Did you see the article in Times Higher Education a couple of weeks ago entitled The PhD experience: this far, and no further ? It featured five current or former PhD students telling their story about their PhD experience, what they learned and what they are doing now. In some ways it was a bit of a gloomy read but I suspect many of you could relate to the issues raised; the isolation of doing a PhD, the motivation required, not feeling you are ‘good enough’, the competition for academic jobs, or feeling that you are ‘letting people down’ if you decide you don’t want an academic career. There were also very positive messages such as developing skills (data analysis, writing and presentation), the flexibility and intellectual stimulation of academic work, and gaining an understanding of higher education and project management through PhD work.
You may not relate to all (or even any) of the issues raised but I think one of the most important things for PhD students to understand is that they are not alone in feeling any of these things. They are all very common. You may not be surrounded by other PhD students feeling exactly as you do but if you go to the next lab, the next office, your School common room for postgraduates (if it exists), you will find another PhD student who has experienced similar feelings. So what can you do to help?
Talk to other PhD students. It’s important to try to avoid isolation during your PhD and realise that you are not the only one encountering challenges. You may be lucky enough to be in a sociable research group but if not go to departmental seminars (and talk to other people there), and make an effort to socialise with fellow students. If a PG social committee doesn’t exist in your School set one up and organise a few events (or even just try to get a regular date for coffee in the diary for a small group of students).
If you want to pursue an academic career have early conversations with your PhD supervisor and others about what you should be doing to gain relevant experience (possibly in teaching, understanding fellowship and funding applications, developing a strategy for publication, and more). This should be in addition to conversations about the progress of your research.
If you are feeling overwhelmed remember you can use the Student Counselling Service to discuss strategies for dealing with the rollercoaster of emotions students often encounter during a PhD. They also run a series of drop-in workshops on topics such as procrastination and anxiety management. The Institute of Academic Development also run workshops to help you manage your research and writing.
If you are not sure about continuing in academic research after your PhD start exploring other options. Use resources on the Careers Service website to start generating ideas or come in to talk to a careers consultant.
Do you have the opportunity to do an internship as part of your PhD? Some of the UK research councils are now including this as part of their funding (BBSRC) and many of you who are part of a doctoral training centre will have the opportunity to work for a period of time with an industrial, public or voluntary sector partner. If it’s not a formal part of your programme look for other opportunities to gain experience. You may have noticed that there have been several ‘PhD internships’ advertised within the university recently (a new project to try to increase on campus job opportunities for PhD students) so keep your eyes open for them. They’re usually advertised on the University jobs site or MyCareerHub. Or talk to a careers consultant about how to gain experience.
So if you are finding PhD study particularly challenging and / or struggling with where you want to go after your PhD and how to get there, ask for support. This may be from your supervisor and others in your group but don’t forget the other services across the University.