How to be a PhD student

This is a guest post by Michael Asghar, a post-doc at the University of Nottingham who is currently using high-field fMRI to study changes in somatosensory cortex in hand dystonia. Michael also writes about science in Physics World (https://physicsworld.com/author/michael-asghar/), and dabbles in science-fiction on his blog (https://cowopinion.com/).

Introduction

I did a Physics PhD without a Physics degree. I also flunked A-Level Physics.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

I felt like an imposter every single day of my PhD. Some days it may have lasted a heartbeat; others, an entire meeting. But it’s always been there: nagging me, like a splinter in my brain. I struggled through my Viva, but I passed. I’m still in academia but that doesn’t mean I now feel 18 times smarter – I still feel afraid: afraid that someone will realise how empty my head is.

I’m exaggerating, I know. If you start rationalising, your thoughts will lead to the logical end that you deserve to be here. You obviously know something, since you can do the work that you are set. “Barely”, I hear you scoff: It still counts. Whether you meet your supervisor every week or every few months, they obviously have faith in your abilities; hence why you are still here. The fact that you’re still here implies you’re doing something right, if nothing else. Yes, maybe other people know more than you, but they know less about the exact thing that you’re doing. That’s what your PhD is about: what you do, what you know.

Okay, I get it, the self-help stuff is tacky. Reading a book about happiness isn’t going to make you happy unless you change something in your head. So, here’s what I’m going to do. The following is a list of (lighthearted) tips I have used throughout my PhD to act like a PhD student. (Spoiler alert – pretending to be a PhD student is pretty much the same thing as being an actual PhD student except with some added anxiety.)

Methods

1 DON’T MAKE YOURSELF SICK

Dramatic? Yes. What I’m trying to say is don’t run yourself into the ground. You’re ill? Sleep it off. Unless you’re saving the world, day-to-day, you can afford to take time off. Don’t feel like just being in work is a useful thing to do: I took multiple days off and almost never worked a weekend (the push for a conference deadline happens twice a year).

In my experience, burning yourself out is never worth it. Meeting a deadline is one thing, and if it’s not down to you, then I get it and it sucks.  Working yourself to death to get an output/result/PowerPoint slide done, only to wait weeks for feedback is a situation I’ve been in many, many times. Working diligently paid off for me in the long-term: short bursts of intense work just left scars.

PhD work comes in waves. When you feel a slow-down, then you should roll with it. Take things slow, calm and free up your thoughts. Go play a video game (I suggest Abzu), take a walk, read a Strugatsky novel, anything that isn’t work in the evenings. Don’t worry, because that wave is coming and you’ll wish you had more free time – but if you didn’t take advantage when you had it, you’ll regret it later!

2 BE KIND AND HELPFUL

couple holding hands love people
Photo by Life Of Pix on Pexels.com

This one is obvious for some, less so for others. I am a quiet, calm person (on the outside) and being proactively helpful has always been hard for me, but when my brain is switched on, and I sense an opportunity to suggest my help, I do. Do I actually help that person? 9 times out of 10, not so much, but it’s your behaviour that counts. They most likely just want to bounce ideas off someone: since we’re all tinkering away on tiny, complex problems, it’s hard to explain the question let alone the problem. Being helpful is a win-win for everyone and leads me onto my next tip.

3 ASK FOR HELP

If you’re kind and helpful (see tip 2), it lessens the anxiety to ask that person for help when you’re inevitably stuck, even though most people will help you out regardless (because people are nice).

If you’re struggling, think of it this way: the longer you spend banging your head against the wall on a problem alone, the longer it will take to solve the problem, the more stress you put yourself under because you probably have some sort of time pressure. Ask for help, use their guidance, solve the problem, move on. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re not learning anything – you don’t have to reinvent the wheel if someone else has coded the same thing up already!

4 MAKE (A) FRIEND(S)

six white ceramic mugs
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Ah, friendship. Unlike the good old days in the school playground where you could bond over trading a couple of tattered Pokémon cards, making friends in a PhD office is slightly less trivial. Assuming you’re coming into a PhD alone, one way to bond is to solve a problem together: this is usually instigated by your supervisor saying “Hey, Lee, could you show Michael how to use X software?”. See also tip 3. The more you interact with that one person, the more you’ll integrate into their friend circle/office circle. I made exactly two great friends during my PhD, and now they’re both gone (*cries*) but with them I managed to come out of my shell and speak to other people who I now am much closer to.

Top tip: Take your mate for a random coffee break to the nearest cafe/union shop and just sigh a lot, grumble and vent for a good hour. It will seriously help.

5 YOU SCROLLED TO THE BOTTOM TOO FAST SO HERE IS THE TL;DR – EMBRACE YOUR IMPOSTER-SELF

Dress the part, play the part, be the ball.

boy child clouds kid
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

Do the work that’s given to you, yes, obviously, but see tip 1. But what if you truly feel like you have no idea what’s going on? Bruce Wayne has chucked you (79 year-old spoilers) the cape, cowl and black tights and now you’ve got to go out and fight crime with zero hesitation.

Here’s what you do. First, breathe. Next, the internet. Find those resources (they are out there) that will help you out. One of the greatest websites I used to write my thesis and also sound clever enough to get by was mriquestions.com.

Okay, so now you sound clever, but you’re struggling with doing the actual work (see tip 3). Find a course at your university – I signed up to a MATLAB course during the first 3 months of my PhD since I had zero knowledge of coding. 3 years later and I can write a functions without exploding into flames. Next, try just tagging along with someone. You’ll learn the ropes a lot quicker than poking around yourself. You’ll learn how things work in your office, who to go to for advice, and who to avoid. Become street-smart! (Yes, I cringed too).

man and woman holding battle ropes
Photo by Leon Martinez on Pexels.com

Right, you’ve survived a few weeks now, you’re keeping your head above the water but you still feel like you’re killing time until your supervisor gives you the next thing to do. Other people are working furiously next to you, you’re sat opposite a student who’s already got a Nature paper, everything is definitely not awesome. Sometimes you can think up work for yourself. Prep a poster, code up a simulation, become the office tea-mule, anything. Whatever it is, lean into it. Personally, I try to have a few projects on the backburner that I can dip into when things are going treacle-slow (writing articles like this for example). Worst-case scenario? Hit the gym, pump that iron, burn those calories.

Conclusion

Well done, soldier. You can now fully integrate into any PhD office and become a fully-functioning simulacrum of a kind PhD student. For permanence, tattoo these tips onto your arm (please don’t actually) and remember, if I could do it, then you certainly can. Seriously, I still have no idea what’s going on, but I now 100% look like I do!

All jokes aside, if you are feeling really down about stuff, please go talk to someone about it, search the #PhDchat hashtag on Twitter and check out studentminds for mental health support at your university. Hey, even hit me up on my Twitter for a chat 🙂

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