“How’s the PhD going?” is a common question I’m being asked since enrolling at university last month.
“Oh, dipping my toes in,” is the vague, non-committal response I usually give.
Where do you start a such a huge piece of work? Luckily I know a few people who have completed, just submitted, or are about to submit a PhD, so I polled them. I was given some great advice:
‘Write first, read second,’ was one I really liked. I usually do a lot of reading. I try and read as much as possible, as broadly and as deeply as possible. But I can see the pitfalls of this starting with this approach. Once you’re on this track, how do you know when to stop? When do you start to lose track of your own ideas, and have them hijacked by the ideas of others? The more you read, sometimes the more you get lost. In a fictional context, I like this. When I’m trying to contribute some original knowledge to the world (yikes, #nopressure) I can see this as rapidly becoming an extension of imposter syndrome: losing sight of the gaps, and seeing only what’s been done. Who am I to think I might have a different perspective or contribution to offer?
‘Write a research question. See if you can answer it. If you can, write another research question,’ was another I really liked. So much so, that after the person gifted me with this advice, I went home and had a questionstorming session. I generated nearly 50 research questions. For me, I found this really useful. It was a concrete and discrete task to complete. I could do it over a short space of time (I’m only studying part-time) and feel as though I had achieved something. In a way, it’s similar to the ‘write first’ idea: start with your own thoughts and ideas first. Ground yourself in your interests and branch out from there.
I’ve also inadvertently stumbled into my own useful practices. One I’m determined to keep up is my ‘What have I done today’ journal. I have a document I write in at the end of every study day where I summarise what I’ve done, and jot down any questions or key thoughts I’ve had. Not only does this help to give me a sense of accomplishment, it’s also super useful when I put down my research on a Thursday and don’t really pick it up again until the following Wednesday.
To complement this practice, I also ‘park on a hill’ – another piece of advice from a recent PhD student – I write a post-it note to myself with some tasks I will start with the next study day. This way, I begin the day with a sense of what I’m going to do, even if I change my mind later on in response to something I’ve read or written or thought.
I’m also grateful for the other work I have done in supporting others’ research, such as the CORE Education eFellows, and the work I have done in my own thinking and research. This has prepared me well for the familiar (but still uncomfortable) feeling of not knowing what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I should be doing. I recognise that you have to trust your brain to throw up an idea, or bring several ideas together at unexpected times. For me, this is often when I’m cleaning the bathroom. Or, as it was the other week, at the ungodly hour of 5am.
I’ve come to realise that it’s a cliche because it’s true: a mighty project like a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t have to know yet the scope and shape of the thing. At the moment, having some useful practices about how to think and work is enough. So I don’t think it’s that I’m dipping my toes in. They’re not yet wet. But I have managed to take my sock off.