Ok, so you have been accepted to do a PhD and your funding is in place but now you actually have to do the qualification! These tips should help you make the best of your PhD years and come out with a top class qualification at the end of it. (Advice on how to cope with your PhD viva will appear in another set of top ten tips).
1. Talk to your supervisor
2. Stay focussed
3. Start with a plan
4. Be flexible
5. Stay sane while researching
6. Set yourself achievable deadlines
7. Stick to your achievable deadlines!
8. Know when to stop
9. Choose tough but friendly examiners
10. Think about the next step
Hopefully you will have met or at least corresponded with your supervisor before your arrival, but now get into a routine of meeting up regularly to discuss your topic. Supervisors vary, but try to agree to meet at least once a month. He or she will be able to help you get started on your research
In the early stages when there is no immediate deadline looming it is easy to allow ‘life' to take over and for your PhD project to be forgotten. Make sure you set aside regular slots to work on your PhD, something every day if that is feasible, or a certain number of hours a week.
Although you won't be able to predict the findings of your research in its early stages you will have some idea of how you want the finished thesis to look. Put together a chapter-by-chapter outline and check this with your supervisor. Bear in mind that, if you pursue an academic career, you may want to publish your thesis as a monograph, so think about whether it would make a good book and if not how you might improve it.
Once you have made your plan, be prepared to remould it (and in some cases discard it altogether!). Sometimes your findings will take you in a completely different direction to the one you anticipated. If your supervisor agrees, then allow this new approach to come to fruition. There is no need to stick rigidly to a plan you wrote on ‘day one' of your PhD.
Whether you are stuck in a lab for ten hours a day, or away from home researching in a dusty old library somewhere, research can at times be both tedious and thrilling. You will be doing a lot of it to carry out your project, so if you cannot bear investigating your topic then it is time for a change in approach. Keep on assessing your research questions, checking you are collecting information useful to you. Also make sure you have an efficient way of recording and measuring this information; when it comes to writing up you will need to use this data every day.
Early on in your PhD plan how you will spend your three years (many universities allow a little over three years, but funding bodies are stricter and will often not finance you for longer than that). Do you, for example, need to go abroad to do some research? If so, then figure that into your plan. An obvious division of labour is: year one, finding your feet and doing preliminary secondary research; year two doing your own research; year three writing up. However, this rigid programme will not work for everyone, so plan your time carefully.
Do not allow yourself to get behind in your research and writing up schedule. Self-defined deadlines are the hardest to keep because we think that we can change them as easily as we set them. However, if you start falling behind, you will find that your university enforces on you a final submission deadline that is hard to meet, and your PhD may have to be submitted far from its ideal state.
When you get near the end of writing up, you will start revising your work for final submission. This can be exciting as you will see how far your thinking has progressed in the course of your PhD. However, it can also be very daunting and candidates can find it hard to know when to stop revising and simply submit their work. Take advice from your supervisor – they will advise you of whether the risk of the occasional punctuation error is worth taking.
Your supervisor will help you pick suitable examiners and will contact them with an invitation to examine your thesis. However, you usually get the final say in this choice. Do not necessarily pick people you know will be ‘soft' on your work, as it is often more rewarding to be challenged by someone who has issues with it. That being said, equally do not choose an academic who is openly unconvinced of your ideas (or those of your supervisor) as you don't want that viva experience to turn into a nightmare.
During the course of your PhD your department may offer you some undergraduate teaching and some career development advice (and if they do not, then you should take the first step and ask for these). You will need to decide if you would like to pursue an academic career, and if so whether research- or teaching-based or both. If not, then start exploring your other options, both with your supervisor and the careers service at your institution
To read tips on doing your PhD viva, please click here.