I haven’t blogged in over two years. I forgot about this WordPress account I tried to get started at the beginning of my PhD. I also haven’t vlogged in four months. Mostly because of work, distractions and forgetting that I may have something valuable to contribute until I was reminded by several emails giving thanks to the vlogs I started last year documenting my PhD experience. The latest of which has spurred me to resume this blog and for which I’d like to make the subject of this post.
In a very kind and recent email, Felix, who is based in New York City writes to me about his PhD that he’ll be commencing later this autumn here in the UK. Pretty close in fact, at the University of Portsmouth. He has a few questions that I’d like to share with you and answer here.
What was your experience like leading up to starting your PhD programme?
For this question, referring to “experience”could relate to the purely academic or the general flow of things in transitioning to the PhD. So I’ll answer both forms.
My PhD is in the design of carbon fibre deployable structures for space applications. You can break that up into three parts: composites, structures and things space-related. I had ZERO knowledge of composites and structures (didn’t really know what they were), but a good knowledge of and passion for space given my MSc Space Science & Engineering and BSc Astrophysics – space was my area of origin. The type of person I showed myself to be during my interview was enough to convince them to take me onboard. Technical things can always be learned later.
The flow of events leading up commencing PhD were as follows: started MSc (Sept. ’13), first PhD interview (early-March ’14), second PhD interview (late-March ’14), finished MSc (early-Sept. ’14) and then start PhD (late-Sept. ’14). Amongst the MSc, I was pretty busy that summer as I also took up a part-time job whilst struggling severely with money as I was living in London. However, I found a lot of peace in knowing I’d secured something for after my MSc, and after a huge internal celebration feeling of relief, I got on with living and didn’t think at all about the upcoming PhD. I just know I was excited and pleased with myself. However, there were pressing issues such as my MSc dissertation and the big upcoming summer group project. As the start time approached, I did get in touch with my to-be supervisor regarding any literature he’d recommend for me to get started with – I was keen to get stuck in!
Did you engage any literature research to “hit the ground running”?
A little bit, ahead of starting the PhD, a paper or two that my to-be supervisor sent over (but I didn’t understand a single thing on that paper). It was at this point I also got a feeling for the work environment and equality between student and supervisor. I remember his comment was something like “this paper looks interesting, might be worth a read” – he was as unsure and (perhaps) new to it as I was. I also enjoyed the informality of it all. It suited me.
Looking back, I know I was incredibly keen and itching to dive in and get started. I was a gun ready to fire. But there’s no pressure nor rush when starting out. It is easy to feel lost. Without direction. Without purpose. But you gain that over time. For starting direction, work on:
- Who are the well known published experts in your field?
- What are their papers about?
- What references do they use in those papers?
- Who’re the authors of those ones?
- Which conferences and journals should you be looking into?
And so on – build the academic network out. You’ll find that research is surprisingly organic and very human. I found it as fulfilling to simply settle into the new environment. The new house mates. The new office. The new University. The non-PhD things.
…since the PhD process is so insulated, how do you maintain your mental health?
Don’t for a second believe the PhD is inherently insulated, it all depends on you and your approach. You’re in total control. Given the fact you may be working on something no one else is, it is enjoyable to share your work and think about the impact it has on the general public i.e. do some outreach if you’re so inclined. Don’t let the PhD alone define your personality traits.
Mental health is a growing topic of awareness, particularly where PhD students are concerned. Given all the pressures we can be subjected to, in various magnitudes and from various aspects of our lives, I think it’s important to realise that we don’t have to be here doing what we’re doing. The PhD is optional. Not compulsory. We do them because we find something interesting and enjoyable. The PhD is 50% technical advancement, 50% personal development – you learn an incredible amount about yourself, in addition to the dynamics of curved bistable reeled composites.
I live by these ideas:
- Ambition, but expect the worst to occur (not to be confused with pessimism) – this is a useful approach in preparing you for disappointment and anticipating changes of approach
- Do what feels right – you will have no regrets
- Work at your own pace, set your own goals. Don’t feel pressured to work in the office from 9-5pm. PhD life is flexible. Set working hours can wait for later if at all
- Measure progress with respect to your yesterday’s self
- Failure, or the sense of, is exaggerated and needn’t be feared
- Pursue hobbies and other interests, avoid letting the PhD define who you are e.g. I play badminton (have been Vice President), rock climb, travel, read, learn German, enjoy gardening, socialise more than I ever have, attend enterprise and business workshops, and recently found new tranquility in knitting (yep) and learning to draw