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.
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.
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.