10 Things I Learnt Doing a PhD

I completed my MEd degree with The Open University in 2010. After it finished, I felt a bit lost; it was the culmination of seven years’ study with the OU as both undergraduate and postgraduate. I knew I wanted to do something else, but I didn’t know what. That’s where the PhD came in, that day in 2013 when someone said to me “you need to do a PhD”. In January 2014, I started my part-time studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. After 18 months, an unexpected move to the Royal College of Music set me on course for the remaining years. I submitted my thesis in June 2019 and completed the corrections, and had it official signed off in December 2020. It was a long seven years! I continued with my existing work and teaching throughout, so it would be fair to say that much of the time, I was working full-time and studying part-time.

Now the dust has settled a little, I’ve attended my virtual graduation ceremony, and I have the certificate in my possession, I wanted to share something of what I learnt over those seven years, in the hope that my experiences might help others embarking on that exciting, but slightly terrifying PhD journey.

1. Set your own goals and deadlines

If, like most, you’ve come through the undergraduate-postgraduate progression to a PhD, then you’ll have been used to fairly clear deadlines. Modules began and ended at certain times; they had a certain number of assignments and/or exams; and everything had very clear timeframes and deadlines. If that’s your experience, then I think a PhD can come as a bit of a shock. It has a beginning, and it has an expected submission date (depending on whether you’re studying part-time or full-time). What comes between those is largely self-defined. There are often milestones along the way such as the ‘upgrade’ (or in my case, ‘transfer exam’) where you move from MPhil/PhD to full PhD status. Sometimes there are end-of-year reviews and similar to be completed too. Beyond that, I think it’s easy to feel a bit at sea. I drifted my way through fairly haphazardly, but in retrospect, what seemed an insurmountable task (80,000-100,000 words of original research) could have been broken down into much smaller chunks, with short-term aims and goals.

2. Know where you stand

Research degree students inhabit a rather strange ‘no-man’s land’. Yes, you’re a student, but you’re not necessarily a student in the traditional sense of the word. Equally, you’re not staff either. It’s a tricky area to navigate. That means I think you need to be especially careful when it comes to expectations. What are your institution’s expectations of you? But perhaps more importantly, what can you expect from them? Research degrees, by their vary nature, don’t have the clear framework that undergraduate and postgraduate degrees have, so this can make for a somewhat woolly understanding of expectations. There may be times when you need to stand your ground, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that. There are expectations on both sides to be met, and let’s face it, a research degree isn’t cheap!

3. Just get writing

This is something which I’m sure we’re all familiar with anyway. I often tell my teaching diploma candidates the same. The hardest thing when you need to write something is getting started. In my case 80,000-100,000 words sounds a lot. Our instinct is to kind of ignore that fact, but reality is, no matter how many tables, figures, pages of notes and outlines you draw up, none of these are a substitute for actually getting writing. I wish I’d started writing earlier. I think I was misguided in thinking I needed to finish the whole process of research and analysis before committing pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

A pile of PhD books

4. The PhD topic isn’t that important

OK, so this is a bit ‘tongue-in-cheek’, but it was something which became apparent as time went on. Of course, you need to choose a research topic which interests you and which obviously meets the requirements for a PhD. When I started my PhD journey, it was because that topic interested me and I wanted to find out more about that research area. By the end of the journey, I’d probably say that what I’d learnt about doing research, and indeed, what I’d learnt about myself, probably eclipsed my interest in the topic itself. Others may disagree with that, but that was certainly my experience. Even now, nine months on from having those corrections signed off, I think of my PhD experience in terms of what I learnt about research, more than what I learnt about the research topic itself.

5. It will never be perfect and it will never be finished

Yes, I am a terrible perfectionist, although I’d like to think I’ve got a bit better over the years. One of the things I learnt throughout my seven years was that whatever you produce will never be perfect, and perhaps more importantly, it will never be finished. Someone told me that’s the “fun” of research! It can be disconcerting though, especially when you might be used to studying within a fairly rigid framework. There will always be alternative approaches, and whatever you produce at the end of it will always be riddled with thoughts of “I wish I’d done…”, but I think that’s OK. It took me a long time to accept that fact, but it also taught me about the way in which research is fluid, that there’s always more to do and more to find out. Someone told me “you need to leave something for others to find out”.

6. Keep your PhD manageable

When I was thinking about my research approach and methodology, I found it quite hard to decide what might be manageable within the timeframe. Our instinct is do as much as possible; to cover as many bases as possible. The reality is that a PhD is both time-limited and word-limited. Retrospect is a wonderful thing! In retrospect, I tried to cover too much. I collected far more data than I’d ever have been able to analyse. My survey had probably triple the number of questions I needed to ask, and that made aspects of the analysis unmanageable within the scope of the PhD. Perhaps some of this comes with confidence? Confidence in quality, not necessarily quantity?

My PhD contents page

7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I think there is an assumption that research students know everything. They know what certain things mean and they know how to undertake certain tasks. They know what conferences are and where they take place, and they know literally everyone in their chosen research field. Of course, that’s not true at all because each student comes to a PhD from very different standpoints and experiences. But even then, I think it can be hard to ask for help. It can be hard to admit that actually you don’t know ‘X’, ‘Y’ and ‘Z’. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to ask for things to be explained. I probably wish I’d done this more at the start, rather than reaching the viva, still not quite sure what certain terms meant!

8. Factor in extra costs

In part, this is dependent on your funding situation as a PhD student. I was self-funded, except for a small bursary in the 3rd and 4th years which contributed towards the tuition fees. Whether you’re funding your study yourself, or you have funding, there are likely to be additional costs which you have to factor in. For me in particular, it was books. Few institution libraries are likely to have all the books you need, and let’s face it, academic books are notoriously expensive! I got quite savvy at acquiring books second-hand during those seven years. It’s also worth factoring in travel costs, and in some cases accommodation. Attendance at conferences and other events can result in further costs. It’s worth bearing in mind that the tuition fees themselves are, shall we say, a starting point.

9. You don’t know everything (but nor does anyone else)

As a research student, you don’t have all the answers. You never will, and that’s OK. It’s worth remembering that your supervisors won’t have all the answers too. In fact, even the most eminent of academics in your field probably won’t have all the answers. That’s OK too because in many ways, that’s the nature of research. Research is always developing and evolving. I don’t think it’s about having all the answers, but it’s being willing to interrogate your data, the data of others, your bias and the bias of others. I learnt a lot about my own bias in the course of doing my PhD.

10. Your health and well-being will always be more important than your PhD

OK, so this is a big one for me, but wherever you are on your PhD journey, your health and well-being will always be the most important thing. Don’t let anyone else convince you otherwise. Without health and without a sense of wellness, there would be no PhD anyway. That doesn’t mean there won’t be times when it’s overwhelming and when it all feels like a lost cause, but there are times when you have to pause, take a step back, and look after yourself. There’s no shame in admitting you’re struggling. Perhaps by this level, it’s not just struggles with the study itself, but in your wider life too. Life gets in the way sometimes, and that’s only natural. It’s a shame that in some cases, the support available at this level is somewhat patchier than for younger, less-life-experienced students, but nevertheless, help should always be available.

My PhD is freely available to download in PDF format from the RCM website here.

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