Being a research student -- some general advice

General remarks about doing a PhD

A PhD is not primarily an intellectual exercise (although obviously intelligence is required); patience, perseverance, and remaining focused, are most important.

One of the things you don't think of at the start of it is that you're expected to be interested in one fairly specific topic for about 3 years. It's easy to wander off-topic!

Looking back, it is clear that a PhD is actually a small concise piece of research that should have only one idea in it. Much of the effort behind mine went into combining two ideas into one, so that it wouldn't look bitty.


On isolation as a research student

I remember from my time as a PhD student that I felt there was no-one I could discuss my work with in depth (I was doing what was then an obscure topic at a small university); and now a friend currently doing her PhD has mentioned the same effect, which has reminded me to make some notes about it.

A PhD is naturally a very narrow piece of research inherently on a very specific topic, and so it is quite normal that no-one else will be researching exactly the same thing. However, all but the least experienced PhD supervisors should have enough general feeling for research to be at least a wooden indian or even a rubber plant for explaining ideas to in the hope of clarifying them while doing so -- in fact they should be able to do a lot more than that, and yet they don't always seem that willing, and would much rather do othe rparts of their job, even if those are much less interesting (but perhaps somehow higher-regarded, such as sitting on committees).

Discussing your work in depth with peers somehow doesn't always quite feel right (unless they're on a very similar topic), perhaps as though it's an admission of failure of independence in a way that discussions with a supervisor aren't.

Some strong advice

Don't try to complete or write-up a thesis while doing a job, like I did. It really wants your full attention (as does the job). You will suffer if you try it. I know, I did. It took me about 18 months to realize I'd really finished, after it was all done.

Some particular points

Find someone to discuss things with
Your official supervisor may not be the most knowledgeable person with whom to discuss your specialized topic -- find other people researching in your area (perhaps via the Internet) and share ideas with them.
Wander around outdoors thinking about things a lot.
This is much more productive than trying to think in the lab.

[PhD] [Research]
John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Mon Jan 29 18:16:51 GMT Standard Time 2007