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Posted on 7 Sep '16

Beginning a PhD - 3 Simple Mistakes to Avoid

A new academic year means different things to different people. For us at FindAPhD it means looking at how we can help another group of students make their way into postgraduate study - with our events, advice and, of course, our PhD search.

For you, this year might be the one in which you think seriously about taking that step up to doctoral work. Or it might even be the first year of your PhD.

This blog is designed to help both groups of students by looking specifically at the beginning of a PhD - and highlighting some of the mistakes you'll want to avoid.

If you're about to get started with your research, these are a few of the pitfalls you'll want to navigate around. But equally, if you're considering a future PhD, these are some of the challenges to be on the look out for.

#1 Starting a PhD for the wrong reasons - or having the wrong expectations

You've completed a Bachelors, perhaps even a Masters too. A PhD is just the next degree, right?

It sounds logical and it's technically true (you'll certainly struggle to get a place on a doctorate without previous academic qualifications). But it's also misleading. Because a PhD isn't just the 'next degree' and you shouldn't think of it that way.

The right expectations

It's all too easy to think of a PhD as just being a 'harder' version of a Masters: an incremental step up the academic ladder in the same way as your Masters was a step up from your Bachelors.

But that's not really true - particularly if you've already experienced postgraduate study.

You'll find that a lot of the material you study and seek to understand on a PhD won't necessarily be much harder than the work you did for your Masters. There'll be a lot more of it and you'll be expected to tackle it more or less independently. But it won't be significantly more complex. That was the point of your Masters, after all: gaining 'mastery' of your academic subject.

The challenge now is to make your own contribution to that subject through a sustained original research project. And that's a very different kind of challenge.

It's a challenge you may well be ready for, but it's important to approach it with the right expectations. Our introduction to PhD research can help.

The right timing

It can be surprisingly easy to slip straight into a PhD after a successful Bachelors and Masters, particularly if you've been lucky enough to earn a scholarship as a result.

But be wary of coasting into what's going to be a very demanding three (or more) years of research. And don't fall into the trap of assuming you have to begin a PhD right away.

In fact, it can be helpful to take a break and find a bit of space - particularly if you've just emerged from a challenging Masters dissertation. After all, three years of full-time PhD work is a long time. Seven years of uninterrupted Bachelors, Masters and PhD work is even longer.

It's true that specific PhD opportunities are time limited, but more will be available in future. Trust us, we've been listing them for over ten years.

So, if your dream project comes up and you're ready, go for it! But don't be afraid to take a step back. It's better to go into a project later with the enthusiasm to see it through. Our newsletter and course listings will keep you updated in the meantime.

#2 Over-committing to a specific project, or a specific version of your project

This one requires some explanation.

By their very nature, PhD projects are 'big': big enough to accommodate (and require!) at least three years of original research. That research process is one of discovery and reflection - a lot of which you simply won't have done yet.

This can seem a bit bewildering at first. The natural response may be to grab hold of the first angle or approach that makes sense and focus in on it, to the exclusion of all else.

Such temptation also exists for prospective students working on a research proposal. Concern over success or failure can actually encourage you to overdevelop your plan until it starts to look like a necessarily limited version of the PhD itself. We've talked about this on the blog before - along with other common research proposal problems.

Both situations can actually have an adverse effect on your PhD by over-emphasising one part of it and excluding other areas.

Making space and exploring your options

As tempting as it is to pick up one idea and run with it, the early part of a PhD is an ideal time to do the opposite of this. You haven't started collecting results or writing up yet - and you don't need to. Instead you can afford to be more exploratory. If you've started your PhD, make some space for your literature review. If you're still preparing, do a bit of pre-emptive reading around your subject and see where your ideas take you.

Eventually you will need to follow a specific line of inquiry to its conclusion, but, for now, you've got the time to consider what those lines of inquiry should be - and to make sure the ones you eventually choose are worthwhile.

#3 Falling foul of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is very common at postgraduate level, particularly amongst PhD students.

Ironically, this is more likely to be a problem for those students who do understand how a PhD differs from other degrees and have begun to think seriously about their expectations of PhD study - and what is expected of them.

As a PhD student, you're on the way to becoming an independent academic expert. Someone who, by definition, can make a significant original contribution to knowledge in their field.

That can feel like a very big mortarboard to fill. And it is (metaphorically at least - your head won't actually change size). But it's important not to forget that you don't have to fill it yet. A PhD may be a different kind of learning process, but it's still a learning process. The idea that a PhD already requires you to be an expert in your project is just one of the more common myths about PhD study.

We've listed a lot of PhDs over the years, but we've never come across one that schedules a viva voce exam at the beginning of the doctorate. And, as we've already explained, you certainly won't be expected to produce PhD-level research in your proposal.

Hell is(n't) other students

One of the biggest sources of imposter syndrome during a PhD can actually arise from interactions with your fellow students. It can be hard to avoid benchmarking yourself against your peers, but there are several very good reasons not to.

For one thing, 'year groups' are asynchronous. Which is a fancy way of saying that they aren't really 'year groups' at all.

The other PhD students you meet won't all have started at the same time as you (and won't be finishing at the same time as you). They're also working on their own unique projects that aren't necessarily comparable to yours, even if you're working in the same subject.

So, if another PhD student seems to be further on than you, they probably are. And that's fine. Your PhD is your PhD.

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