Sunday, 25 April 2021

Exploring What a PhD Is Like

Some weeks ago, it was my pleasure, and honour, to be invited to participate as a panellist in the online event Explore What a PhD is Like organised by PhD Social Support Network from Loughborough University. The event aimed to give undergraduate and postgraduate students a summary of Doctoral Researchers’ lives and an idea of what it’s like to do a PhD at Loughborough University.

With so much confusing and contradictory information out there, it becomes a bit difficult to have a good understanding of many things before embarking on doing a PhD. So I decided to write down my answers for those of you who could not attend the event and are interested in doing a PhD. Because we were four panellists, I just answered some questions, but in this post, I share my answers to all questions, which mainly depend on my personal circumstances and experiences at Loughborough University — And I do hope to help clear some things up. In case that you have any other questions, please let me know in the comment section.

Funding

Do you always get paid when doing a PhD?

Not always, but you can get paid by external institutions or companies interested in your project, although it can sometimes be a bit difficult, many researchers do their PhD this way. Moreover, there are some projects — fully funded by universities — that are just waiting for the prospective student to apply for.  You can have a look at Loughborough university’s website to see if one of them is of your interest; here some links that may be useful.

PhD opportunities | Postgraduate study | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)

PhD Studentships | Postgraduate study | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)

Scholarships | British Council

 

What are the different funding options for a PhD?

As far as I know, there are two options:

  • To be sponsored by a company interested in the project, by your Government, or by other external institutions.
  • Self-funding. Also, you can get a scholarship and pay less. Indeed, it’s a good option, but keep in mind that you might have to pay other expenses such as accommodation, flight tickets, etc.

With the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, some new rules are put into place that could create more opportunities for students, especially for international students.

How does it work in terms of visa for international students?

In the first place, I suggest that you must only apply for a student visa after getting the CAS document from the university, which is the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies. I think it's the main document for the process of getting the visa — Without it, your UK visa application may take longer or fail. 

Note that international students have to meet minimum English language requirements (either IELTS or Cambridge CAE); it's a mandatory requirement if you are a non-native English speaker.  Some schools may require higher levels of English language. For further information, you can check out this: English language requirements | International | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)

Also, be aware of your English certificate expiration date; IELTS certificates are valid for two years only, so once you pass your exam you'd better apply for your PhD before your certificate expires; otherwise, you might need to take the EILTS exam again. 

One important thing to consider is that if you have an English taught degree such as undergraduate or master's in English speaking country then you are waived to do IELTS.

Supervisors/Support

What is the role of a supervisor?

It is basically to supervise the project with respect to long-term goals and to guide you through your whole PhD journey. Although you are expected to be at the forefront of your research, your supervisor plays a vital role in the success of your PhD; so having a committed supervisor could make a huge difference. Bear in mind that PhD researchers are not like normal students any more; we are meant to be proactive; it’s our research and we have to take care of it. Having the right supervisor will make you in a better position to have successful research.

I think most supervisors are happy when you bombard them with questions, which mean you show interest in your research; however, we have to make concise questions. And read more than you asked to do so.

How often do you meet with your supervisory team?

During some time, you could start meeting once a week, and then once a month, or twice a month, it is always changing. In my case, we meet mostly once a week for now, but it could vary depending on your project and your supervisor’s availability. I would not worry too much about it because I am almost sure that you will meet your supervisor as much as it is needed. Your supervisor will tell you what is best, but you are also free to ask your supervisor to meet more frequently if you could not understand some things or just need to ask something important.  

How do you manage your supervisor?

We work as a team. If you have some additional questions then you are free to ask your supervisor via email for extra meetings. Also, it is absolutely vital to cultivate a good relationship with your supervisor, not only for the sake of your research but also for your mental health. So I am convinced that having good communication with our supervisor will make our PhD journey much more enjoyable.

What support is there for your mental health?

I'm aware that doing PhD research could sometimes become quite disquieting even at the best of times, and the situation can be bloody hectic; so if, at some point, you feel your life is out of control or you are lost then try to meditate and seek help for mental health in university and friends. Loughborough University also offers student mental health support in different ways, here are some useful links you can check out.

Mental Health Support Team | Student Wellbeing and Inclusivity | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)

Loughborough | Postgraduate study | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)

Loughborough Students' Union | Postgraduate study | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)


I also recommend that you get involved in social activities which will help you break out of stressful situations. Try to meditate and feel at peace, whatever happens, take care of your daily mental activity. For health reasons, don’t make your PhD study the center of your life; don’t let your PhD study drive you bloody mad. Life is much more than doing a PhD.

The PhD project itself

Do you have to do a PhD in the same field as your undergraduate or master’s degree?

No. You can change it. But it’s highly recommendable that one can continue studies based on previous work. For example, I did a master’s dissertation in cryptography (Computer Science), and then I decided to do my PhD research in cryptography, which is basically a continuation of my dissertation’s topic. And the supervisor is also the same. So, I saved a lot of time because I did not have to start from scratch.

Can you do a PhD part-time?

Yes, you can. But it will take twice the time. In the UK, it takes 3 years to do a full-time PhD and 6 years a part-time PhD. You can read more about it here Types of research degrees | Postgraduate study | Loughborough University (lboro.ac.uk)

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

As said before, I don’t make my PhD research the center of my life; improving my lifestyle every day is of greater importance, and my PhD research is just a little important part of my whole life. In this sense, I am conscious that if I get my priorities right in terms of mental and physical health, the rest is of secondary importance. Having said that, a typical day at work is based on these criteria; I usually kick off the day by working out, eating healthy food, and then work first on things that may be more difficult, then I spend some time on complementary things. As simple as that. 

As with most things in life, there will be some ups and downs, it's just normal. Just keep going, doing a PhD is a long journey, enjoying the journey and having fun in the process are the secrets to succeed in accomplishing your research's goals; it is all that matters. Some days you just work a lot, other days you do not feel like studying, don’t panic, carry on with your life, do other things, get involved in other activities; for example, try to practise some sports or meditation to unwind and then move on with your research. Don’t beat yourself up for having some weekends off instead of studying.

To me, doing a PhD is just that, one reason to spark my imagination and go beyond my limits; it contributes to my happiness; it is meant to set me free. It does not demand perfection, but my attitude is all that matters to determine what I'm capable of achieving; like everything else, it requires a lot of flexibility and to adapt quickly to different situations. It does not feel like work; it is just a lot of fun; it a feast for the senses. 

What are your best tips on work/life balance?

Once again, you are not compelled to study every day, there are some days you just don’t want to do anything, that’s all right, don’t feel guilty. As we do our research, we may start feeling like we are living a monotonous life; every day may be predictable; the same routine; it can even get to the point where we don't have any motivation left to do anything important with our lives; so hard that it may take all the fun out of learning; everything may seem like an uphill battle. All these things happen when we don't balance our PhD journey with other important activities. 

So I suggest that you don’t make your PhD study the center of your life, your whole world is much more than a PhD. Don’t stop your life because of a PhD; your PhD study must just be another reason to be a bit happier, but not the main reason.

What also matters, is what you do with the rest of your time when you are not studying, because this will help you balance a full-time PhD with other important activities to create an engine of continuous growth and progress in many directions; which in turn will make you feel more satisfied with your life. Otherwise, you might get an overall sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the day, which is damaging in the long run.

Although I do love my research, I know it could become hell because of tiredness. We could even regret doing a PhD because we just got so tired and overwhelmed — it can get to the point where we just want to quit — That’s why at some point during each day, I stop and then I carry on with other activities before going back with new ideas to my PhD research. This is how I keep a well-balanced life, which gives me a great sense of achievement and helps me stay committed. 

Perhaps my best tips to get a well-balanced life are:

  • Kick-off your day by working out, at least, 30 minutes every day or every other day. It will get you prepared for the whole day, you will be energetic and a bit happier. Believe me, not only will it keep you going, but also it will make your daily train of thoughts more positive.  
  • Try to eat healthy food. Drink enough water. What you eat boosts your performance.
  • Do some meditation, at least every other day. Remember, as within so without. It will rid you of negative vibes.
  • Then, organise your day. First, work on your research, start doing the most difficult things. Try to savour it, be happy while researching.
  • Don’t lose focus. If you get tired then carry on with other social activities, or just go for a walk, take a rest. You are at the wheel.
  • Sleep well. At least, 8 hours. Turn off all electronic devices — And go within.

What are the best and worst things about your PhD?

BEST

  • It allows me to explore unknown worlds, it broadens my horizons.
  • It sparks my imagination.
  • It gives me the golden opportunity to re-imagine my world.
  • It gives me new career opportunities.
  • It allows me to challenge myself every day. Keep in mind that if it does not challenge you, it won't change you. So, I chose to do a PhD in a topic that not only does it challenge me, but also I do love it.
WORST
  • Having to live so far away from my family
  • The cost of living in the UK is high. Tuitions’ fees are also high, especially for international students. 

What has your biggest achievement been so far?

Being a bit happier because I am doing my PhD for fun.

Can you do a placement during your PhD?

Yes, I think it is possible, but unfortunately, I don’t have much information about it.

Can you work alongside your PhD?

Yes, you can. Your student visa allows you to work 20 hours a week, but if you want to work more hours then you need to get UK work visa. It is easier if a company sponsors you — especially if you are an international student.

Have you done any teaching during your PhD?

No. I am quite interested in doing so in the future, but not for now.

Did you get involved in any societies or clubs during your PhD?

Yes, it’s a lot of fun, it gives you a great sense of togetherness. I encourage you to do so.  

PhD Progression

What are your best tips on writing the thesis? How do you approach the writer’s block?

In particular, I just write when I feel inspired. When I start writing, I make my first draft, almost immediately, I do the first proofreading. Then I leave it for one or two days before coming back to fix or add some ideas; sometimes I may consider removing whole paragraphs and re-writing some parts and adding other ideas. Even best writers do that, they don’t expect to make their first draft the final version; writing is an art; it takes time to master it. So I could have four or five drafts before making up the final version; that's why I work hard to finish my reports some weeks before the deadline so that I can have enough time to polish them. 

Some tips may be:

  • Focus on learning good English grammar to improve your writing skills including punctuation and what to avoid when writing (avoid slangs, idioms, etc).
  • Learn how to write clearly and concisely.
  • Having a good writing style will make a significant difference. Your thesis will look more professional and academic.
  • Write when you are inspired. Best ideas just come up when we are inspired; feel the passion when you write.
  • Find your best time and place to write.
  • Depending on your research you may consider writing a bit every week as not to miss minute details; however, your research could change over time and morph into a very different project from what you started.·

Is there a minimum number of published papers required to pass?

No. It is not compulsory to have papers published to pass. You just have to write your thesis. However, you could end up writing one or two papers; you may work on that voluntarily; you don’t have to feel compelled to do it, but I see that most PhD researchers are more than happy to write papers while doing their research. So, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you write papers. After all, if you stayed in academia then writing papers would be the new normal; in this sense, it is a golden opportunity to get started already. It entirely depends on you.

Do you have to stay in academia after a PhD?

No. You can get a job in the industry, but once you have done your PhD you might change your mind; I would not worry much about it; you will figure it out while doing your PhD. Some people just do a PhD to get involved in academia because they got tired of working in the industry and want to change their career, while others do the opposite. Alternatively, you can also write books, go independent, create your company. There are many options out there. Also, some people do a PhD just for fun and they don’t want to stay in academia nor get a job in the industry, so they start travelling the world, get married, have children. It all depends on why you choose to do a PhD — It’s all up to you.

That’s all for now. Thank you so much again for reading this post!

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