How to enjoy doing your PhD

I’ve seen quite a number of posts on Twitter recently about how difficult it is doing a PhD, so I thought I’d just add a bit of a counter based on my own experiences in case the amount of doom and gloom circulating is in danger of putting anyone off. I have to say that although at times it was tough going, I had the best time of my life doing my PhD – well, DPhil actually – and I know many others who feel the same.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own.

(Incidentally, I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.)

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem even has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre at Sussex, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either…

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are some general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well as your research. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it., ’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research or who has spent hours sitting at their desk achieving nothing at all. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it.

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way, but I think it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my actual research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Back in Brighton in the 1980s I spent most evenings in bars and nightclubs. I never felt the slightest bit of guilt for having so much fun. Without the nightlife and all that I’m not sure I would have finished my PhD.

So, for what it’s worth, here is my advice to new or prospective postgraduate students: work hard but enjoy the challenges. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher so take ownership of it. Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life will not only improve your well-being but may also make you a better researcher.

5 Responses to “How to enjoy doing your PhD”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    There’s a more positive word than obsession. Passion. The world finds it hard to credit that mathematicians and theoretical physicists are passionate people, but that’s what we have in order to stay up all night chasing a problem. The one thing that has to come from yourself – the thing that nobody else can provide – is motivation.

    I completely agree that the way to tackle a problem when you get stuck is to stoke your mind up and then *stop* thinking about it. That maximises your chance of getting inspiration. This is detailed in the following booklet:

    Click to access A-technique-for-getting-ideas-james-webb-young.pdf

    As I recall, there is material in Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” explaining something of the mechanism that is now understood.

    • telescoper Says:

      Maybe “passion” is a better word than “obsession”. In any case I didn’t mean it to be a negative word at all. Not all obsessions are bad!

  2. Agree with everything that you said. I had my ‘crisis’ during my second year, rather than at the end of the first. Don’t think its that uncommon. The start of my PhD seemed a long time ago, and the end of it seemed a long way in the future. Combined with the fact that I got a really bad (and I mean really bad!) referee’s report on my first paper, making me wonder if I should carry on. Managed to get through it, with help of colleagues and in particular my partner.

  3. […] have written several times on here about my own experiences as a PhD student, most recently here. I have written much less about my experiences as a supervisor. That’s partly because I […]

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