By three methods we might learn wisdom: first by reflection, which is noblest; second by imitation, which is easiest; third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
Like most research groups, ours comprises an ever-changing cast of early, mid and senior career researchers. Our training is in a variety of academic disciplines and we all have different short, medium and long term life and career aspirations. While our experiences of public health research are naturally individual, we have noticed some commonalities. We share these here to provide reassurance to those new to the game that whatever they’re feeling is almost certainly ‘normal’. Challenging experiences are often interpreted negatively, particularly when they are first met. We propose that they can often be reassessed and reframed in ways that make them positive parts of a continuous learning and career development journey. Other people might have different experiences, this is ours…
1. Research is challenging but you’ve got this
Research is certainly challenging. One of the first hurdles of the PhD will be trying to figure out how your research will contribute new knowledge to the area – this is one of the toughest challenges! Stick with it, because thankfully it does get a bit easier over time as you immerse yourself in the research and build your specialist knowledge. But even the most accomplished still find research hard. All the papers you read are from months (often years) of thinking, hard work, and negotiating multiple barriers – it doesn’t happen overnight. As a PhD student, you have the additional challenge of trying to do this in a short time frame, and it doesn’t always go to plan (which is usually out of your control). But, if good research was easy, anyone could do it.
An obvious interpretation of experiencing something as being difficult is to think that we, as individuals, are not up to it. The cycle of creativity suggests, rather glibly, that all projects are associated with a thought cycle that goes something like: this is awesome, this is difficult, this is terrible, I am terrible, this might be okay, this is awesome. We are not sure that we routinely experience the second ‘this is awesome’ stage. But push through because the ‘this might be okay’ stage always comes.
If you have been selected to pursue the PhD, your supervisors think that you are capable. You wouldn’t be on this journey if there were any real doubts about your ability. Encountering difficulties and making mistakes is normal and expected. Even those researchers you admire the most have moments of self-doubt, numerous journal and grant rejections and bad days when nothing goes right.
2. Comparison can be the thief of joy
Academic research is often experienced as highly competitive. In many ways it is. There is competition for limited research, studentship and fellowship funding; limited space in ‘prestigious’ journals; and limited podium time at conferences. This leads to the tendency to continuously compare your own work, and yourself, to others – and to experience a feeling of falling short.
It’s worth pointing out the selection bias present in the successes others share, and how most of the time we’re not seeing the full picture. Despite knowing this, we understand it is sometimes hard to see everyone else seemingly thriving, while you feel you’re just about surviving! Keep in mind that everyone’s PhD is different, and our successes will run to different timelines. And remember, you bring to your PhD your own unique skills and experiences. We’re confident that others are comparing themselves to you, too…
However, rather than continuously comparing yourself to others, we recommend trying to learn from them. If others appear to be succeeding where we are not, what, if anything, can we learn from their approach? Sometimes this will lead to the conclusion that there are better ways of doing things. Other times it might lead to the conclusion that the sacrifices required to achieve a particular outcome are not something we as individuals are willing to make. Or, indeed, that the outcome is not something we want.
We suggest being clear about what our own success criteria are and trying to stick to judging ourselves by those alone. These criteria can be set alone or with others in the context of formal or informal regular appraisals and personal review. At the risk of getting too SMART*-arsed, they should, at a minimum, be realistic.
Rather than interpreting others’ achievements as indicators of our own lack of success, we propose embracing and celebrating them. Informal and formal research group meetings achieve many things, but we see the sense of community that they build amongst ourselves as one of the most important. By embracing each other’s achievements we can support and build each other up, rather than letting comparison get us down.
3. Research is a team sport and you’re the boss
Completing a PhD might be seen as a lonely, individual pursuit. But while the end result is your own, you aren’t alone on the journey. In fact, research is a team sport.
Your home team is the one you share with your supervisor(s), and you’ll revel in the highs (and lows) of your PhD experience together. In this team you’re the captain. Lead from the front and manage your supervisors by communicating clearly with them, arranging supervision meetings and keeping them up to speed with your progress. As the captain, you make the final decisions related to your research and you are responsible for defending them. If you don’t agree with your supervisor then you should say so, and explain why. Your supervisor doesn’t want you to nod along, as the idea is to learn from each other and make better research (i.e. win) as a team. This can often feel really hard, especially early on while they’re still the experts, but they expect you to take the lead.
In other teams to which you’ll belong, you might play a different role but still make an impact. For example, you might run a writing group, attend group meetings or present in a seminar series; these are all important aspects of teamwork and becoming a valued member of the research community. You are also a member of teams that are less obvious. You probably aren’t sure now how the Facilities or IT department are going to help you achieve your PhD, but when you need a new chair or an obscure software package installed, be glad that you have them as teammates.
In part 2: learning how not to take things personally, life isn’t all about the PhD, bad things may happen that are not okay, and enjoying every step of the journey.
Authors: Catrin Penn-Jones, David Ogilvie, David Pell, Dolly Theis, Emma Lawlor, Hannah Forde, Jean Adams, Jenna Panter, John Rahilly, Kate Ellis, Martin White, Matt Keeble, Nina Rogers, Rich Patterson, Roxanne Armstrong-Moore, Tom Burgoine, Yuru Huang
*SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related