How to develop a researcher mindset as a PhD student

Entering the postgraduate sphere is a whole new ball game. Shaif Uddin Ahammed shows how to hone a PhD mindset

Shaif Uddin Ahammed's avatar
26 May 2024
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Life as a PhD student is challenging – and one of the most testing aspects of it is the change in mindset it requires. 

You switch from being a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. In other words, you transition from passively absorbing information to actively generating new insights through original research. To do that, you have to develop the mindset of a researcher. Here, I’ll reflect on my own academic journey and experiences of supervising others, to share my thoughts on how to do just that.

Have a career plan

A PhD can be long and the prospect of writing a thesis is daunting. It can even be distracting, because you’re leaving the very idea of long-term goals on the back burner.

That’s exactly why it’s worth having a career plan. It will remind you why you’re doing all of this and carry you through the more draining aspects of your studies and research. Trust me, this will help. 

But there’s a difference between simply having goals and having a plan. A plan involves steps to help you achieve the goals you’re aiming towards and gives you boxes to tick. For example, your plan could involve attending conferences, publishing articles and teaching and supporting students. It should also identify skills gaps and outline plans to address them. 

Make sure your targets are realistic and achievable, and discuss them with your supervisor, who will guide you accordingly. Having a well-considered plan will help to motivate you and provide a map to help you chart your progress. Aside from anything else, this is important in helping you maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

Take every opportunity that you can to learn

If you’re studying towards a PhD, you have already demonstrated a desire to learn. Make sure you now take every opportunity to do so and that you learn from sources beyond your supervisor or supervisory team. 

Postgraduate research students can attend regular events and workshops organised by the academic skills teams and career advisors within their universities. By leveraging these resources, you can develop the knowledge and skills required to complete your doctoral degree and also learn about the skills required to secure a job with potential employers. 

It is particularly important to attend workshops organised by the university’s doctoral school. I would strongly urge you not to ignore these sessions. Some students choose to select only those workshops they believe will be beneficial, but attending all workshops – particularly in the early stages of your degree – will help you to develop skills and knowledge that could prove vital in the future. 

For instance, if you are a qualitative researcher, you might choose only to attend workshops related to qualitative research. However, in a future job you might need to teach quantitative methodology or be involved in research using quantitative methods. So it’s good practice not to be selective and to attend all workshops, allowing you to gain wider knowledge and develop networks with individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Involve yourself in academic activities

In research-related careers, applicants are generally expected to have experience of teaching, so it’s hugely important to actively seek teaching and supervisory opportunities both within your university and outside of it. You should also engage in grant applications with others, including your supervisory team – this will provide hands-on experience of the daily challenges faced by academics. 

Many PhD students – and even some supervisors – think these activities could delay the completion of a doctoral degree, but they really do help you to acquire the skills you will need going forward. Supervising undergraduate and postgraduate students will offer insight into mentoring and managing expectations, including those of your supervisor. Involvement with teaching and assessments will give you an intuition when it comes to academic life, and the opportunity to directly apply new skills with the students you work with. This will foster the mindset that you are not only a PhD student but also an active academic. 

Attend conferences and engage with journals

Seek out opportunities to publish in academic journals and attend relevant conferences. If you don’t, your work might not have the desired impact, regardless of its merit. 

Conferences offer a platform for feedback, peer review opportunities, research visibility and invaluable networking. Similarly, involvement in publications and conferences can inspire new ideas and perspectives for research.

The PhD journey is never an easy one, given the number of commitments involved. Remind yourself that you are a researcher and an academic, and that your work has the potential to shape knowledge and understanding for years to come. Research is challenging – but if you’re in a position to study for a PhD, that means you already have the tools to overcome them. 

Shaif Uddin Ahammed is programme leader of MSc International Management and lecturer in strategy and leadership at the University of the West of Scotland. 

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