Survival tips for successfully navigating the PhD landscape

march 2Like a video game, the PhD journey is comprised of different stages which need to be completed in order to progress. Unlike a video game, there are no cheat codes to bypass treacherous obstacles encountered along the way. Before registering as a PhD student, I found myself searching for literature on what it takes to successfully complete a PhD. I write to you at the start of my PhD journey to share some of what I have read on the topic and hopefully, those of you who are well into studying the PhD can contribute to this list of guidelines.

  1. Find a routine that works for you. A good routine does not come in one size fits all. Many students work best first thing in the morning when the day has not taken its toll. Others, like me prefer to burn the midnight oil and have their best “aha” moments when the rest of the world sleeps. Either way, you need to decide what works best for you and stick to it.
  2. Manage your time well. Develop a Gantt Chart depicting objectives for each stage of the PhD.
  3. Know the role of your supervisor. Apart for you, the supervisor is likely to be the most significant individual in influencing the success of your PhD. The relationship between a PhD student and their supervisor should be based on mutual understanding and must be clearly outlined from the onset. Make sure you both know what is expected from each other and clearly define time frames and objectives along with your supervisor. It is important to have regular fixed meetings once a week or every two weeks during which the student and supervisor discuss problems.
  4. Present your research (even the proposal). This is invaluable for PhD students and will provide you with practice for conferences and thesis defenses. Presenting your work could lead to feedback, new ideas, new collaborations and novel approaches to your research for your PhD and career.
  5. Read widely around and beyond your topic in order to write critically. Set aside time every week to work exclusively on critically reading articles to get a clear overview of your research field. Keep track of new developments in your field by using internet tools to set topic alerts for new papers that are published. It is also important to read beyond your topic of interest to gain an understanding of what is currently being done and might assist in how you present your own research. Most importantly, write as you go.

  1. Take control of the research process. Don’t depend too much on your supervisor, as this is essentially your opportunity to come up with innovative ideas and to take the initiative.
  2. Planning is the key to success. Develop a clear timetable, plan ahead and keep to your deadlines.
  3. Don’t be afraid to seek help. There is a wealth of resources and expertise available at the university. Utilise these resources and be open to interacting with other students or investigators that have experience in conducting similar research. Although I have just started my PhD, I am already aware that librarians are your secret weapon. Most PhD students are unaware that you can meet with university librarians to discuss referencing, searching for literature, developing a literature review and a lot more.
  4. Never forget why you are on this path in the first place. Although your final PhD product might not be what you initially imagined, don’t become distracted and keep your eye on the bigger picture and on what you want to achieve. A good idea is to begin documenting your goals and what motivates you in an electronic journal when you start the process. Always revert to this when you require a little push to forge onwards.It’s a long road to travel and you need perseverance and fortitude to take the knocks and setbacks.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing so please share your experiences and tips on how you currently manage/ managed to work through the challenges in your own PhD journey.   Share your experiences and the skills you have developed along the way.

Some helpful resources:


Image: Almeida-Souza and Baets (2012) PhD Survival guide. Science and Society. EMBO reports. doi:10.1038/embor.2012.15

Compiled by: Vedantha Singh

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