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Surviving your PhD: How to not be a ghost, make progress and have a social life

Doing a PhD is the pinnacle of academic achievement, a mammoth solo journey into research and learning through your chosen discipline. However, this voyage of discovery can quickly turn into a nightmare if it is not well-managed and balanced with other activities. Recent studies have shown that PhD students are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other mental health issues than the population at large. Being in the third year of a PhD myself, I can sympathise. Here, I put forward ten tips for journeying through your PhD and not turning into a complete ghost of your former self (your family and friends heard you still exist through rumblings in the house, but no confirmed sightings):

  1. Use your public services: Parks and Libraries my friends, parks and libraries. You know those social spaces you were completely oblivious too during your beer and chicken-roll filled undergraduate studies? They are now your best friends and your only hope of having conversations with friends and interesting strangers who thankfully know nothing about your PhD topic. Usually PhD’s have no set work hours so there is no excuse not to go about town doing all sorts of old-fashioned things; loaning books, attending local community nights or simply walking through the park. Best of all, they are free.


  1. Hang out in Cafes: The value of cafes is not to be underestimated in the PhD journey.  For the price of a cup of coffee and potentially a slice of that cake, cafes provide a warm and cosy space to bring yourself and your laptop/reading materials too for the morning. So, go forth and find yourself a decent brew and a chatty barista; your wellbeing will thank you for it!


  1. Do not work from home: Many PhD’s enjoy the privacy and ease of working from home, and whilst I can see the value of being able to write up a chapter in cosy pyjamas – this is not a route I recommend. Having worked two days a week from the living room in first year, I found this leads to isolation and writer’s guilt. Writer’s guilt – for those fortunate enough to not know – is the temptation to open a word document and get cracking, seen as you’re doing nothing else. Recognise that no good work was ever done at 10pm on a Sunday, so have a cup of tea or a glass of wine instead and start Monday morning.


  1. Be the queen of your admin: Keeping on top of how many credits you have done, which activities have been reimbursed, how much money is left in your scholarship, which forms need signing (say for example from a PhD track to a full PhD candidate etc) is incredibly important. We are all ‘formophobes’ at heart, letting forms build up until eventually the opportunity attached to them disappears or they become a real issue. At best you get a sharply worded email from a higher admin power, at worst your registration is suspended and access to journals and libraries is cut off. This is a recipe for stress, so tackle those forms when they roll in!


  1. Take your credits early: In most PhD’s nowadays there is an element of compulsory study through the structured PhD programme. This means taking at least three modules extra to your own research agenda, conferences and writing. It is my advice to take these classes (and for love of god, do the assignment!) early and bank those credits say in first or early second year. A scramble to round up five credits in final year is not ideal, as by that stage you want to be planning your career and will be in the deep-end writing-wise. Many universities offer the option of using your conferencing or teaching experience for credit, so investigate that within your faculty; could save yourself a module or two and create a teaching portfolio at the same time.


  1. Value your supervisors: Your supervisors are your biggest allies and assets. They are also people. Respect that by trying to act upon their guidance, and if you chose not to take their suggestions, explain truthfully why not rather than just not proceeding with corrections or conference presentations etc. Not overloading my supervisors with questions that I can find the answers too elsewhere was a strategy of mine. Did you know your university has a guide for PhD submission? Download it, print it, stick it on your wall, stare at it each day to remind yourself what exactly is needed for a PhD to pass the viva. That is, after all, your shared goal and knowing these things will keep the relationship between yourself and your supervisors productive and lively.


  1. Talk! No seriously, talk. When you’re studying for a PhD, conferences mean you MUST talk to people; and, yes, talking to people is an exercise in communication and personal relationship management, but it is also just a nice thing to do. Talk to the lecturers and professors around you. You won’t always be in the company of such interesting (if sometimes admittedly quirky) personalities. Friendships outside of your age and social groups are a beautiful thing and lead to a natural broadening of the mind.


  1. Treat your PhD as your job: Doing a PhD is nothing like doing a Masters, no matter what people may tell you. It is a sustained commitment to one topic and an end goal of producing new ideas and information. Furthermore, when you graduate you are expected to be an expert in your chosen topic, so being knowledgeable is paramount. If you want to be taken seriously in the worlds of academia, media, communications etc then have confidence in your ability; chances are no other tortured soul has taken the time to read the amount you have in your topic or write a 80,000 word thesis.


  1. Finally, stop comparing. Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy, which is something that will resonate with all later-stage PhD’s who are watching their friends progress into adulthood at a much faster pace and in a more comfortable way. It’s easy to compare your life to others. It’s harder to become okay with the choice you made to do a PhD, as you may have to constantly defend it to others who helpfully ask: ‘Did you hear Katie* bought a house? And Sinead*’s after getting in engaged? Save it Sandra, I have no time for this.