In the previous blog post, we summarised some of the most common problems encountered by PhD students during their course of study. There are real challenges involved in taking on a PhD, and so it’s not for everyone. But PhD study is not impossible. Here, in our final post on what to expect when beginning a PhD, we summarise some of the best tips students and supervisors shared with us, for coping with the tougher parts of PhD life…
The view from students
Here are some practical tips from current PhD students for how to beat the stresses and challenges of PhD life.
- Manage your time effectively – many students told us time management is key to taking care of both admin and research. There are lots of strategies available, from writing endless Post-it notes to list-making apps, but finding a system that works for you is vital. The University also runs time management courses and seminars.
- Ask for help when you need to – “don’t be afraid to reach out to people” was something we heard from several students. If you need help or don’t understand something, ask!
- Remember to socialise – this was something we heard from almost everyone we spoke to. Peer support is really important – making contacts with fellow students in your own department, and beyond, will help you feel less alone. One student pointed out friends also reinforce your motivation to study – research via peer pressure! “Socialise with the right people,” someone else told us – “they will keep you going, not discourage you.”
- Remember ‘the world outside’ – “The PhD is not the only goal,” as one student put it to us. Life goes on. It’s important to make time for family, your partner and your friends outside of university life.
- Try to be flexible – Many students told us of the need for flexibility, to deal with problems as they come and be prepared to change working methods. “It’s important to have a sense of your self, your own working methods and personality, and adapt as need be,” we heard from one PGR.
- Be patient– it’s a long process, and you need to accept that certain things might take even longer than you expect!
- Accept it will be hard sometimes – Problems will arise and there are hard aspects to PhD study – it’s inevitable. One PGR told us, “Be prepared for the first few months especially to be hard – they’re mainly to adjust and start your personal and professional development. It’s a necessary part of the overall PhD journey.”
- Practice your own resilience strategies – Dealing with problems in the way that’s best for you is important: “I know I need to take proper breaks to avoid burnout,” we heard from one PGR, “I sometimes just don’t work at all. And I know I need to do that.” For others, it’s important to remember the overall goal to help keep going – “I reflect on why I came to the course, and link it to my vision of the ultimate outcome.”
The view from supervisors
Here’s a summary of some suggestions supervisors gave us for how to cope with the challenges of PhD study.
All supervisors that we spoke to stressed the importance of socialising – peer support is especially helpful. They also drew attention to learning to manage your time well and plan ahead – one supervisor mentioned the university’s time management courses.
Supervisors also repeated that students should expect support from their supervisors. One supervisor said that supervisors are often able to tell you “I know what this is like – I’ve been through this.” Supervisors can remind you what difficulties will pass, what is just part of the PhD experience, and encourage you to keep going. The supervisors we spoke to insisted students should ask for help as soon as it was needed, and make people aware of problems.
One supervisor told us that at times, all anyone can say to you is “this is how it is” – sometimes, doing a PhD is hard. But equally, we were told to expect it to be fun – “expect three fulfilling years among intellectuals.”
Everyone’s PhD journey will be different, but a lot of the difficulties encountered can be similar. Above all, be realistic about how hard PhD life can be – but reflect on whether that’s worth it for you based on your goal and reasons for studying. After all, studying for a PhD can be a hugely rewarding, as well as very challenging, experience. “I remind myself that it’s never an easy journey,” one student told us, “but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”