Student Stories

Student Stories

Blogs and vlogs from students of the University of Edinburgh

Does size matter? — Size and structure in a PhD…

Reading Time: 3 minutes

…by Bérengère / from France / PhD Psychiatry / 5th Year

During my research trip I got to meet many fascinating people, including a freshly-started PhD student. At first we met because she had questions about our shared field of bilingualism x autism. In the end I left with dozens of new ideas and perspectives.

One of the things we ended up talking about was: how to know if it is big enough. “It” being your PhD research.

Size matters.

Before starting a PhD (or even in the first year, actually) it is extremely tricky to judge whether your project is the “right size”.

Is it “big enough”? If it’s not, you might miss out on some opportunities to learn new skills, to try out new techniques, and to adopt new perspectives. Also your University / research committee might end up deciding your work isn’t worth a PhD. And that’s not cool.

Is it “too big”? When first designing your project you might actually fall on the other side of the line. A lack of experience can accidentally lead you to underestimate how time-consuming and complicated some tasks are. Your plan would take 6 years instead of 3 or 4. No matter how painful it is to have to let go of some ideas, this will be a necessary step towards a high quality thesis.

Size matters not: Goals and unexpected paths.

At the start you’ll probably have your mind buzzing with ideas. So many new things to discover and so many never-opened doors you could push! The biggest risk here is to end up lost in all of these, but not actually going in any direction. Make a choice, get started, and stick to it. For now. Leaving these doors closed right now doesn’t mean that you’ll never get the chance to open them later on.

The PhD journey is (very) long, and it is extremely likely you will stumble upon a totally unexpected new path! It is what happened to me with my first study. It was supposed to be a tiny pre-study, but it got completely out of hand and I got so many exciting data I could have spent the rest of my PhD just analysing them. I had the possibility to change the direction of my PhD into a completely new field, so new and unexpected that no amount of paper reading could have anticipated. In the end I chose to just have a wee look at that field before setting it aside for the future. I decided not to follow that unexpected path and to continue in the direction I had chosen. But that’s not necessarily what you should do.

When facing a crossroads, just take a step back and think about what each option will offer you. I decided to follow my original plan because this plan allowed me to learn complex research skills that will be much harder to acquire after a PhD. Ultimately, a PhD is an opportunity to learn, and you should follow the path that will make you grow the most (even if this path was completely unforeseen).

Sneak a peak at your friends’ (thesis)

I haven’t read another thesis yet because this thought just terrifies me (tachycardia and hyperventilation-style). Still, having a look at other theses or at your friends’ research projects can give you a good idea of the average size and depth of what the final product is supposed to be. Reading other theses will also help you write yours (or so I’ve been told).

The uselessness in comparing to others

How the hell do you even measure the size of a research project? Is a study with 5 basic experiments and a straightforward analysis worth more than a study with 1 experiment and an extremely in-depth analysis? Nope. While keeping in mind the motto “narrow and deep, not shallow and wide”, like for many things in life, the worth of your research boils down to quality, not quantity.

Your PhD research is absolutely unique, and comparing it with others’, even in one same field, will only show you how different PhD projects can be. Two students given the same PhD plan could have very different (but equally valuable) experiences, and produce very different (but equally valuable) theses.

Tell Yoda about your doubts

The job of your supervisors is precisely to help you through those problems. A good supervision team will make sure you stay on track, you learn as much as you can, and you produce the best work possible. Your supervisors should probably not force you to follow one path over another for no apparent reason, but they are here to help you make these decisions.

A PhD journey is unique. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of experience, so just make something you’re proud of.


– Bérengère

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