I was gripped by self-doubt. I couldn’t possibly show anything to my supervisor. What if I was ‘found out’? And so I read and read, but still I didn’t write. And then I had a conversation with a friend who asked what I had written. “Nothing,” I said. “Everything I write is shit.” “Sure,” she said, “but write that down, because at least you can go back and change shit.” I passed my Ph.D. about 8 years ago, and now supervise Ph.D. students myself, but there is one central piece of advice that I pass on: Write shit! That first draft? No one will see it. Just write. You can go back and edit that ‘shit’. 500 words, or a 1,000 words a day. Take 5 minutes, switch off your email, Facebook and internet. Write without stopping. See how many words you have written? They may not be great words, but you can go back and change them, and turn the quantity into quality.
There are many reasons why we don’t start writing, or, indeed, why we stop writing our Ph.D.s. We need to read one more thing, or do a bit more research, or put the washing out, or tidy the flat, or get some ink for the printer, be in the right mood, or have a coffee, or just check out that blog. We can all be masters of procrastination (and if you are interested in my recent experience, click here)
My top practical tip then is to begin writing at the start of your Ph.D. If you are part way in, start writing now, today. And keep writing. Write every day. Make it a habit. As you go through your Ph.D. your ideas will develop, become more sophisticated, and grow. But at least you have work that you can go back to, refine and ‘polish’. I would also argue that the act of writing is an important part of the thinking process in a Ph.D. (and other work). Just as reading informs our writing, so our writing informs our thinking. We don’t not need to necessarily think it all out in order to write, rather the act of writing can help us think.
The first is Vitae, a website which has an excellent section of advice and practical tips for postgraduate researchers on what to expect from your Ph.D., your supervisor, career planning, and so on. This is a fantastic resource and well worth spending a few minutes on.
The second is each other, your friends and supervisors. Talk to your friends. Create a Ph.D. community. Don’t underestimate the value of spending time together, sharing experiences over coffee. A Ph.D. may be a solitary piece of work, but it doesn’t have to be an isolating experience. The rollercoaster you feel, your friends feel it too. So talk to each other about it. Support each other. And you’ll find out new stuff, too, as you talk about your subject matter. And your supervisor. Talk to your supervisors. They have been through this experience. They ‘get it’. They are not there only to guide you in terms of your topic, but they have experienced what you have. Learn from their experience, but if you don’t tell them how you are feeling and finding things, they won’t know.
Communication is key here. We often think that our Ph.D. is about finding our original spot in the academic universe and telling the world about it. But we also need to communicate with each other about our experience of the process of finding that place. Talk to each other, your peers and supervisors, share your experiences, and enjoy those three years. And don’t worry about getting it right, just write!