You will often hear people say that studying for a PhD is a struggle but with little elaboration on why this is the case. The expectation is for it to be an academic struggle, but the PhD experience is much more than that.
‘It’s funny what you find on your desk as a PhD student! This is a sample of barnacle biofouling all the way from the seabed in Orkney’.
I’ve compiled my list of challenges during the first two years to help you evaluate whether a PhD is the right thing for you. I call them challenges but there is always a positive outcome!
1. Getting to grips with your subject
A PhD is all about making an original contribution to your subject, but first you need to know everything there is to know. This is a mine field in most cases, with heaps and heaps of research papers relevant to your own work. I would definitely recommend spending a good deal of time getting through all the literature, it is most certainly not a waste of time, don’t forget to keep reading!
In some cases you can find that the subject area is relatively new, therefore there is little in terms of publications of direct relevance to your project. In many ways this was the case for me, with biofouling in wave energy specifically being a new focus for academics. I found myself drawing upon literature from similar fields, looking at other marine structures and identifying which aspects of existing knowledge can be transferable.
2. Personal motivation
Studying a PhD gives you the independence to plan and carry out your own research with little restriction. Before I started my PhD I absolutely loved the idea of this free reign, but in reality it can make it difficult to focus and to push forward in times where things don’t quite go as planned. Be wary of this and find your own way to re-motivate yourself and push through.
3. Academic challenges
A PhD is absolutely a learning experience! You don’t have to know everything from the offset, just know where to look and who to ask. This is something I struggled with for a long time, feeling that I would understand something better if I figured it out alone. The reality is that I wasted a lot of time. Don’t be afraid to ask – my top tip for getting through a PhD, I wish I’d done this two years sooner!
4. Work – Life balance
I am a strong believer in getting the work – life balance right. Too much work and too little ‘life’ will eventually have a detrimental effect on your work and vice versa.
Sometimes studying for a PhD can run away with you, feeling compelled to work every waking hour of every day. This kind of enthusiasm is definitely needed to make it through, but it’s so important to make time for you, family and friends. Set aside time each day for this something just for you; reading a book, cycling, swimming, craft – whatever it might be, otherwise you run the risk of burning yourself out very quickly.
‘Collecting samples can be a relaxing break from the office’.
5. Managing multiple supervisors
I found this a huge challenge in the first year. I have three supervisors spanning engineering and marine biology, so naturally they normally have a difference of opinion on your work. It can be difficult to work with this and move forward in the best way, but remember that this is your project and you can ‘mould’ it as you would like to. Also, it is important to remember that your supervisors have a great deal of experience, and that their opinions and support are hugely important to the success of a PhD student. Make sure you have a good team right from the start!