“But what do you actually do?”
As PhD students, this is a question we get on a regular basis, from friends, family or even other students. Completing a PhD is very different to an undergraduate degree, or even a master’s. There isn’t a specific topic that you’re learning about alongside the rest of your cohort. Sometimes you may be studying something completely new, which no one else knows anything about (except hopefully your supervisor).
When choosing an undergraduate degree there’s heaps of information about the course, university life, where to go and what to do; but when it comes to a PhD, you have a university, a supervisor and sometimes (not always) a title. The lack of information for prospective students is shocking.
In the UK, a PhD takes three to five years to complete, and it can be quite intense, to say the least. Recent research shows that a higher proportion of PhD students experience mental health problems than the highly educated general population, with 40 per cent of students reporting at least three symptoms of mental ill health. So, it’s important to know what you’re getting into.
We thought it would be useful to have a resource to provide real, first-hand information on PhD life, as well as to connect current students across disciplinary divides.
Enter our podcast, Planet PhD. As doctoral students, we know that a PhD can sometimes feel like you are on your own planet.
We wanted to discover what other PhD students actually do, and provide a platform for early career researchers to shout about their research. We thought it was especially important for people thinking about postgraduate study, who may be looking for information on what it’s like to be a PhD researcher, both in and outside the academic sphere. In fact, the need for more information on PhD life was brilliantly summarised by one of our guests who said that on her first day she googled “how to do a PhD”.
Each week on our podcast we interview a different PhD student about their research and their wider experiences. We find out about their unique journey to “Planet PhD”, speak about common challenges, share coping mechanisms, and celebrate successes (academic and otherwise). We share an insight into their research world, discovering topics ranging from climate change and guppy genetics all the way to big data and its use in urban planning.
We also feature themed episodes that address the challenges experienced by many PhD students. These include mental health, impostor syndrome, and doing a PhD while being a parent, all with personal accounts from our guests.
Here are a few key tips our guests have highlighted for prospective, new and current PhD students.
Choose your supervisor as well as your topic
Many of our guests pointed out that, although at the beginning your study topic may seemed fixed, it’s likely you’ll be able to adapt it to your interests. Your supervisor, however, is much harder to change. Having a good relationship with them isn’t only vital for you to produce top quality research, but is integral to you actually enjoying your time while you do so.
Have a good work-life balance
At any stage in academia, it’s so easy to let your work take over your whole life. Many PhD students say that even after a long week of working hard they still feel guilty if they don’t do more over the weekend, or work late into the evening. With PhDs it always feels like you can do more: collect more data, read more papers, just make one more graph. Having a hobby outside work, an active social life, or just knowing when to do nothing can really help. Allow time to decompress after a rough day in the lab/office/field and focus on something else. It’s also helpful to spend time with people outside work, allowing you to completely separate yourself from your research, sometimes even reminding you why you are doing your PhD in the first place.
When things don’t work, remember it isn’t the end of the world
Having a good work life balance also helps with this. Often things go wrong in a PhD. The important thing is not to panic. Your PhD shouldn’t be your entire life; it may feel like the most important thing in the world, but at the end of the day it is still a job. And you’re still technically a student. Making mistakes and things going wrong is how you learn. As one of our guests said, “the moment you start taking yourself too seriously is when you’ve started going backwards”.
Read more: What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students