Learning how to be a good PhD candidate!

ECA Blog, Senior Academic Perspective: May 2024
Anonymous Senior Academic
School of Psychology and Public Health

As experts in our chosen field, often we are doing a PhD because we are experts in our chosen field. This is particularly so if we are mature-aged with years of work experience – not academic experience. That was me. The first thing I had to learn was that doing a PhD is a whole different world to the one in which I work, and this new one was one in which I constantly felt stupid. I did get used to this, but it was really challenging to start with; it’s very tricky when you are used to being competent. Accepting that it was about learning, and not having the answers, was a big step that once taken really helped.

My next big lesson was around managing supervisors – maybe wrangling is a better term. An early learning – make appointments well ahead of time and be flexible – they will frequently be cancelled if other priorities interfere. As well as frequently feeling stupid, you learn early you are not a priority in supervisor world. Not that my supervisors were not nice – they were very smart and likeable people with whom I have subsequently remained both a friend and colleague. But, another early learning is the need to be patient – often very patient – this is not a process in which you are in control very often, the only thing you can really control is your own work – and you have to keep that moving regardless. So make appointments for review – send a list of agenda items you plan to deal with prior and hope that these are noted, and the feedback you need is provided. It is so frustrating when you give lots of notice, send drafts through in lots of time, and your work is clearly looked at just before the meeting, or when you are all sitting in the room. And the feedback contains minimal direction and lots of high-level commentary.

Another learning: when not well-prepared supervisors tend to bluster, it works like bluff, and something we all might do in those situations. Just take deep breaths, remembering you are a mere student, then when you recognise what is happening, ask pointed questions to draw out more detail to get what you actually need. Target constructive, useful detail which points you in a positive direction, and makes sure you get clear ideas that you can sum up and act on to progress things further. Most supervisors, including mine, eventually become interested in what you are doing, even if they aren’t initially, but until that happens you are just another in a portfolio of students, all of whom want their time. If you can, meet with all supervisors at once, nothing more frustrating than having contradictory feedback from different people when you can’t get them into the one place to actually thrash it out, and you really are the bunny in the middle. The times when you are able to have those difficult discussions can be really useful in terms of clarifying what is really going on, and how to best manage it. Again, put it on the agenda that you are struggling to understand – raising contradictory feedback or advice can be seen as their problem – being confused is OK for you as a student; students are supposed to not understand, and supervisors are supposed to make if clear for you when you struggle! Negative feedback is tricky – essential, but often tricky. It is a bit like regularly having very challenging performance reviews, but it is not personal – well not really, your supervisors are also invested in you finishing for lots of reasons and regardless of how much negative feedback you get, they are on your side. I think it easy for both us and them to forget that sometimes!!

One final learning, if you are passing your progression points you are doing just fine – it is such a slow uphill battle initially for most of us, but once you get things started – the first ethics approved, first data collected, first paper published – pause and reflect – about how much you have learned and what an incredibly privileged journey you are on. The importance of ticking goals and getting positive feedback was one essential learning I took from my experience. I had no positive feedback for the first two thirds of my journey despite several publications, and my confidence was not high regardless of these outward milestone successes. Oddly, this changed when my primary supervisor emailed our department to advise they were going on sabbatical overseas for six months. I congratulated them on this opportunity, but asked what was happening to me in their absence, only to be told I had been forgotten. But a substitute supervisor was put in place, and with some trepidation I sent them my work before our first meeting and was totally blown away when we met and they remarked that what I had done was extraordinary, important and something to be proud of!! Final learning, keep plugging, respect your supervisors, but remember they are just academics really and also human. When in doubt ask, be bold. You have nothing to lose and we all have much to gain by you doing what you are. Go for it!!!

If you had to give a one-hour lecture on a non-work topic without any preparation, what would you discuss?

“The joy and wonder of time with camels….”