Nine things all PhD students should do at least once

Doctoral study can seem like a 24-7 endeavour, but don't ignore these other opportunities, advise Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman

January 29, 2017

Meet your heroes

There will be titanic figures in the literature. Try to meet them and just accept that they can look smaller in real life.

Most academic disciplines feature a few celebrities. These legendary figures are invited to give keynote addresses and seminars. Find a way to find them but don’t ask them to autograph your tour T-shirt – it will simply embarrass both of you.

Getting the chance to hear people speak about the ideas that you’ve digested in written form can often lend new insight and offer clues as to the underpinning thinking and the future direction of travel. Ask them what they’d be focusing their attention on if they were starting out now, then filter out the nostalgic “when I was your age” spin that you might hear.

Remember that people and their writing are not necessarily one and the same thing. Some of the most eloquent texts in your field will have been written by people who are more bumbling, confusing and disjointed in spoken form. Equally, the bombast, acerbic humour and comic timing of some academics outweighs their publishing achievements.

Not everyone is a polymath, so try not to be too harsh if your hero doesn’t seem so heroic in person.

Read beyond your course

Visit the library, browse the shelves and pick something obscure but challenging. Stretching your mind is never a bad thing.

One of the main dangers with a PhD is you have so much reading to do, that you stop reading for pleasure. Try to avoid that happening. 

We’re not talking pulp fiction here, but you could do worse than begin by trying some philosophy (unless that’s what you’re already studying). Your degree is, after all, called a doctorate in philosophy.

Some exceptionally bright people have been thinking about the nature of our existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language for some time now. They may even be brighter than your supervisor. As a genre, philosophical writing is persuasive; you are reading the opinion of an author trying to convince you of the plausibility or implausibility of their position.

You need to think, reflect upon and carefully consider the argument. Think of this as a trip to the theory gym following a new year’s resolution.

In business and management we have become accustomed to practical or technical discourses with a logical, linear presentational form. Theoretical forms of thought are often much harder to read. Don’t skim-read, but don’t fret if you don’t follow every thought; the authors probably didn’t when they were writing either. 

Here are five books to have go at: The Republic (Plato), Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu), Meditations (Marcus Aurelius), Beyond Good and Evil (Friedrich Nietzsche) and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig). 

If you are already studying philosophy, do something completely different. Learn to bake, skydive or play an instrument.

Don’t hide from your anxiety

The support network in most universities is second to none. Make use of it.

Depending on what report you read or set of statistics you believe, between 25 per cent and 50 per cent (or more) of students say that anxiety affects their performance at university at some stage. The same issues affect many academics too. The simple act of acknowledging your anxiety, preferably in the company of a sympathetic listener, will begin to make a difference.

The relentless advance of technology has left us “always on” and less able to tolerate ambiguity. Waiting for anything from an inter-library loan to some feedback on your draft chapter can create anticipatory anxiety.

Perhaps those who appear relaxed are just better at masking their anxieties. Most people find deadlines stressful.

Seek help early and preferably before things are seriously interfering with your ability to function. If you’re worried about the reaction you’ll get, console yourself with remembering how much people in the counselling service, student union or elsewhere would love the opportunity to make a positive difference.

By being brave enough to reach out to them, you’ll end up feeling better and you’ll be keeping them in a job.


Present at a conference, lead a workshop in your department, do a guest lecture or even organise a social activity.

Really, just make a start. Self-starting is an essential life skill for PhD students and academics alike.

Start doing the things that you had hoped to avoid for as long as humanly possible. Let’s face it – sticking your head in the sand only means you’ll have a lot of sand to wash off when you finally come up for air. While there is always a plausible reason to defer until tomorrow something that you would rather avoid, the earlier that you do your first lecture, conference presentation, workshop or interview, the less scary the next one will be.

The industry that you have joined is characterised by public speaking, public scrutiny of ideas and a general sense in which you’re expected to take the initiative. If you find these things difficult you have probably chosen the wrong industry. In time you might grow to love such tasks, but you might not. They are, however, part of the job, so volunteering will at least help you to develop a coping strategy.

Join the community

Being an academic is sometimes described as being a sole trader. You’re out there on your own trying to sell your ideas to a sometimes reluctant or indifferent community of people selling their own ideas. 

One way of coping with the loneliness and isolation is to join a community. If you look hard enough they’ll be all around you. Staff-student liaison committees, class reps, alumni societies, professional bodies, doctoral symposia, conferences and so forth. Volunteering into such fora will help build your network of professional contacts, accumulate evidence of your organisational abilities and offer networking opportunities.

Academia is often a village-like community and knowing the right people in one place can lead to advance notice of opportunities in another.

If that all seems a bit nebulous, focus your communitarian tendencies on your publishing activities. Attend research seminars, offer to present working papers, review for relevant conferences and journals.

These will all help hone your publishing instincts, and publications on your CV will dramatically improve the chances of getting shortlisted for an academic job.

Do some teaching

Gain first-hand practical experience by applying what you are studying while you are still studying it.

Teaching is the lifeblood of every university. It offers you the perfect forum in which to share all this knowledge that you are accumulating.

What could be better than a class of unsuspecting undergrads who will hang on your every word, either through their shared love of the subject or because they fear you may have a hand in marking their work?

Your family and friends (in the real world) have probably stopped listening to you or even pretending to show an interest in your PhD, so focus your energies on a captive audience of students instead.

This, of course, is a double-edged sword. You might love or hate it; you might find it easy or more challenging than you’d imagined. Better to find out early in your career. 

In the worst-case scenario, you’ll gain the knowledge that you don’t really want to dedicate your career to teaching earlier than might otherwise have been the case. Either way, you’ll be accumulating valuable CV collateral that will stand you in good stead once you complete your PhD.

Become multicultural

Speaking another language helps the cognitive process and is proven to make you smarter/more attractive/richer (delete as appropriate; these may not all be true).

You’d be hard pressed to find a PhD programme that isn’t populated by a diverse mix of nationalities and mother tongues these days. Why not seize the opportunity for some free tutoring while you gain your PhD?

Opening your mouth to speak in “foreign tongue” is, of course, a source of potential humiliation. Expect some shoulder shrugging and occasional outbreaks of sniggering. Get over yourself and get vocal. Speaking a foreign language helps you negotiate meaning in general and improves your thinking system. 

Your memory will improve, and there is some evidence that it can delay the deterioration of your mental faculties. You’ll become more perceptive and your command of your own language tends to improve, too, as hidden grammatical structures reveal themselves to you.

Putting the health benefits to one side, learning the rudiments of another local language will help with ordering drinks, dinner and sorting a taxi home. At least making the effort often counts for a great deal.

Stay healthy

A full-time PhD is just that, full-time. The phrase “nine to five” is commonly used to describe the working day, even though many of us work more flexible hours than that these days. Even allowing for lunch breaks and annual leave, that is somewhere around 1,500 hours per annum.

You know what you have to do in the 4,500 hours that your three years comprises (or however long your funding lasts). If you don’t do the work, nobody else is going to do it for you.

It is a long hard slog. There will be times when you will feel elated and others when you will bitterly regret the whole undertaking. Resenting your supervisors, envying your peers their seemingly smooth passage to a painless completion and being totally sure you will fail to submit are normal reactions. 

Rest assured that most people do finish and that the key dynamic is essentially about the hours of graft put in at the coal face. 

Yes, you will need coping strategies to get through your long dark night of the soul, which might even stretch into your winter of discontent. But resist urges to grow a beard, establish an allotment, learn a martial art, become square dance instructor or whatever whimsy might have fleetingly seemed the best use of your time today. Do you really need to surf social media, check the gossip columns or watch yet more football?

Choose one thing as a counterbalance to your PhD studies and become good at it; you have three years, after all. Make it something that engages another part of you and doesn’t simply involve sitting, thinking or reading. Anything from archery to yoga and most letters in between will do.

And establish a support network of other PhDs around you. Yes, you are all on an individual quest, but it is nice to have compatriots with whom you can break bread and share stories.

Manage your CV

Start cultivating your CV early, because editing and re-editing helps. And your online profile counts as part of your CV too.

If you’ve done everything listed in items 1 to 9 above, you will have an incredible amount to put on your CV when you graduate.

Sadly, successful CVs aren’t measured in square footage alone. Curate your CV as the public advert for the person you are, or perhaps wish to become. LinkedIn matters and many people use it as a form of electronic CV. Twitter, Facebook, Research Gate and various other social media sites are also public domain unless you manage your settings carefully.

Think about the public and private versions of your life. Friends might get the more informal, jocular, sarcastic version of you. But perhaps you shouldn’t allow potential employers to have such unrestricted access to your personality.

Find and follow others in your chosen field, both firms and individuals. Create social media bios wisely, as people evaluate you based upon what they find.

The best Twitter bios combine personal information and professional details and have a confident tone; use a link to your LinkedIn profile. Keep your tweets professional. More than one politician has come to regret something tweeted many moons ago and cast up in a less than forgiving light once they have an important new role. Academics aren’t quite so high profile, but you get the point. Flippancy should be reserved for a gated community of trusted friends and loved ones.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data blog.

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Reader's comments (21)

We usually do a "Top 10", however, due to the downturn in the economic climate we have cut back to a "Top 9", that said I am sure there are things we have forgotten so please let us know... Kevin
This is very helpful in providing a reminder that a PhD should be part of your life, not your whole life. 'A PhD is a marathon not a sprint' is one of the phrases which helps me manage my anxiety after a less productive day. I did notice the theme of the workshops at St Andrews Doctroal Colloquium seem to be 'how not to do research'. Perhaps a list on the things PhD students should NOT do would be equally interesting.
Thank you very much, that is an excellent idea!
One of the best the things I did was grab any teaching opportunity I could as a doctoral student. One of the best ways to learn about something more deeply is to teach it.
Yes, I agree with you... although not all supervisors might... there is sometimes a certain reluctance to allow PhD students to teach, as it distracts them from their PhD… I agree with you, it deepens your understanding of the subject, looks good on the CV and, most importantly, it is the most fun part of the PhD – you actually get to spend some time with real people!
It is a shame that so many academic 'heroes,' that are so prominent in our field wrote their works hundreds of years ago. The prospect of giving an audience to Adam Smith may not be as desirable as it would have been 240 years ago.
Excellent book choices but a distinct lack of women. How about some Mary Warnock, Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler?
Some great pointers, I agree that reading for pleasure is truly valuable. I would however like to think that there is space for more than one thing outside of the PhD process, those who lead busy and interesting lives are invariably more well-rounded people than those who choose a more monotonous path. Obviously, all things in moderation and the thesis has to take centre stage, but isn't the time we spend in a diverse educational environment like ours a glowing opportunity to develop oneself as a whole being as well as an academic?
Dear Ace North ... your point about the distinct lack of women is well made and I would add Hannah Arendt to your already excellent list. And EmseT ... well rounded not monotonous is definitely the thing to aim for. For some reason I can hear Thom Yorke's lyric "fitter, happier, more productive ..." echoing in the distance. I wonder if he was thinking about academia ? There is an element of choice in how busy one chooses to be in relation to a PhD ... I'd vote for a both/and mentality. Thanks for the comments Robert MacIntosh
Out of the books you mentioned, do you have a personal favorite?
Well, I am a fan of MacIntosh, R. and O'Gorman, K. (2015) Research Methods for Business Management: A Guide to writing your dissertation (2nd Edition). Goodfellow, Oxford. But I am not sure that is what you meant... read them all... you have three years!
Another great article with lots of useful nuggets of information for PhD students and those considering doing one. With regards to recommendations for future articles, I think it would be interesting to see your perspectives of managing anxiety and writer's block in more depth. Thank you!
Yes, we do touch on anxiety, but very happy to think more about it, its a very good idea and we shall have a go at something.
I like the notion of becoming least it is a justifiable excuse for that overseas conference! English of course is the dominant language in academia, is there any particular languages you might recommend not only looks good on a CV but is actually useful?
and don't say English!...I have noticed my mistakes above!
Dear Pax_vobiscum ... I can think of three different logics at play in choosing a language. The careerist in you might think of a rank order of languages in terms of the percentage of the world's population that use that language. Picking the biggest one that you don't yet speak could be seen to offer the maximum benefit. The strategist in you might think that you should learn the native language of one of your academic heroes because it might help you strike up a memorable conversation at a conference reception or similar. The opportunist in you might look around and see who else is part of your doctoral programme and learn one of their languages because you have an inbuilt local tutor available to you. Beware, this last solution might lead to you learning colourful language if your local tutor is mischievous. Pick a reason, pick a language and get going. Good luck
As a part-time PhD student with a full-time job in my department, I;ve noticed that the one thing the regular sort of PhD students miss out on is the chance to develop the ability to fit their research around other things - something they'll have to learn if they decide to pursue an academic career. I'm getting quite adept at making use of an hour or two here and there...
multi-tasking is certainly key in academic life ... post-PhD it is very rare to be able to focus exclusively on one project, paper, dataset or task at a time. Probably a good idea to gain some experience of multi-tasking whilst doing your PhD even if you don't strictly need to do so just yet.
I admire your commercial adventure!
Any one tell me in which time Delhi CBSE Exams schedule or results are announced/coming?
I really think you are looking in the wrong place for an exam timetable!

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