By Joern Fischer
With four of my PhD students having recently submitted their theses, and four new ones having started, I found myself thinking about the attributes of what makes a successful PhD student. But then I figured thinking about this in terms of personal attributes makes it somehow a fixed thing, and that’s not quite right – rather, students use certain strategies, some innately, and some may have to learn these strategies. And so I have compiled a list of the “strategies” that I believe are particularly useful for successfully getting through one’s PhD research.
- Know your natural talents and skills, and capitalize on them. People differ in their skills. For some it’s communication (written or oral), for some it’s quantitative analysis, for others it’s data collection. You should rejoice in your skills and build your success around them; most likely nobody can take these skills away from you.
- Know your weaknesses, and work on them – but don’t try to turn them into your biggest strengths. You will also have natural weaknesses, which can hinder progress. For example, if you’re not good at writing or analysis, this will need to improve for you to get through the PhD. But most likely, what is currently just “not your thing” never will be your greatest strength. So compensate your weaknesses, but don’t try to over-compensate and be someone or something you will never be. Build on your strengths (see above) instead of trying to build on your weaknesses.
- Don’t compare yourself to others, especially not fellow PhD students or more experienced scientists. Many PhD students suffer from self-esteem problems at one point or another because they feel less capable than those around them. This simply isn’t helpful. We can’t all be good at the same things, and the point is that ultimately, all seven billion of us have to find a niche where we are valuable. You don’t need to be like others, and shouldn’t try to be, either. Find your own way (though of course, you can learn from others).
- Don’t wait for little problems to turn into big ones – talk to people before things get bad. Having an attitude of “I can do this” is good, but many students waste large amounts of time and emotional energy on trying to prove to themselves or their supervisors that they need no help – when in fact they do. This applies to personal problems as much as to technical or scientific ones. I suggest you ask for help when you need help.
- Don’t expect others to fix your problems. While asking for help is valuable, it’s YOUR PhD, and you’re responsible for it. Be grateful if others help you, but don’t expect it or depend on it. To a minimum level, you should be able to cope with each task in your PhD on your own; though for many, things will work much better if you ask for help and collaborate with others.
- Set yourself timelines, planning for about 20% each of logistics, reading, analysis, writing and “other stuff”. If any of these go significantly above the 20% mark, most likely, you’ll not manage in the time you had allocated (because you allocated too little time for one of the others). People tend to do what they find fun or easy, and tend to avoid the rest. This is normal, but a bit of reality is in order. I suggest you write up your first two papers after a first field season. That way you have gone through the whole process of empirical science (all the way to publication) relatively early on, and you’ll most likely find the second half easier. When you need to step up to postdoc level, you’ll be ready for it.
- Monitor your own progress, and if you’re not making progress for weeks or months, be honest with yourself: it can’t go on like that. Sometimes people just don’t move forward. Things can be painfully slow at times. Mostly, such structural ineffectiveness is a strong sign that science – requiring a high degree of self-motivation and self-organisation – is just not going to work in the long term for some people. Be honest with yourself if you’re not progressing and talk to others about what can be done.
- Communicate clearly, and frequently, with those you work with. I highly value a workplace culture where people work at work, and not primarily form home or off-campus. This way there is frequent, informal communication, and lots of helping each other with bits and pieces. If you isolate yourself from such an environment, you will not receive help, and nobody will ask you for help or your opinion. To get the most out of your PhD, be an active member (not a consumer) of a group of peers and collaborators.
- Engage with the multiple sources of advice around you, even when you’re not desperate. You can ask many people for advice, not just your supervisor. You can ask other students. Often, postdocs are the best people to ask – they often have more time still, and often are close to the experience of being a PhD student still.
- Network enough, but don’t mix that up with doing your work. Personally, I find networking is over-rated. We’re so incredibly connected these days that a lack of connections is problematic far less often than it used to be. I would suggest to network when you have a genuine interest in other people, but not as a goal in its own right. I find networking for its own sake disingenuous and frankly, it can be a big waste of everybody’s time.
- Collaborate with others, but not at the expense of the work you’re leading. Opportunities to collaborate are great, but shouldn’t be used as a displacement activity to avoid your own (more difficult to face) work.
- Take breaks, lots of them, and don’t let the PhD take over your life. Contrary to what many think, many excellent students I have worked with have taken plenty of time off and worked something like “regular hours”. If you’re not making progress, increase your efficiency, not your work hours.
- When you’re working, work. Speaking of efficiency … set yourself tasks to achieve for a given day and do them. Don’t stuff around for hours on facebook and waste time. Focus when you do things: focus on people when you deal with people, on writing when you’re writing, and on analysis when you’re doing analysis.
- Know two key currencies of science: one, you must read to know where your field is at, and two, you must publish or none of your grand ideas count. You cannot compensate for these two, they are simply key. You must read, and you must publish, or you cannot be a scientist.
- Find self-esteem in something other than scientific success: your perceived worth as a person should not depend on doing well. Your PhD will have highs and lows, but you as a person, are not your PhD. Your self-esteem is worth gold, in that it is the basis of your functioning. Focus on healthy ways of building self-esteem (such as connecting with friends and family) and not on bean-counting how successful you are (or otherwise).
- Know that a research existence is not for everyone, and should that be the case for you – relax. You can either get through your PhD and then shift directions, or even drop the PhD. Many people have done this, and for some people, this is precisely the right thing to do.
Comments, including on other key strategies, are of course welcome!