For some, the transition from undergraduate or postgraduate (master’s) study to PhD researcher is relatively seamless but for others it is a difficult process. PhD students embark on a journey which is largely misunderstood outside of the world of academia – each PhD is different and thus each student will go on a different journey throughout their years of studying but generally there will be many ups and downs during your time doing PhD research. But what we need to remember, as researchers, is that we are doing exactly this – researching; we do not know everything there is to know about our subject area and we still need guidance from those more senior than ourselves. It is only when we have completed our studies do we become an expert – but we still need to remember that we will never know everything there is to know about our subject area; we are constantly learning and aiming to better ourselves.
Throughout the PhD journey numerous issues can surface which can be the cause of many a journey ending. I’m not talking about loneliness and isolation here; rather other academic and non-academic factors. Firstly, from the academic perspective, the difficulty can be the academic style and by this I mean researching, synthesising data and writing. I know, from experience, how difficult the latter of these can be. After spending close to three years out of an academic environment working in the public sector, one’s brain becomes less stimulated and loses some ability to think in an academic context. I was told my style of writing was “too journalistic” – a trait not uncommon amongst early stage PhD researchers. The best way to combat this is by sticking at it – keep writing and reading academic articles to give you a flavour of their style and eventually you will get into the swing of writing “more academically.”
Secondly, from the non-academic perspective, there are various factors which can lead to a struggle in adapting to the PhD journey – funding, paid work, child care, bereavement, living in a different country/city, illness, amongst others, can all be a cause. I do not profess to know everything about these factors, and I think it is only fair that I briefly talk about my experiences and pass on my advice. The paid work issue can be a difficult one as some people have to support themselves through their studies due to little or no funding from University/outside bodies. Some PhD students, particularly engineers, may already be working in a field with their company funding them to do a PhD whilst others may have received studentships to pursue their PhD path. However, there is a certain proportion of the PhD society who rely on work outside of their field to fund them. Personally, I work (albeit one day a week) to supplement my studentship, some weeks I might be asked to work more than one day (never more than two days a week) and depending on how my work is going I might accept or decline the offer. I think herein lays the answer – to find a balance between your PhD work and paid work and maybe ask your employer to be more flexible (it worked for me!) and by being flexible you might work more certain weeks and less other weeks, depending on your PhD work. If your employer is not so receptive then it may be difficult to work full-time and do a PhD full-time too – if you do decide to do it this way then burning yourself out can happen very quickly. A burnt-out mind can lead to all sorts of problems in the long run – not just with your thesis but also your health and well-being. In this instance, it may be best to switch (if possible) your PhD to a part-time period of study – if things work out well you may be able to complete your thesis in good time! (You may not need the allotted time given for a part-time PhD).
The issue of illness is a difficult one. You must not risk your health for the sake of your PhD – in the worst case scenario you can always return to your PhD by requesting extenuating circumstances but your health is something which cannot wait. Speaking from personal experience, illness hampered my first four months of study – I was in and out of hospital and restricted to working from home. As a result, I didn’t step foot in my University department until mid-February (from an October start) – this was difficult for me as people had already met, spoken to and formed friendships with each other and I consequently felt, and still do feel, like an outsider. In all walks of life, and a PhD is no different, people can be very cliquey and interacting with/meeting fellow peers can be difficult if you weren’t on campus from day one. What did I do? Don’t isolate yourself – the best way I met new people was to attend postgraduate research training sessions run by our Graduate School at Loughborough. And since we’ve set up the PhD Support Network, I’ve met more people in two months than I have done in the previous two years!
Overall, it may be difficult to adjust to the PhD journey at first due to a number of factors but certain support systems can help with the transition – child care on campus for those PhD researchers whom have children, counselling services available for those undergoing bereavement and now, at Loughborough, the PhD Support Network aims to bring numerous departments together as well as advising PhD students what to do by chatting to those also undertaking the same journey.