There is no way I could not write a post this week that reflects on my PhD journey. I'm happy to announce that this week, I handed in my PhD after four years of hard work. After drinking a little too much gin after that hand in, I've now had time to think about what kind of advice I'd give to students embarking on a large project (PhD, undergraduate degree, or otherwise) that were the biggest helps for me.
Give yourself real space to think.For me, this was a difficult one. At the start of my PhD, I was working two jobs to fund it, and at the time, was living with my in-laws in a busy household. I realise this is not an abnormal situation, but it was finding any time to make some space to think that was important. One of my jobs at this time was in a supermarket, and not taxing on the brain (especially on a checkout). I used this time to just think of what my project was, what reading I had done or reading I was struggling with, and what I wanted to write. As busy as this time period was, I think if I hadn't have had that thinking space during those hours of retail work, I might have quit. I didn't find my thinking space again properly until around 3 months before submission, when a few of us formed a craftivism-inspired academic thinking/space group, which gave up space to think about important topics on a weekly basis. I know, and my supervisor tells me, the change in my thinking abut my work has been noticeable over these past months. Moral of the story: go for a long walk. Schedule an hour of just thinking time into the diary. Have a coffee with like minded people and just talk about related topics to your work.
You will never read everything you need to read.I thought I'd done a good amount of reading for my PhD - my reference list is around 40 A4 pages long - but I still feel as though there is so much more I could have read. I only recently came across work that would have actually formed a solid backbone and framework to my thesis, if I had come across it earlier. Tattoo research is being published more frequently now, given the popularity of them as an entity and therefore a research subject. There is always more to read. I didn't used this as a form of procrastination (I cleaned a lot instead) but I definitely could have done. I had to be strategic about my reading, because my time was limited. That meant not reading every book cover to cover, and skimming journal articles, finding relevant information without having time to think about the way the research was done and consider the nuances in the approach they took. Moral of the story: read what you can, acknowledge there will be more, but write anyway.
Do not pay attention to anyone else.Their journey is not your journey. Ever. I think because I see students year upon year worried or stressed about their grades because their friend got this and they didn't etc, I'm very aware of how we position ourselves in relation to others. From the start of my PhD, I made a conscious effort to not focus on what others were doing, and just did what I could do. However, I was a member of some PhD related groups on social media, and whilst they were helpful in running through ideas or pointing out useful resources, they were full of people saying how they spent every waking moment on their PhD, felt guilty if they had an evening off, and how friends no longer talked to them or even that relationships had broken down because they were working every weekend. At first, I questioned what I was doing wrong - I estimate that I have worked five weekends in the entirety of my PhD (three of those in the last month for finishing), and never work evenings (I get that works for some people, but I'm an early bird). If I had done what these people had done, I'd have quit, or be seriously ill - comparison to others really could have had a detrimental effect on me. But you know, I completed my PhD in four years, part time, and can honestly say I took guilt-free weekends and evenings off, spending time with family, and doing hobbies that I enjoy. I understand there are time limits. But we are human, and we have to have balance. When you've seen people fall seriously ill for working themselves into the ground through stress, you realise the importance of the gaps. And in fact for me, those gaps helped me breathe, and ultimately write better. I left all of the PhD related groups after a few months, wrote my own diary to reflect on feedback and progress, and have enjoyed the entire process. Moral of the story: focus on you, boo.