Ten Things I Wish I Knew Dissertation

Taking a PhD is about defining yourself as an independent researcher, becoming a field expert and evolving as a person. A journey, with lots of pitfalls and setbacks, sometimes exciting and pleasant, sometimes exhausting and seemly impossible, mostly unplanned and completely unknown beforehand, but hopefully bringing you to the right place at the right time (that is your defense). At least, this is what my PhD was like. Below, I have written down ten things that I have learned mostly by trying and failing and then doing the opposite and nailing it. I hope some of these tips will be useful to the PhD students out there and perhaps make their journeys a little bit more straightforward.

  • Taking a PhD is not the same as being a student

    Getting a PhD is not about learning, but about finding things out on your own. Therefore, it does not really help to take any courses, even the mandatory ones (apart from just getting them off your requirements list). There are also no curriculum and no final exam. And most importantly, every minute counts, so spend it by doing actual research.

  • Prepare to fail a lot and even to fail completely

    Good conferences have acceptance rates below 20%, which means that your paper is very likely to be rejected. Perhaps with a harsh criticism from an arrogant reviewer who thinks he is clever and funny. But hey, that is his job and a paper does not define you as a person anyway. So be thankful, use the feedback for improvement, resubmit, learn from it and move on.

    There is also a risk that your idea turns out not being novel or your experiments will show no advantage over the baseline. This happens a lot, but instead of losing it – learn from this, try to think of more contributions to convince the reader (that is the reviewer) that you work is worth knowing.

    Finally, you may fail completely – get bored, do a startup, run out of time, or a hundred of other things. This happens a lot and so it may to happen to you. Accept the possibility but know that focus and dedication will get you to the finish line.

  • Start publishing and going to conferences early

    It is funny, but for most PhD’s the number of papers per year seems to grow exponentially. This means that you can easily double the number of papers by publishing your first paper one year earlier. Well, the catch is that your first paper will most likely be rejected. Nevertheless, in the worst case you will learn something from this, and in the best case you will go somewhere exotic, warm and nice, get some drinks and have some fun.

  • Find the conferences you want to go to and read the best papers from the past two or three years …, and copy that

    Firstly, I am not talking about plagiarism – that will not get you anywhere good. Nevertheless, most of quality papers from the same conferences turn out being shockingly similar in their writing style, structure, terminology, methodology, data sets, etc. Copying that will get you quite far – if it looks like a good paper and sounds like a good paper, it must be a good paper!

    Secondly, this will give you some understanding of what is the interest area of the conference, what is hot and what you can try to improve, and of course what makes a paper really good.

    Finally, it is just so much more convenient to read a well-written related work section instead of digging up all scrap from the last ten years in the research field.

  • Success is 30% novelty, 30% presentation and 30% luck

    You do not need a brilliant idea nor solve all the problems at once. However, you must show that your contributions are new and significant in one way or another, submit before the deadline, cross your fingers and start working on the next thing.

    Moreover, novelty is so important that some of the researchers I know have spent a lot of time looking for problems with a minimum or no previous work, and then writing a paper focusing on the novelty of the problem instead of the complexity of the solution. The biggest win of this approach is that in the next few years other researchers will use this work as a seemly naive baseline and therefore generate tons of citations.

  • Minimize all programming, backup daily, and use version control, unit tests, checkstyle/findbugs/etc.

    Writing the most advanced code ever will not get you anywhere and only take the precious time from achieving your actual goal. However, it also sucks having to redo all your experiments due to a bug or not being able to remember when this or that part was added/changed and why.

    The best approach to research is actually this. First, find the conference you want to submit to – this will give you a deadline, the number of pages, etc. Then, find what would be a suitable idea and plan the evaluation. The best researchers I know will also write the whole paper apart from the experimental results at this point. Only then, implement the whole framework and do the experiments.

    Of course, as mentioned in the point two, your method may not beat the baseline. In that case, find out why it does not work, tackle that issue and add this to your contribution list. Lather, rinse and repeat…

    A version control system such as Git is a great tool for organizing your work (including your writing) and tracking your progress. With good commit messages you will able to find when any given part has been changed or what you did on any given day, in addition to keeping all possible versions of your work backed-up and neatly organized. Unit tests and code analysis tools will allow you to modify any part of your code without worrying about a newly introduced bug, thus keeping you more focused towards the deadline.

    Documenting your code and making it reusable as much as you can will speed-up your future work. However, it is also a highly time consuming task, thus you need to find the right balance. Consider also uploading your code to GitHub, thus letting others to learn and reuse.

    Finally, log everything you can from every experiment, not just the very minimum you wanted to present, because this will give you a future opportunity to extend your work without having to redo all the experiments.

  • Collaborate and go abroad early

    I know the feeling: your supervisor is too busy, none of your family members and friends understands your work, all reviewers are against you, it takes a hell lot of time to publish a paper and none of your ideas seem to work. So what to do?

    – Collaborate! Talk to your fellows, even if they are working in completely different fields. Go to their presentations, get them into some kind of discussion, even if they look very annoyed and ask you to leave – oddly enough, this may result in a great paper! Find another institution that is doing great in your field and go there even without a pay. Find mentors, work with them and learn, and ask for more work after you get back!

  • Become a reviewer

    As mentioned before, publishing a paper is primarily about convincing the reviewers that your work is great. For that you need to understand what makes a paper great, and the best approach for that is obviously reviewing other people’s papers.

    Of course, you can review any paper you find, but being a reviewer at a conference has a nice bonus – that is access to the not yet published work, which means you will know what are the topics the researchers out there are working on right now. And even better, you can help them to improve their work, which will bring you a great amount of professional satisfaction and self-realization.

  • Keep calm and carry on

    You time is limited, most of the PhD programs are over three years – that is more than a thousand days even subtracted vacations and days off. So in the beginning it sounds like an infinite amount of time, but suddenly you find out that a half of that time has gone and you haven’t gotten anywhere. You slip into a state where you cannot think about work when you are there and you cannot think about anything else but work when doing anything else…

    – Ok, think this: Eventually it will work out. If not, there will be something else. One way or another, in five years from now you will be in a completely different state and none of this will matter at all. In fact, you will look back and remember only the best parts – that is the exotic places, banquets and drinks.

    For now, just focus on the small things – writing a good paragraph, finding a clever way to present a result, typing another block of code, running another experiment, enjoying the paper you read, etc. Whatever you do right now – focus only on this, and afterwards leave your work at the office.

  • Enjoy your spare time, meet new people and friends

    Most PhD students struggle with loneliness. In fact, it is the greatest challenge you will encounter and the exact thing that turns your brain into a stressed monkey. So join a Judo club – some of those guys may become your best friends forever, and getting smashed against a mat for an hour and a half will surely keep you away from overestimating the importance of your research troubles. In fact, any other sport will do.

    Go out, meet a friend, have a drink and enjoy being single and young (that is the loud music and the smell of perfume and sweat). And surely talk to that beautiful girl that looks like Scarlet Johansson – little do you know, a few years later she will be your wife, and you will be sitting there 4 AM in the morning glued to an attention sick little baby that for some odd reason does not want to sleep, so tired that all the all–nighters and deadlines you pulled through your PhD sound like eight hours of the good old sleep. Or maybe not at all – she will just roll her eyes and leave, but take a chance anyway!

  • Today's post comes from Dr Juliet Wakefield, a post-doctoral research in Social Psychology at the University of Dundee.  She completed her PhD in 2011 (also at the University of Dundee) - her thesis examined the social psychology of help-seeking and help-receiving.  Juliet has kindly agreed to write a piece for this blog about the things she wishes she had known before she started her PhD.  I think this is a must read for anyone doing or thinking about a PhD, Masters or even undergraduate dissertation.

    The first thing to mention is that, obviously, no two PhD journeys are the same.  My specific experience of doing a Social Psychology PhD at a Scottish university (and the things I learned during that experience) are likely to be very different to somebody doing a PhD in a different discipline or at a different institution.  However, I have tried to cover quite general issues in the list below, so I hope that at least some of the five points will be relevant to most PhD students.  With that in mind, let's start the list.

    1.  It doesn't have to be perfect

    During my PhD I always had this image in my head that my thesis was going to be the best and most perfect thing I would ever do - that all my experiments had to be designed perfectly, that my methodology and statistical techniques had to be selected with flawless logic and that even the tiniest typo could not be toleratedIn reality, this image is very far from the truth, and the sooner you accept that, the calmer you will feel.

    The whole point of a PhD is that the process is a training exercise: a rather intense 3-4 year period in which you learn and develop in many different ways.  So just as a first year undergraduate's thinking and writing is expected to evolve and improve over the course of a degree, so a postgraduate is expected to show evidence of learning and development over the course of a PhD.

    This is a rather long-winded way of reaching a simple point: your PhD does not have to be perfect.  In fact, it's often better to show you can readily identify your mistakes, acknowledge them and ultimately learn from them.  For instance, some of my early experiments had some definite design weaknesses, which stressed me out greatly.  However, over time, I learned not to focus on these weaknesses,  Instead, I acknowledged them in the experiment's Discussion, and explored how I could develop my next experiment in a way that would address these weaknesses.  This meant that I could keep myself calm whilst showing my advances in thinking and reasoning - a double bonus.  Let go of the concept of perfecting during your PhD and you will almost certainly see your stress levels decline.

    2.  A minimum of one major thing will happen in your personal life during your PhD

    You may have heard this before, but it does seem to be a scarily accurate prediction: the majority of people I know have experienced at least one major event (positive and/or negative) during their PhD.  You may have heard of the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which rates (out of 100) the extent to which each of a number of important events (such as bereavement or marriage) impacts upon our lives.  

    However when you are already facing the challenges of a PhD, even pretty 'minor' events, such as a change is residence (rated 20) or trouble with the in-laws (rated 29) can feel hugely stressful.  This highlights a key issue that all PhD students should think about from day one: the importance of having access to support and help if it is needed.  If you are lucky then you will have a supportive supervisor who will provide you with social/emotional assistance as well as academic guidance, but there are many other sources that you can turn to for help - friends, family, other members of your institution, counsellors, therapists and so on.  

    The key thing I learned here (mainly because it was my PhD topic) is that it's important to identify when you have a problem and to ask for help when you need it.  It's probably one of the best things you can do to help improve your chances of having a positive PhD experience.

    Talking about the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, I was quite surprised to find that completing my PhD scored close to 100 for me.  Finishing your PhD can be a rather traumatic experience (I imagine it is something like watching a child leave home for the first time) and 'Post Thesis Depression' is pretty common - I certainly experienced it.  I'm not writing this to worry you, it just means that it is important to have sources of support available to you at all stages of your PhD, from day one until after your viva.  It will make things so much more manageable if you have at least one person you trust who can share the highs and the lows with you. 

    3. Stop comparing your PhD journey with the journeys of others

    This is not an easy task, but it is important to keep trying.  Like many PhD students, I wasted a lot of time comparing myself with others, and feeling the inevitable guilt that is the product of such comparisons.  When I went home and other students’ office lights were still on, I worried that I wasn’t working hard enough, or that I wasn’t working for long enough.  I worried that I wasn’t reading the right things, or going to the right conferences, or learning the right statistical techniques. While it is important to try to improve yourself and your skills, you should not be motivated by feelings of guilt or inadequacy.  Every person’s PhD journey is different, so comparing the specifics within them usually makes as much sense as comparing apples and oranges.  Focus on trying to become more confident within your own journey, rather than seeking reassurance by comparing yourself with others.

    4. Make the most of opportunities which arise

    Rather than comparing yourself with others, the best way to feel more confident about your PhD journey is to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way.  Go on training courses and attend conferences and workshops (if you have the time and money, of course).  Not only will they widen your skills and your experience, they will allow you to meet new people and see the widely different PhD journeys that exist around the world.  My supervisor encouraged me to start presenting my work at conferences from early on in my PhD, and he also encouraged me to start writing up my research for publication as soon as possible.  Taking advantage of these opportunities has given me more confidence to present my work to others, and has led to me having two journal articles based on my thesis data accepted for publication.  Of course, you should not feel guilty if time or financial constraints mean that pursuing a particular opportunity is not possible, but it is definitely worth trying to take advantage of at least a few.   

    5. You may not see the big picture until late in the day

    My final point encapsulates a few issues.  First, I had quite intense anxiety early in my PhD regarding the sheer scale of the task - I could not comprehend how I was going to be able to write so much.  Seeing the length of other people’s theses (comparing myself with others again) made me almost shiver with dread.  Related to this was a strong sense of not being able to see the wood for the trees: I was reading all these papers and running all these experiments, but I never really got a sense of what the bigger picture was, and how it all added up.  These two concerns were definitely related for me, and did not resolve themselves until quite late in the day. 

    The truth (for me at least) was that it was the process of writing itself, which allowed me to see the big picture of my thesis: how things linked together, how the thread of logic ran through the chapters, and what the overall implications of my work were.  I found that the more I wrote, the better my sense of the bigger picture became, and in turn, the more I could write about that bigger picture.  Suddenly I had a better understanding of what the theory-based chapters that opened my thesis needed to say so that the reader would understand the context and relevance of my own studies.  I had written the Method sections for my experiments as I had run each one (which I would definitely recommend doing), but suddenly I had a better sense of how these different experiments linked together and how to convey their relevance to the reader. Ultimately, writing up your thesis can be frustrating and rewarding in equal measure, but don’t be alarmed if you do not get a good sense of your thesis (and ‘what it all means’) until quite a late stage.

    I hope you found at least some of these tips useful. Doing a PhD has definitely been the best experience of my life so far, but like any experience, it takes time to find your feet and work out the best way to deal with the challenges and issues that will inevitably arise during this intense process. It is better to think of a PhD as a marathon rather than a sprint: you need to look at ways to increase your strength and your stamina, so that you still have the resources to allow you to pick yourself up and get back on track if (or, more likely, when) you fall over. Anyway, all that is left to say is best wishes and good luck, and that you will deserve a massive party once it is all done!


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