Ellie Wood

Social-ecological scientist working in savanna woodlands

Tag: Starting a PhD

Five tips for starting (and continuing) a PhD

Lots of the specific stuff you learn as a PhD student, as well as general approaches to your work, begins with informal advice rather than formal training. I’ve received lots of advice from others during my PhD, since the very early stages of my project. This has helped me both build a PhD project that I’m happy with, and actually enjoy my life while I do my PhD (the two, of course, being closely but not entirely linked!). As it’s the start of the academic year I want to share a few of my own tips along those lines, to help get your PhD off to a good start, and keep it on a trajectory you’re happy with:

1. Keep notes on everything you read

My PhD, like many, kicked off with lots of reading of textbooks and academic papers. My reading has ebbed and flowed, but not really stopped, since then. Reading is a big thing during your PhD. It’s useful to keep track of what you’ve been reading because you won’t remember all of it, but you will want to come back to a lot of it.

My system for keeping notes on my reading is highly unsophisticated, but it works: I have (currently) three Word Documents, called Reading_[insert year here] stored on Dropbox so I can access them anywhere. I’ve got a separate one for each year of my PhD because 1) each document is a bit more manageable than one scary enormous one, and 2) I find it surprisingly easy to remember when-ish I was reading different stuff because my reading has gone through some quite distinct phases (e.g. more stuff relevant to study design early on, more stuff about analysis later) so it seemed like a reasonable and simple way to organise my notes.

The  notes I make on what I read vary a lot: at my laziest, I just copy and paste the paper title, first author and abstract into the doc, and I’m done. If I’m feeling enthusiastic, I make more extensive notes on the paper and my thoughts on it, or copy specific sections that are especially interesting or relevant to my work. I make sure that each paper title or reference is formatted as a heading so that I can scan through the document easily, and create a contents page for each document.  Now, if I want to find a specific paper or read publications on a particular theme, I can Ctrl+F to find key words in my Reading documents.

2. Read a couple of theses

I’m going to disagree with tip #2 in Five Tips for Starting Your PhD Out Right and say you don’t need to read them cover to cover – I don’t think this is necessary in the early stages in your project, unless you really want to do so, or if you feel that every chapter is highly relevant to your own PhD. But I do think it’s helpful to flick through and see different thesis structures (trends in how to structure a thesis evolve over time, and also vary by subject area, so look at recent graduates in your field for ideas of what’s likely to be appropriate for you).

Theses might also contain some specific content that you didn’t realise you’ll need to add to your own thesis (such as more detailed methodology than you usually see in a published paper) or useful references if the PhD is closely related to your own work. I think it works well to look through the theses of recent graduates in your research group, your supervisor, or others working on similar stuff to you. But you can also search for theses online, for example by using EThOS.

3. Start a Word document called “Thesis”

You can use other people’s theses (see previous tip) as a guide to add appropriate headings and subheadings to this document which will act as your own thesis structure / outline. Okay, I did this in third year, not first year, but I reckon it would have been helpful to start this earlier. Since I started this document, I’ve made good progress on actually organising my thoughts and even writing a few things down. And if you’ve got this document ready from early on in your project, you can populate it with notes and ideas whenever they occur to you at any point during your PhD.

Recently, I’ve been going through my Reading documents (remember tip #1) page by page and copying across notes from papers that I have read (and often forgotten about) into the appropriate sections of my Thesis document. It’s surprising how quickly my rough structure has been populated with ideas and material for literature review and synthesis, and how this has helped me link different ideas together i.e. stuff I read in first year and forgot about, with stuff I’ve been reading recently, with stuff that’s coming out of my own analysis. Actually, now that it’s getting quite full, I’ve split my Thesis doc up so that I’m just working with one document per empirical chapter. In first year, a simple thesis structure in a single document is a good place to start.

4. Think about how to make the flexibility of your PhD (and your control over it) work best for you

This one’s quite big-picture, and I’m kind of cheating the list-of-five by squeezing several tips into one. But I think that the general principle of this tip is important, and can be interpreted in different ways to suit different people: PhDs are often inherently flexible, in how you set your daily, weekly and monthly schedule, and I think that you should make the most of that.

The nature of your PhD flexibility and your control over it depend on the details of your project, how you’re going to be working with your supervisors and institution. But there are usually opportunities for flexibility, even if you have to be in the lab most days. PhD-life-flexibility can be exploited for your professional or personal development, to maximise your productivity, to create opportunities that are fun or useful now, or allow you to flex creative muscles you haven’t had the opportunity to flex before.

Below I list the kinds of things you can think about to best use the flexibility of your PhD. These are all things that can work alongside the core research / write / defend thesis requirements of your PhD, and while you definitely don’t have to make any firm plans on day one, I think that it’s really valuable to think about ideas like this (and any more you have) early in your project. It’s all about what you want to get out of your time whilst doing your PhD, including but not limited to the PhD itself, and how you want to structure that time:

  • How do you want to set your daily schedule, where do you want to work? What’s going to be most pleasant and productive for you, and fit in with your home life?
  • What things do you want to do outside of your PhD (sports, reading non-PhD-related books, joining local clubs and groups, always protecting weekends off) to actively maintain a healthy work-life balance (which is better for both your wellbeing, and the state of your thesis)?
  • Are there times when you’re going to be working extra hard (like fieldwork)? How do you want to balance that with rest and recuperation afterwards (an extended post-fieldwork holiday…?)?
  • Do you want to take an interruption from your PhD for an internship or job?
  • Do you want to practise writing by starting a blog or try a bit of science journalism?
  • Do you want to get involved with science outreach?
  • Do you want to build a professional profile and network by making a website or getting on social media?
  • Do you want to teach undergraduates or Masters students?
  • What training courses would you like to do (and where do you find out about them)?
  • Do you want to try turning one or more of your chapters into academic papers?

5. Talk to people, lots, in both general and specific ways

Starting a PhD can be overwhelming, and knowing where to start, or where to go next, can be really tough. Having conversations with other PhD students about what they are working on, how they are finding their PhD, what kind of training they have received, might point you to interesting new research topics, training opportunities, or just give you a bit of a general feel for what it’s going to be like doing a PhD in your new department. These general conversations are important because they can provide you with nuggets of wisdom you didn’t know you needed and, crucially, help you feel connected to and supported by your colleagues and peers.

Asking your supervisor or others specific questions like are there any academics whose work you recommend I look into? / do you recommend any textbooks on [planning a research project], [planning fieldwork], [fundamentals of landscape ecology], [fundamentals of development research] [insert another topic you’re not sure about yet but want to learn about]? / are there any conferences I should look out for? can give you some useful starting points for directing your own learning in the early stages of your project. So, think specifically about what you need at the start of your PhD, and ask for help with it.

…And one bonus tip: read advice from other (ex-) PhD students

There are similar posts to this one with advice on starting your PhD here, and I particularly like the twenty top tips from Lucy Taylor here. There are actual full guides to PhD life like The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory and The Unwritten Rules of Ph.D. Research which can be very helpful to read through at any stage of your PhD (though I guess you maximise your use of them if you read them early!) and to use as reference books as and when you need them. There are lots of people blogging about their past and present PhD experiences, which can offer great advice and comfort at every stage in your PhD. Personally, I love the Thesis Whisperer and like to check in with it semi-regularly. Reading TW feels a bit like my tip #5: it’s about seeking out help and advice, sometimes when you didn’t even know you needed it.

Practical tips on how to be an interdisciplinary individual

I recently went to a great workshop on interdisciplinarity. Now, there are different definitions of interdisciplinarity (and particularly how it relates to multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity) though, personally I tend to follow definitions somewhere along the lines of what these people found in the health sector, and what this music researcher says. The workshop was about interdisciplinarity in the sense of truly integrating theories, methods and expertise from different disciplines to conduct environmental research. Interdisciplinary research can occur in teams, though moving from multidisciplinarity (where several people bring different expertise to a research theme / problem but where there is no true research synthesis and often, poor understanding of what is being done in each part of the team) to interdisciplinarity comes with many difficulties. Overcoming these difficulties was a large focus of discussion at the workshop. I was also asked to speak at the workshop, about my own experiences with interdisciplinarity. This is a bit of a step away from work in interdisciplinary teams. I consider myself an interdisciplinary individual because I use approaches from ecology and social sciences to tackle my research questions; I conduct my research alone (though with plenty of guidance) so these approaches are synthesised in my own head and thesis rather than out loud and between members of a team.

And that’s what I want to talk about here: what it’s like being an interdisciplinary individual, and what can be done to make it a bit easier. I think doing an interdisciplinary PhD is incredibly worthwhile, and something I chose to do because I believe that combining social and environmental research is the best way to understand issues that affect both people and nature, and to generate impacts that aren’t detrimental to either. However, I also think it can add a significant additional layer of difficulty to PhD research… as if it wasn’t hard enough. I talked a little bit about this at the workshop but, being in a room full of people who understood well how hard interdisciplinary research is, I tried to focus a bit more on what has helped me along my interdisciplinary journey, and thoughts about how we (as students? supervisors? departments? institutions?) might help other interdisciplinary individuals in future.  Here, I summarise what I said at the workshop, with a bit more of a focus on how you, if you’re an interdisciplinary student, might help yourself with potential challenges – just in case your supervisor, other academics, department and institution aren’t reading. I highlight three key areas that I needed (and got) help with as an interdisciplinary student: 1) planning your interdisciplinary project, 2) finding out about the subject(s) you know less about, and 3) gaining project-specific knowledge:

  1. I’m lucky in that during my PhD I’ve been offered formal trainings on a whole host of subjects (how to write a thesis, how to make a poster, statistics, ecological modelling etc.). But, I’m not in an interdisciplinary programme, so I haven’t been offered training specific to an interdisciplinary project. Planning an interdisciplinary project is quite different to planning other PhDs, and I think it would have been really useful to have received training in how to plan an interdisciplinary project early in my PhD: this is something that can (and I think should) be offered in a simple course at your institution. If formal training isn’t available to you, seek out resources (and people) who can help you. I found Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research useful, as well as alternative ways to think about my project plans such as by constructing something akin to a theory of change connecting your research questions to aims and outcomes. There are loads of great resources out there and new ones appearing all the time, so actively search for guidance that’s relevant to you.
  2. Having no formal grounding in half of your project can make it hard to know how to direct your learning on this side of the project. For example, I came from a natural sciences background, so thinking about the social science aspects of my research was harder and involved me learning lots from scratch. However, I didn’t really know what “from scratch” even meant from a social science perspective when I started – which textbooks and papers should I be reading to start off my learning? It can be very easy to miss possible training opportunities which might help with these problems if you’re not in the right circles to find out about them. I have rarely been offered formal training in social science, because my project and I sit in the natural sciences part of my institution and because the groups offering me training are more natural-sciences focused. You too might feel siloed, and like the methods and skills training offered to you are only relevant to small aspects of your project. The truth is, there’s probably loads more training out there that’s available to you – you just don’t know about it. Increased collaboration and conversation between departments, institutions and research groups to increase awareness of opportunities for student training across disciplines would help with this issue in a widespread and long-term way, and we should all encourage this as much as possible. I mean, there are also arguments for complete overhauls of how universities are structured break down some of the walls standing between different disciplines… But, leaving that discussion for another day, let’s assume that you’re a student navigating existing structures for yourself and your peers and, again, you’ve got to do some investigation and reaching out for yourself. Look for resources (I liked Introduction to Social Research for social stuff!), email academics and students working on the stuff you want to know more about, ask if there are seminar series you can go to, look through Masters courses at your institution and find out if you can go and sit in on some lectures. For example, just getting on the right mailing list you didn’t know existed might make a huge difference to what you learn and who you can meet.
  3. Loads of what I’ve learned has come from individuals, informally, rather than through formal training. You do need lots of project-specific knowledge during your PhD, which may come more from discussions with colleagues or by conducting a pilot study, rather than from a structured course. So, once again, don’t forget to make the most of the people and opportunities around you. Ask for help from supervisors, reach out to other students working on similar problems to you, build up your network. Someone might be able to recommend a book or a particular method to you. You might even realise that there are a few of you who with similar interests and it would be useful to form a peer support group, or a reading group. Also, if you know two people with similar interests to each other (but not to you), put them in touch with each other. In my experience, there is a really nice culture in academia of introducing colleagues with mutual interests, with no benefit to the person making the introductions. Keep that culture going to help out your colleagues (and foster better research).

A key theme uniting my above points is that (despite a PhD being an individual journey), building on other’s experience, and even just knowing you’re not alone can be really important. Your interdisciplinary project might seem unrelated to the work that other people in your office and department are working on, but know that there are lots of people out there who have knowledge and experiences you can draw on. That can come in the form of structured training offered to you (ahem institutions and funders), or in the form of seeking out knowledge and skills for yourself. Try to take advantage of those things as early as possible – PhDs are time-limited (maybe especially interdisciplinary PhDs when the student is having to learn more stuff from scratch), so having clear ideas about how you’re going to plan your project, and getting stuck into the right literature early on can be incredibly helpful, and make you feel less stressed by how much you think you don’t know in the long-run.

I do think that formal training, and maybe some cultural change, can really help with these issues. And part of their benefit is that they can be timely and make sure you get set on a good track early on in your project, rather than spending a long time being unsure about stuff and unsure about who to ask for help with that. But, if you feel like you’re completing an interdisciplinary PhD in a world that isn’t set-up to best support interdisciplinary work, know that there are courses, books, websites, and people that can help you. You just have to be extra pro-active in finding them, and we all should be more helpful towards other PhD students struggling with the same problems.

And also, though I’m telling you now that you should find help with these issues early in your project, that doesn’t mean you should stop seeking help later on, or feel like you’ve missed the boat to do so. Lots of the things that helped me across the three issues that I highlight here, I came to later than you’d expect. I attended the interdisciplinarity workshop during my third year, and part of what made it great was that I was able to speak to other people who faced similar problems to me in different contexts, and if nothing else, we could come together to discuss those problems. And that in itself can move your own work forward, even if you don’t come up with the solutions to your own interdisciplinary problems (and, in the case of the workshop, how to make interdisciplinarity work more broadly) yet.

A bit of extra reading about interdisciplinary work:

And there’s lots more!

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