How Applying for my First Job has Made me Feel Great about my PhD

It’s that dreaded time of the PhD journey. I have spent the last two and a half years ignoring the fact that my PhD must come to an end and I will have to move on and find my first academic job. It was blissful ignorance. However, it can no longer be ignored and last month I finally started to search for jobs.

Hire-Me-PleasePhoto taken from http://mynextcareer.org/?page_id=54

I was advised by some colleagues that I shouldn’t be spending too much time applying for jobs now, as I have not yet completed my PhD. This make sense, as you are going to be competing with others who already have their PhD and possibly years of experience. Being closer to completion will help you get to the interview stage, and anything which distracts from this (including loads of job applications) is only counterproductive. So, I decided until I am ready/have submitted my thesis I will only apply for one – three jobs now, for experience and feedback.

I found only one academic post, at another university to where I am presently, which is in my research field and requires my expertise. If I’m only to apply for one post right now, this is it! Of course, I procrastinated for two weeks, thinking about it constantly, but not doing anything about it. Reflecting, I think this is because I was terrified to take this step and leave the nice secure PhD bubble I’ve lived in for the last three years, putting myself and my work out into the academic world more than it has been already. However, getting my CV, covering letter and additional information together has completely changed my feelings towards moving on and made me feel more positive about my PhD work. Here’s why:

I’ve done a lot!

When I started to think about applying for jobs, I was concerned that my application was going to look weak. Universities are increasingly requiring more skills of academics, including proof that you can generate income and secure research grants. Any other PhD student knows it can be hard to get an opportunity to teach, participate in research assistant work or be given more organisational roles within an institution. However, when I look at my CV I feel very fortunate to see all of these as evidence of my work. As I progressed through my PhD I was allocated more responsibility. I picked up research assistance work whenever it was offered to me, I was asked to review a journal article, help organise conferences and sit on faculty committees. Sometimes balancing all of this was a little stressful, but I feel like it’s now all paying off. I may have turned down some offers of research and policy work, but I’ve covered all my bases with everything else I’ve done.

My advice to any current PhD students out there is to grab the opportunities that are thrown at you. And if they aren’t then make them. Get to know the people in your faculty, tell them you want teaching, let them know what your skills are and how you can help with research projects. As we say in Newcastle, shy bairns get nowt. Also, start designing your CV as soon as you start. It’s easy to forget everything you’ve done over the years and it’s immensely satisfying to see it grow.

I wasn’t scared to discuss my failures or what I hadn’t done

Yes, looking at my CV and seeing all of my achievements and work was great. However, I had to acknowledge where I had gaps in my experience. For example, my experience of income generation was not very strong. I had sent out grant applications to help fund my fieldwork, but unfortunately was not awarded one and funded myself (which I think shows dedication, for any other PhD students funding their work!). I admitted on my application that I had not received a research grant, but I was able to say that I was familiar with the process and have feedback from it that I can feed into future applications. I placed more emphasis on other kinds of income generated, such as securing sponsors for conferences. It may be on a smaller scale, but it’s still evidence! I’ve never had the opportunity to formally supervise students, but I have made other opportunities, like working with the Student Law Think Tank, an undergraduate organisation. Or volunteering to help Student Law Office Tutors with their student’s client interviews. It’s okay to admit when something hasn’t worked out as, let’s be honest, research never works out completely how you want it to. But I’m able to learn from it, being adaptive and creative enough to find other opportunities.

I know my worth

Okay, so a job application is a really self-indulgent process. It can be hard to discuss your hard work and success without feeling like you’re blowing your own trumpet constantly. So, why not think of it as knowing your worth?

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Photo taken from https://boldomatic.com/view/post/hsVaUQ

After getting my covering letter together and designing my five year research plan, I realised that I have some valuable work for the future. It’s not about being egotistical, but rather knowing that I am competent and my research is an asset to a university. Feeling this way strengthened my application. I wasn’t tentative when demonstrating how I fit the job criteria, how I promote collegiality or how I can develop new teaching and assessment techniques. The confidence I feel in my work comes across and will hopefully be noticed. If I don’t sell my worth to potential employers, how will they know what it is?

It’s given me a motivation boost in the final stages of my PhD

Being able to see everything I have achieved over the last few years has given me this amazing amount of motivation to get my PhD finished. I don’t get that self-doubt over whether I can do this anymore, because I know I can. When I look at my CV I can see how I have developed as a researcher and how my skill set has grown. I know I can defend my thesis at viva, because I have done so during at least ten conference papers and research sessions. I know my writing is of publishable quality because I will be graduating with several publications. I know I can generate income, because I have done so for conferences. And I know I can teach, because my students have done well and my student feedback has led me to be shortlisted for a teaching award. I feel so confident about my work now, that I feel less stressed and excited to do it. I’ve got that first year PhD energy back! Even if I don’t get an interview for this job, I know I’ll get one eventually.

shutterstock_54977596Photo taken from http://www.uscmed.com/choose-your-new-career-path-today/

My final advice is to discuss your application with as many people as possible. If your university is anything like mine, then academics are more than happy to give advice, look over CVs and talk over research plans, which gave me some great ideas. However, always get feedback from your supervisor, if you can. They have seen you develop as a researcher and a professional throughout your PhD and their insight is invaluable. My supervisor has been AMAZING and I am very thankful.

So, all that fear of taking the next step and leaving my PhD bubble was ridiculous. Instead of applying for jobs with dread, I’m approaching it with excitement. Applying for this job has made me realise that I’m ready to move on and really start my academic career. I have exceeded what I was meant to do as a PhD student and now it’s time to push it further and grow as a professional. Bring it on!

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Second Year Blues: Well They Did Say If It Is Easy, You Aren’t Doing It Right!

Remember my first post, ‘What I’ve Learnt During the First Year of my PhD’? Well, apparently I forgot everything I learnt last year and got a case of the second year blues. The nice tip I gave of learning to say no did not feel like an option to me this year, and it has been a difficult year so far. So difficult, I haven’t even had time to post on this blog!

I took on more teaching this year, which meant more students emailing me and needing my support. I had two research assistant jobs, I’m the PGR Rep for Law, I joined a research committee and I have helped other members of staff in other ways. And whilst I have enjoyed everything I have done and appreciated all of the opportunities handed to me, my PhD has not.

It is really easy to put off your PhD when you have other work. Your PhD deadline seems so far away that it makes sense to do the things which ‘need’ doing and to put off any writing, reading, analysis, etc.

Not only did it seem as though my sanity was so far away I couldn’t see it, but so did the end of the PhD. For the first time since I started the thesis I was panicking I would not complete.

Now, this is all very dramatic and I realise this. Trust me, I realised this quite quickly when I had a breakdown one night trying to make cakes for a bake sale at uni. Luckily my best friend was there to sit me down with a cup of tea and take over the task (for which she is much better suited than I!). But for us PhDers, this panic is very real. We are perfectionist and failure is not an option. So when a little bit of doubt creeps into your mind that you won’t complete, panic takes over and reason disappears.

At the moment, depression in academia is all over the media, and it is a very serious issue in our profession. I am not saying I got depressed, but I was severely stressed and potentially heading that way. I was losing sleep, I was irritable with people close to me and I even cried in my office one day (for which I felt very embarrassed!) . I knew things had to change, otherwise I was going to start hating my PhD, instead of loving it as much as I did last year. Here is what I did to handle the drowning feeling:

I Started Yoga

And I bloody love it! It is the one time a week I completely switch off from work and a lovely woman, named Sandra from the Business School, puts me in the ultimate state of relaxation. All of the tensions from the day float away and my stress is no where near as bad. Now, whenever I start to feel panic, I do some of the breathing exercises and calm myself down. My work has definitely improved since I started yoga, and life does not seem as stressful!

I Spoke To My PhD Supervisor 

This was a scary one. I don’t like to appear vulnerable or weak to people. I often get called a ‘beast’ in our office for how much work I produce and I didn’t want to lose this title. I also didn’t want my supervisor to think that I couldn’t handle my work and that she had made a mistake. However, it got to the point where I knew I had to tell her I was struggling and I was falling a bit behind. It was the best thing I have done. She was so supportive. We made a new plan of how my PhD would go for the rest of the year. We agreed I will not be teaching next year, I will not be PGR Rep and I will limit any work I do for other members of staff. Basically, I have a year devoted to my PhD. She also reminded me that I have done a lot of work this year. I now have all of my data, which I have started ‘to clean’, as she puts it. I have developed my CV massively and I have started to write up my thesis. Whilst I am not as far forward as I thought I would be, I am also not that far behind and I needed to stop panicking. Have I mentioned how much I love my supervisor?!

I Accepted Things As They Are.

So I didn’t get any funding for my fieldwork and got rejected for every grant I applied for. I didn’t get published as easily and had harsh reviews. Boo hoo. The trick to moving forward is picking yourself up when you’re down. So what if I had to pay for my own fieldwork and work a little harder for my publications. I did those things, and the struggle has made me stronger. That academic thick skin has definitely gotten thicker and I feel better for it.

I Have Learnt To Say No

Okay… maybe not to everything. But I am definitely becoming a lot more comfortable saying no to things. Two nights before I flew to Poland for my fieldwork I was lumped with marking. For the first time since I started I felt able to say ‘sorry, but I don’t have time to do them all. I’ll see how I get on, but someone else will have to do the rest.’ The reality was no one else could and they were on my desk for when I got back, but hey I was assertive at the start! I have turned down other bits of work for people, confidently saying ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have the time.’ I think PhD students can feel a bit of imposter syndrome when saying they are stressed or don’t have time to the people above them. I thought everyone would scoff and say I didn’t know what stress is. In reality, my colleagues and superiors are very supportive and understanding. They know if I say no, then I really don’t have the time. I still have a little work to do in this department, which is a running joke between my supervisor and I, but I’m getting there.

 

This year has been hard so far. It is the first time I really felt like I could fail at this task. If you feel like this, you need to reassess and push through those second year blues. It does get easier. Talk to people, take time to relax and manage workload better. Also, take time to remember your achievements. We are very quick to acknowledge our failures, but not so ready to appreciate our successes, no matter how small. As they say, if this was easy then everyone would have a PhD. It is called a journey for a reason and it is not always an easy one. It is how you get through that matters.

 

Dealing with rejection: is there a right way?

It has been a strange month. I feel as though I have really taken the lows with the highs and my PhD emotions have been all over the place. I think my biggest realisation is that during my first year I was PhD spoilt! Everything went as I wanted it to. I was able to attend every conference I wished to go to, I collected the majority of my data and I was really starting to feel like a part of my field. Three months into my second year I can’t say I’m still being spoilt. For the first time I’m dealing with academic rejection. And a lot of it!

Grant Applications

I need to do some fieldwork in Europe. I have my institutions picked and my dates set. Everything is pretty much ready… apart from funding. I knew that asking for money from my institution may be hard so I applied for two grants to help. I have had one back and it wasn’t great. They said that whilst my project is interesting and important they think my PhD methodology is too ambitious. I didn’t really know what to think about this. I know my PhD is a big challenge for what I want to do, but I never thought that would be seen as a bad thing. I guess the feedback just took me by surprise! I still have one grant application to hear back from, but I won’t find out until the end of January. As I go on my fieldwork in February it looks as though I’m going to be funding it myself.

Article Reviews

I submitted my first solo article for review this month. The journal is a relatively new one, but there are a lot of big names on the editorial and reviewer teams. I submitted my article, which I’ve been working on for a little under a year, and didn’t really think more of it. Until I got the reviewer comments and ouch! Apparently my article is hyperbolic and the subject not compelling. These are two of the slightly nicer comments. I felt like this was it. Another rejection of something I not only wanted, but needed. I didn’t really know what to do about it and how to handle the harsh criticism.

Then it hit me. This is academia! This is what happens when you are trying to make a name for yourself in your field. There will always be people who don’t like your work, don’t find it interesting or, quite honestly, aren’t open minded to it. And that’s okay. It doesn’t make me a bad researcher. It just means I have to try that little bit harder.

I went to see the lovely alawuntoherself, as I do when I need someone at work (see last blog for our PhD buddy experience!), and she gave me some awesome advice. Elaine had had a similar review experience just a few weeks ago. And she felt the exact same way I did: deflated and upset. But Elaine has played the game, edited her article and it will now be published. She pointed out that the editor still wants the revised version this month and I have an open door there. This is so true. It’s not the end, I can’t just give up without a fight! So I will revise and grit my teeth through the quite upsetting comments, but I will have it published.

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And then I realised that whilst I have had a rocky month, there have also been some big positives.

I got my first publication! It has finally happened, my name is in print alongside my lovely second supervisor’s. It was such an elating moment to know that I have something published after a year of planning what articles I will write. Seeing my name on the journal website really spurred me on to keep going. After all, some people like my work!

I’m also starting to feel like a teacher. I have been teaching for almost a year now and I feel as though I have really tried to develop myself as a teacher. I used to get very nervous for classes and would spend hours and hours prepping. This nervousness has slowly started to disappear lately and the other day when I was teaching I realised I now feel like a teacher. I feel like I know what I’m doing and how best to give the information to my students. This was amazing and it did make me smile. No as much as when one of my students told me that I was her favourite teacher!

Finally, I realised I’m growing a thick academic skin. Why did I spit my dummy out so much with these rejections? Because I wasn’t used to it, is the short answer. However, I also have put my work out there in ways which I hadn’t last year. I have been asking people to review my work without me being there to defend it. I have been trying new things which carry a lot of competition. This is academia and if I’m to keep up I need to grow a thicker skin and get on with it. Otherwise, I’ll never make it in this career! It’s not just me that this happens to. It happens to all academics, but they keep going and keep trying. My PhD journey is preparing me for this.

I may have to pay for my own fieldwork, but it’s so I can complete my PhD. This is worth it. I will have to heavily revise my article to get it published. This is also worth it. Academia can be a fun game, you just have to know how to play it and pick yourself up when you stumble. There is no right way to deal with rejection, you do what you have to do. It’s more about what you do after the rejection to make the situation better.

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So next time something doesn’t go my way I have vowed to give myself an hour to grumble and be mad. But after that I will try again and I will succeed!

WHY FINDING A BUDDY IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU CAN DO DURING YOUR PHD

This blog post was inspired by the Research Student Blog Challenge #HDRblog15. The Challenge is an initiative created by the édu flâneuse that encourages research students to share their experiences.  Huge thanks to the édu flâneuse for inspiring us to write this post.

We are Elaine and Rachel and we are PhDBuds. Pals, comrades, mates – call it what you will. But we quite like PhDBuds. Quite frankly, we are the Thelma & Louise of the PhD world. In this post, we share our story and set out the benefits of having a buddy during your PhD.

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RACHEL 

I love my PhD. I tell myself this every day. Some days this is very true and I say it with a grin, because I do love what I do. Some days I say to remind myself that it is true. These are the hard days which everyone faces during their doctorate, regardless of what course you are on. When I found out I had been chosen for my PhD my first thoughts were of graduation, changing my passport to say ‘Dr Rachel Dunn’ and flying all over the world to attend conferences. These things will happen eventually, but I don’t think I really thought about the journey it would take me on to get there.

The first year into my PhD has been successful and a learning curve. I have had papers accepted, presented at many conferences and had some invaluable teaching experience. I have also had people really hate my papers, grant rejections and disagreements with my chosen methodology. And this is hard. When you love something so much and it occupies your every free thought, you want to protect it and yourself.

This was when I realised that I can’t go through this alone and Elaine became a big part of my support group. Even though I am further on in my PhD, Elaine has been publishing for years, is an amazing teacher and, quite frankly, works her ass off! I don’t think I have ever been so inspired and influenced by someone who is always willing to listen to my woes. Elaine gives me so much guidance on every aspect of my life. It isn’t just about which journals I should publish in, how to approach certain situations and what else I can be doing to raise my research profile. She listens to me when I feel like I’m drowning with work, helping me to prioritise what is important. She helps me with my personal life, which can often feel like a disaster during the PhD journey! Elaine is just there for me and I feel very lucky. I aim to have a career as rich as hers and I know Elaine wants that for me also.

So, on the days when I have to remind myself that I love my PhD, I no longer feel alone. I have Elaine to help remind me and I help to remind her. If you are doing a PhD and you don’t have an Elaine, get one!

ELAINE 

Someone once asked me to describe my ideal working space. I carefully outlined the shape and size of the room, the beautiful wooden bookcase along one wall, the scatter cushions and other soft furnishings, and the small table with a pot of herbal tea gently steaming in the corner. My questioner smiled. “Is this room going to have a door?”, they asked. “Do I have to have one?”, came my reply.

I suppose the point of sharing this anecdote is to illustrate that I am not someone who needs to be surrounded by people.  Given the option, I’m perfectly happy getting along with things by myself. So last year when I applied to be on a Professional Doctorate programme I wasn’t troubled when family and friends talked of long hours ‘doing the PhD’ by myself.  After all, wasn’t that what doctoral study was all about? Wasn’t I supposed to be the lone researcher on a journey of discovery, dedicated to making my original contribution?

Well, then I met Rachel. And I found myself talking to her about the PhD. And she talked back. And then I talked some more. And so did she. And from that point on we’ve been each other’s ‘go to’ person for all things PhD. I find it fascinating that we are at completely different points in our careers, and we have completely different life goals. In fact we are on completely different PhD programmes. And Rachel is well into her PhD, whilst I’m just at the proposal stage. But we both face the same challenges and frustrations. And we both want someone to yell ‘yay!’ really loudly in our face when we’re excited about something. Quite a lot of what we talk about isn’t related to the content of our PhDs at all. We swap writing and time management techniques. We share war stories about publishing.

And then there’s the little things that really count. Like the other day when I couldn’t find a reference and as if by magic Rachel swooshed into my office, pen drive in hand with a massive list of references a mere 10 minutes after my slightly pathetic email. She works ludicrously hard and is the first person to put her hand up when people need help.  I felt completely privileged that she took the time out of her day, at the drop of a hat, to walk over to my office to help me. Family and friends are awesome and kind and politely listen when you’re harking on about a journal’s impact factor. But they can’t do things like that.

The Turkey Methodology Summer School: Sun, Sea and Epistemology!

From the 11th-18th September I was fortunate enough to attend the Turkey Methodology Summer School. It was attended by approximately 30 PhD students and 6 academics/PhD supervisors from Oxford Brookes and Northumbria University. The research areas included law, business, accountancy and finance and tourism.  The aim of the summer school was to develop our research methodologies, exploring theories and epistemologies.

During the week we had tutorials, which we prepared for before the summer school began. The tutorials involved us presenting our research aims and objectives, theoretical and epistemological frameworks and other work which influences our research. We had a poster fair, watched the supervisors conduct a mock viva and did academic speed dating. The work was, at times, intense but very rewarding.

We worked in 3 groups, 2 supervisors in each. Our lessons were held just outside of our villas, which meant as soon as they were over we could jump in the pool! My group was amazing. We were all very different, which meant we learnt a lot from each other and were given fresh perspectives on our own research.

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This is where we had our lessons, constantly running away from the sun! I learnt so much from these awesome researchers and academics and received some very good advice on my own research. I have come back to uni asking my supervisor constructive questions. The main questions I took away from the summer school were:

1) Am I collecting too much data? There was a concern in my group that I had already collect a lot of data (and I mean a lot!!) and still have more to collect. This is something I knew already, but hearing it from other people made me think more about how I will justify this in viva, especially as I am going to have to exclude some from my final thesis. I discussed this immediately with my supervisor when I got back and we had a very interesting conversation. I am, but that’s okay. I feel more comfortable over-collecting than risking under-collecting.

2) Can I use different theories? In my PhD I don’t work with one theory or epistemology. Because I collect data in so many different ways the way I approach it varies greatly. This meant it was hard for me to find one theory or epistemology I felt I fit into. After the summer school I learnt that this is okay, again, as long as I justify it. Also, that I may be a pragmatist, which I’d never considered!

3) Have I developed my own theory? Who knows, but it will make for great postdoc work if I have!

This week opened me up to different ways of thinking, viewing my research in a different light and giving me a little boost to keep going.

Now onto the fun stuff. I didn’t just come back to the UK with a PhD enlightenment, but also some amazing friends. Even though business and law are part of the same faculty at Northumbria, the PhD students never really mingled. This week gave us the opportunity to really get to know each other, which pretty much involved drinking and karaoke every night! The supervisors who organised the summer school put on some amazing trips. We went to the mud baths:

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After you got over the feeling of walking through what felt like sick and the extremely strong smell of sulphur it was great!

We went to turtle beach, had a meal under the stars in a lagoon and swam in the rivers:

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Our little group which formed got very close and we have continued this since we got home. After 7 nights of drinking with the same people you really get to know each other. Actually… make that 8, we went out in Newcastle as soon as we got back! I guess we weren’t ready to let go of an amazing week and get back to reality.

This week was one of the best I have had since starting my PhD. I took a lot away from this summer school and I feel very lucky to have shared it with some of the funnest people ever!

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Remember Turkey Club… teamwork makes the dream work!!

Getting these journal articles done!

I always thought summer would be a really relaxing time of the year. The students are away and there is no teaching. I assumed that I would be able to get on with my work at a nice pace and really enjoy it. How wrong I was. I came back from the GAJE/IJCLE Conference with 4 journal articles to write and a methodology summer school to prepare for. For the first time during my PhD I have actually felt stressed and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Some days I would feel really on top of things and the next I felt like crying into my coffee. I forgot this is how a PhD is composed:

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I have managed to get through it. I still have two weeks left for my deadlines and I’m on track. I thought I would share a few tips on how I have managed:

1) I went for drinks with a colleague 

This may seem like a very weird first tip when you have a lot of work, but this was where I started. One night after work I went for drinks with a very lovely friend and colleague (who also has an awesome blog: http://alawuntoherself.wordpress.com/) for a catch up. Elaine is an amazing academic and clinician, who manages to publish around 7 articles a year and still have a life! When I told her my worries that I wasn’t going to get all this work done in the time I had, Elaine gave me the knowing look of experience. She told me it is all about prioritising which article was the most important to me. She asked me which one I think will be most beneficial, which one involves the most research, etc. This really helped for me to know which one I should be working on the most. Then Elaine asked if I could push one back. I looked at her horrified. How could I push a publication back?! Elaine’s next words were ones which I will carry with me during the rest of my career: it only affects you. And this is very true. If I push a publication back until Christmas I’m not going to have uni asking why. The journal editor (who happens to be my supervisor) won’t be crying herself to sleep wondering how the journal will cope. It only affects me and a few months isn’t a massive set back. After this advice I felt a lot better asking my supervisor for the extension.

I guess my first tip is to share your worries and stress and to share them with someone who knows what you are going through. All jobs have their own kind of stress and it is hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it. Talking with Elaine really helped put things into perspective and have a new game plan for the summer. Sharing is caring guys!

2) Free write

This is something I had heard of but never particularly wanted to try. It panicked me to think I would write a lot, which could sound painfully stupid and take ages to edit. I normally like to really think about what I write and can take a good 5 minutes pondering over whether a word sounds right. However, I do not have time for that at the moment. Free writing is actually really great. On my first day of trying it I ended with 1,500 words. When I looked back over it I realised it didn’t sound stupid and I had some great material to work with. Free writing is a great way to get ideas off your mind and onto paper. Watching the word count continuously go up during the day gave me a real confidence boost and encouraged me to keep writing. I’ll definitely be doing it again in the future.

3) Don’t be scared to switch it up

Whilst I knew which articles should really be finished first, I was also realistic. I knew I wouldn’t sit down and bash them out one after the other. That isn’t how my brain works as I like variety (I normally order three mains from the Chinese so me and the best friend can pick at them all!). I now start my days working on one article. When I feel like I have hit a wall with it (or want to hit my head against a wall) I will move onto a different one. This way I am continuously working, so there is no guilt felt, but it means that I’m not just staring at my screen wondering where the article should go. When I go back to it I’m not sick of it and have fresh eyes. There is nothing worse than knowing that you have work to complete and not feeling like you are making any progress.

And then, when I felt like I could take no more article work for the day, I would move onto my preparations for the methodology summer school trying to figure out my theoretical underpinning and epistemology. Switching it  up kept me engaged with my work, not resenting it.

4) Know when to clock off for the day

When you have a lot of work on it is so easy to work all day into the night. I thought I would have to do this. However, I have realised that this is counter-productive. You need to let your mind wind down so it can get ready for work the next day. Sitting in front of your computer all night isn’t always the best way to deal with the stress. If I do feel guilty on an evening not doing work I’ll do a little bit of reading, which has mainly been for the summer school. And I will do it with wine. Then it doesn’t feel too much like work.

5) Work with friends

This kind of relates back to my first point. Academia can be a lonely place where you have to support yourself a lot. I decided that it doesn’t always have to be like this. I had the house to myself this weekend and a fellow PhDer, Sara, who also has deadlines and a high word count came over. So we decided to make a day of it. We set camp up in my living room, stuck the radio on and worked. Every hour or so we would check with each other the progress we’d made and what we wanted to get done in the next hour. This was great! It made the working day so much more enjoyable.

When I had decided to clock off for the day (meaning no writing but some reading) and Sara wanted to continue, I left her to it. I made sure I didn’t distract her. Basically I only spoke when spoken to, unless I was offering a cup of tea! It was a really great day and the support we gave it other really helped. You don’t have to go through it alone.

I hope these little tips help! I know there will be loads more but this is what has been helping me lately.

What I’ve learnt during the first year of my PhD

I started my PhD last October and so far I’m loving every second… yes even the hard days! Northumbria University is like a second home to me. I did my undergraduate degree and the Bar Professional Training Course here. So after taking a year out and coming back to do my PhD it felt like coming home. I’m comfortable here, I know many members of staff, how to get around campus and, most importantly, where the closest bars are! This doesn’t mean that I have breezed through my first year. I’ve learnt so much about myself and the life of academia that I thought my first blog should be to share my experiences.

1) Your PhD is your own

This for me was very important. I felt like I spent most of the first few months of my PhD listening to how other people think a PhD should go. Whilst I do encourage students to discuss their work with others who have gained that well earned Dr status, be careful. It is great to hear about other people’s experiences and take little tips away from them. But your work is your own and you do it how you and your supervisor think is best. Over this last year I have been told that I shouldn’t be collecting data in my first year, I shouldn’t be presenting papers at conferences yet, I shouldn’t be publishing that much… the list can go on. This really panicked me and I ran to my supervisor exclaiming, ‘I’m doing my PhD wrong!!’ Her reply: ‘Well, are you happy?’ I thought about this. I am happy. I have loved collecting data this year. I have loved giving papers and attending conferences. That’s when I decided that my PhD is my own, I know what I’m doing, I have a great supervisor to guide me, and I shouldn’t let anyone else influence this. You know your work better than anyone else, so just go for it!

2) Build good relationships 

These relationships are with a variety of people. First of all, make sure you have a great relationship with your supervisor. I’m not saying be best friends with them, but make sure you feel comfortable with them. I absolutely love my supervisor and I know how lucky I am to have her… trust me, other PhD students tell me! But I also know that the reason I’m so lucky to have her is because we have a give and take relationship. She provides me with a lot of support and guidance and in return I never miss deadlines and I will help her where I can. This can even just be grabbing her a coffee for our monthly meetings!

It is also important to build relationships with other members of staff. Knowing you have people to turn to is a comfort, even if it’s just for a little bit of advice or reassurance. Also, academics are great to drink with! Especially if they are lawyers too…

External relationships are good too. Once you’ve been to a few conferences you start to see the same faces. By the end of this year I was catching up with other academics from all over the world and feeling like I really belonged in my field.

Finally, don’t forget your fellow PhD students! They are going through what you’re going through. It is great to be able to call someone from my office to ask stupid things, like ‘where do I find this document?’ and ‘do you remember how to make maps on NVivo?’ I also love shouting ‘PINT’ and someone will go for a drink with you.

3) Learn how to say no

This is hard to do as a PhD student. When we get asked to be research assistants etc., we feel obligated to do it. If we say no academics may think we are lazy or not offer us the same opportunities in the future. This is not the case. You are fully justified to say no if you do not have the time and you should not feel guilty. I’ve said no to a couple of things this year and nothing bad happened. If you just explain that you have a lot on your colleagues will understand.

Equally, don’t be lazy! If you do have the time then they are excellent experiences and sometimes you can earn some extra cash. It also looks great on your CV. But like I said, only if you have the time. You are there to do your PhD and that comes first.

4) Go to conferences and talk to people

Going to a conference is so much fun. You meet like minded people who care or are interested in your work (there’s only so much clinical talk my friends can take!). It is also an opportunity to see what is going on in your field, gain inspiration and start forming your own opinions. If you can present, even better! I’ve found that attendees at conferences take it easy on you if they know you’re a PhD student. They know you are just starting out and finding your feet. Giving a paper is a good way to get feedback on your work by those other than your supervisors, see different perspectives and maybe get little tips!

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I mean, just look at that smile. I was having the best time!

And you can make some great contacts. If you do, follow up with an email. I’ve had people send me their articles which they think are relevant to my research. Win!

5) You MUST take breaks

I think this is my most important lesson this year. When I first started my PhD I felt as though I had to know everything about everything and I started working all the time. I would easily get home from the office and open my MacBook until 10pm. Eat, sleep, work, repeat. And I burnt out. It is so important to look after yourself during this long process. Otherwise you do burn out, become unhappy and lose motivation. Luckily I live with my best friend and she sorted me out. She now drops me off and picks me up from the office so I’m not staying unnecessarily late. If I do want to do work outside of office hours, other than reading, I have to justify to her why it is urgent. I have to say, this has really worked. I feel happy, I still feel motivated and I still love my PhD. I don’t feel guilty for binge watching Netflix on a weekend instead of writing a paper. We all need time to wind down. If you have a best friend like I do then you’re very lucky!

Lastly, take holidays! One of my great loves is travelling. I try to do it as much as possible. My big holiday this year was spending time in Australia visiting friends I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I did no work, apart from one day presenting work at Monash University, and I loved it.

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Look how happy I am with this koala! The break did me good and by the time I got home I felt ready to get back to work. Next year I’m taking a month off to go hiking in America. Do I feel guilty for spending that much time away from my PhD? Nope! I work really hard all year, so I feel justified taking time off.

And just remember, enjoy your PhD. You can take something away from every experience, even the difficult ones.