February 20th, 2013


Notes from the wrong end of the telescope.

I've been working on this post, on and off, since December when I first sat down and started writing my thesis up - it contains all the little notes to myself that I dearly, dearly wish I'd known when I set out to do a PhD. For me, that was six long years ago but I hope it's helpful to full-timers, part-timers and people who are considering whether to start this process at all...

To my wide-eyed self,

I'm thinking of you sitting in the computer lab in the library it's your first week on the PhD and you're having a head-spinning induction session. Part of you is terrified by the amount of work to come, but mostly you're incredibly smug that you're clever enough to do this and you'll be through the process in a breeze. You're very fortunate, you know. I'm going to bestow some wisdom on you now which is going to help you negotiate the next few years if not with ease then at least with a lot more grace than I enjoyed. You've got a shelf full of books on 'how to get a PhD' already but here's a clue - they all say the same thing. Start early, work hard, manage your timetable. Here are ten little bits that they're not going to tell you.

  1. Be really, really honest about the kind of research you want to do and pay attention to what makes you nervous. I've spent the last two years with severe anxiety about my analyses because I thought that I had a knack for hard sums. If it's not something you find joyful and fascinating, if the idea of it already makes your head hurt, don't base a PhD around it.

  2. Just because you've "done a course", it doesn't mean you know what you're doing. Passing does not equal understanding.

  3. You will find by the end of the process that you have not had enough experience doing real, live research. Whatever assessment you have of your skills, knock it down by 25%. Now, while things are quiet and you're planning the project go back over every technique you're going to need to apply and practice. Re-analyse the results of your MSc, restructure whatever data you have to hand so you can pretend it's from a different type of experimental design and you can run every kind of summary chart, practice repeated measures tests if you used independent groups in the past, and know what to do if you need to run non-parametric tests.

  4. Don't just practice the software work with these bits of revision. Practice the interpretation and get someone else to do the same thing. They don't need to be psychologists, just sit down and walk them through the logic of what you can see and what you've concluded. If you both agree, take it to proper academics for a final review. Trust me, right now I would trade several vital organs for a light-hearted sense of confidence in drawing conclusions from my results.

  5. If you're able to get access to raw data, take apart other people's research and re-analyse it yourself. I wish I'd taken the time to do this rather than just critically reading article after article, assuming I knew what I was doing.

  6. All of the above are aimed at avoiding my current situation - this is the first time in years that I've analysed results and am writing now them up and they're from my own research and it really, really matters that everything is perfect. I feel like I'm learning my craft in the highest-risk situation possible which feels like taking lessons in advanced Japanese while walking a tightrope. One slip...

  7. The pride and excitement of having a PhD place is amazing and you'll probably feel happier than you ever have done before. But pay close attention when the induction is over - how do you feel now? If it's lost, confused and worried, do something about it. Even if that something is accepting that this is not for you.

  8. Rationalise everything. Every decision you take from which paper to download first all the way through to the items you use to design the scales in your experiments - have a reason, write the reason down, rehearse convincing someone that it is a good idea. You will need to do this eventually - for the thesis, for the viva. Better get started early.

  9. Choose something with plenty of literature behind it. I didn't. For the first year or two, there was barely anything written on the uncanny valley. I thought this would be liberating and exciting - it's not, it's exhausting and you will end up with no confidence in any of the choices that you've made because you're making it up as you go along. (See 8.)

  10. This will consume your life. It is not a hobby, don't make that mistake. And definitely don't make it for four years before wising up to the fact that it's serious.

Yours, tired, heart-sick and full of regrets but edging closer to the end of the adventure every day.