Feb. 9th, 2013

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Thank you to everyone who commented.

Tips for getting a PhD (with help from various friends).

Tips on getting your PhD (works for humanities, can be extrapolated for sciences).

1. Pick a doable topic that you love and find fascinating. If you are in the Arts, do not end up working on your supervisor’s pet project, if you are in the sciences, make sure the team you join is in an area that really does interest you. Keep in mind the criteria “doable in three years”: this is not a life's work, it is your final qualifying exam.
2. Make sure you like your supervisor, you are going to spend a long time with them.
3. Make sure your supervisor has a reputation for reading work in a timely fashion, and introducing graduates to other people.
4. Go to conferences. Make sure you talk to people (handy tip: insert into your paper comments such as “if you want to know more about this, ask me later”. People will.). Never decline an introduction.* Find mentors other than your advisor. Most people in the field like chatting to active researchers (as we get more advanced we are more likely to be synthesisers than originators).
5. Read all the dedicated material. Set up a system to do this, however arbitrary: by alphabetical order, or by publishing order or you will get swamped. (and always note which library you read it in, along with your other notes, it will save time at the checking stage).
6. Start following odd links to things that don’t seem to be related—think about how you can apply them “metaphorically”.
7. Be prepared to spend time learning new skills which will add to your pool of materials and your depth of understanding, -- this may mean sitting in on an undergraduate course or asking for help from another academic, but is worth it.
8. Think of your thesis as a diamond shape: you start with a narrow idea, let it widen, and widen, and widen, and then you sit down and narrow it down. This may happen repeatedly.
9. Have small, doable targets: meeting a target gives you the confidence to set the next one; not meeting it often leaves students depressed. Too many students set too large targets and set themselves up for failure.
a. Try to write something every day, even if it’s only a paragraph along the lines of “today I thought about x, here’s why it doesn’t work”.
b. Read and research in sections: if you wait until you have read everything, you may never start writing. Keep in mind that your real thesis will only emerge with revision anyway.
10. Focus on questions, rather than answers: what questions does your data throw up?
11. When you start writing up, the rule of three is very handy: Every chapter in three sections; every section in three parts; every argument at least three pieces of evidence.
12. Your writing style should always consist of: Argument, evidence, analysis. Check each paragraph to make sure that all three components are there (preferably in that order).

*Yes, I’ve had grad students do this. I was not wholly surprised when they disappeared from the field.

Money: even if you are lucky enough to get a grant, you are going to be very short of money. Assume that you will be working, and make sure you plan your research around it. Be selfish about your time and make it clear to friends and family that “just one day off” accumulates very rapidly.

Additional thoughts.

There are times when you will feel overwhelmed: if this doesn’t happen, you aren’t reading widely enough/producing enough data.

There are times when you will feel bored: if this doesn’t happen, you lack rigour.

There are times when you will feel “What is the point of this?”: if you don’t you probably aren't human.

Always try to have a more compact project on the side for moments when you can’t face the thesis, it will help you to remember you really do enjoy academic work, and will keep you a practiced writer when your thesis is in the research stage. (a science friend advises: “come up with your own ideas for projects, whether directly related to the thesis or not, and try to develop these into other, or complementary, lines of research.”)

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