I will do my utmost to follow your advise though, and remember that ‘Finished is better than perfect’!

    • yeah…repeat myself “finished is better than perfect” otherwise I am afraid I am not going to finish my Phd…even though I have suspended it for 6 months already…

  6. As I sit here trying to complete the results and discussion sections of my MA I will try to remember that finished is better than perfect! I can’t imagine working on a project for 5 or 6 years… I’m definitely in the throes of a hate phase of that love hate relationship you speak of! Congratulations on your achievement!

  7. Congratulations on both your PhD and being Freshly Pressed! (Do you sign now as Alex Hope, PhD, FP? No? You should. :D)
    I’m so glad about this post – I’m only in undergrad (heck, below that, even) right now, but I’m almost sure that eventually I want to earn a higher degree so that I could come back to my current college (community college in California) and teach in the same program I’m attending. I enjoy teaching people when I tutor or when I teach community ed with the adult school, and the staff here is extremely dedicated… I would love to join them one day. Thank you so much for somewhat dispelling the mythical beast of a PhD! It…. may… even be a little easier than killing the Hydra. Maybe.

  8. Congratulations ! That’s such a great achievement ! I like your tips the 10th more than the others😉. I’m ending a 18 years-long PhD in social and economic history (14th-15th century). And now… the end is near…🙂. Private defense in October, Public defense in December, yeeeeeep !
    And… How is life without a PhD in your head ?😉


      • I’m one of the last one who made a “state PhD” (doctorat d’Etat). Now, with Bologna rules, it’s only 5 years. But that’s great you know ! I could read all I needed and take distance with the subject. But the end is more than appreciated🙂.

  9. Firstly, congratulations on being awarded a PhD! That’s incredible. I found this post to be some sort of god-sent gift because I’m planning to start preparing for PhD applications really soon. And of course you’d know all about how daunting it is. I’m still confused a bit about what I wish to do, where to do it. Finances are a major problem and stuff. And of course, the entire idea of doing this for 3 to more than 3 years of your life is already scary. But I really appreciate all the tips you’ve given here and I wouldn’t like to ignore them at all. Thanks for making it sound doable after all.🙂. What was your topic?

    Secondly, Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!😀

  10. Hi all, and a huge thanks to everyone who has left a comment or liked this post. I am overwhelmed by the lovely congratulations and words of encouragement, and am glad that many of you seem to find my experiences useful and inspring in some way.

    I am sorry that I can not reply to every comment left.

    If there are any topics related to this post, doing a PhD, academic life or indeed my area of study (sustainable development) that you would like me to blog about, please let me know….

    Welcome and thanks to you all….

    Dr Alex Hope PhD (:))

  11. This post has been so helpful! I’m currently an undergrad but the looming possibilities of grad school have been freaking me out lately. I’d love to read more info about your experience on the PhD track and sustainable development, as I’m thinking about doing the same thing myself!

  12. Thanks for the thoughts, just completed another degree with no jobs in the offing, I have given up on my graduate studies; can’t pay for anymore education, without employment, LOL:)

  13. Pingback: 10 PhD Viva Survival Tips « Dr Sustainable

  14. Tip 3 and Tip 5 both apply at any stage in one’s academic career. I just finished a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies quite quickly (15 months) and I have many friends who entered at the same time as me and who are going to be lucky to get it done in 24, even if they were only working very part-time… This is largely because they were and are so obsessive over the minutiae of their work rather than the big picture. Yes, one must address quality and accuracy, but generally, just write and revise later. -‘tarotworldtour’

  15. Great tips. I think Tip 3 is very useful, even for Master and Bachelor Theses. I haven’t take the plunge yet for a PhD, maybe never will. But I am going to send the link of this article to all my friends who are in the middle of their PhD right now.

  16. Wonderful advice! May I add:
    #11 Stay away from prestigious universities where a 10 year post-doc is not unusual. Some schools use doctoral students as underpaid assistants, especially in medical labs. I used to manage university research labs in Boston and it broke my heart to see people in their mid thirties living with 5 other students in a small apartment. These were angry, frustrated people! They loved to justify their slavery with how prestigious the degree will be for their careers when the reality was their peers were on their second post-docs before they got their Doctorates…

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  18. Hi,

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m still in undergrad but hope to reach my goal of completing a PhD somewhere in the near future. I was looking for advice and stumbled upon this. Greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again,

    Shelby Lynn

  19. Pingback: Better than Perfect « ohnana

  20. Congratulations to you, reading your piece has fuelled me more into moving from thinking of doing a Phd (i just completed my Msc.) to actually realising I actually want to do it. The tips are precise and i stumbled along them at the right time. My area of study is gender and FGM/fistula whihc would be quite interesting so i am plodding forward and using your tips. Many thanks and once again congrats on being freshly squeezed

  21. Pingback: El culto a lo hecho | La Cajita - Jorge Toledo

  22. Reblogged this on catherineineurope and commented:
    I wish I would have found this bit of the internet at the beginning of my time here in Tallinn… or at the beginning of the dissertation proposal writing process… or at the beginning of the PhD program…

  23. Pingback: 10 PhD Viva Survival Tips | Dr Sustainable

  24. Pingback: SURVIVING A THESIS – 10 TOP TIPS… - The Thesis Binder - We specialise in Thesis & Dissertation Printing & Binding

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