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Posted on 25 Oct '19

Spoiler Warning! 11 Things That Will (Almost Certainly) Happen during Your PhD

A PhD should be exciting and interesting. After all, a doctorate is a process of discovery - by definition.

Though we can't predict exactly what you'll discover through your research (it's your PhD, not ours) we can reveal a few of the experiences you're pretty certain to have along the way.

So, from the frustrating, to the ridiculous, to the uplifting: here's our spoilerific guide to some of the things that will almost certainly happen to you as a PhD student.

#1 You'll get to think about really odd things. And other people will actually care.

If you're like me, you've probably spent a bit of time asking some fairly niche questions: Does Donald Trump have a Myspace? Could you bake bread using yeast extract instead of yeast? What would a world look like in which bus timetables told the truth?

The problem is that most people aren't that interested in my musings about the POTUS, my bizarre baking ideas or my public transport frustrations.

A PhD is a different story. From your supervisor, to your fellow students to the wider academic community: other people are going to pay attention to your original thoughts and new ideas. Even if you study Donald Trump's Twitter contemporary politics in the social media age.

It's a good feeling.

#2 You'll refer to your cat as a 'research assistant'

And you'll be right. The values of the common domestic feline (felis catus) and the common domestic PhD candidate (studentus researchus caffienatus) are closely aligned.

The cat wants to sit somewhere warm and quiet and remain there for as long as possible. You need to stay at your desk and get those notes written up.

The two of you can definitely come to some sort of arrangement.

#3 You'll have breakthrough moments at completely inappropriate times

The key insight scrawled in faded ink on the scrap of paper you grabbed after leaping out of the shower. The brilliant hypothesis initially noted down on the back of a beermat. The chapter outline drafted in your phone's notes app and immediately redrafted by its predictive text (see below).

All of these will be fellow travellers in your PhD journey. One day you'll look back on them and smile.

#4 You'll have existential crises about your thesis at even more inappropriate times

One of the most important skills you'll develop as a PhD student is the ability to not do research. Trust me. This skill may be completely useless in the laboratory or the library, but it's pretty much vital in most other scenarios.

Scenarios like visiting Disneyland Paris, on your honeymoon, with your wife, and suddenly doubting a key part of your methodology as you queue for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Thankfully, this sort of thing doesn't tend to last long and is a lot less common as you develop confidence as a researcher. And if your significant other is anything like mine, they'll understand.

#5 You'll turn off your phone's predictive text function at least once

Burkholder Multivorans is a legitimate subject for PhD research in bacteriology. Bun-holder Ian's multivitamins aren't.

#6 You'll go back in time and help your past self. Sort of.

Believe it or not, this one doesn't require you to be researching special relativity or superstring theory.

Chances are you'll get a chance to do at least some teaching during your PhD. If you do, jump at it.

It might seem intimidating (at first) it might involve more preparation than you feel you have time for (or the seminar actually requires) it might lead to at least one student mistaking you for a fellow class-member (if you're lucky).

But it will be inspirational.

You'll meet students who are in the same place you were a few years ago. You'll have the chance to show them why your subject is fascinating and they'll remind you how it feels like to be newly fascinated by it.

It's a win win. Until you have to do the marking. Speaking of which. . .

#7 You'll want to thank every lecturer who ever marked one of your undergraduate papers

At the time, it seemed like you had the hard job. After all, you had to write the essay. They just had to mark it.

Except they didn't. They also had to mark lots of other essays. Like these ones, in this pile, on your desk.

. . . maybe it's time for another coffee.

#8 You'll disappoint all of your friends at a pub quiz

There's a common myth about PhD study: it's that PhD students are remarkably clever. In reality, they aren't. At least not remarkably so.

They just know lots of stuff other people don't:

Like how particles with funny names behave when you knock them into other particles with funny names. Or how early-nineteenth-century publishers dealt with women authors who weren't called 'Jane Austen'. Or just the fact that there were early-nineteenth-century women authors who weren't called 'Jane Austen'.

Your non-PhD friends will generally accept that your knowledge is fairly niche. Except when they ask you to join their pub quiz team. From that moment on you will be expected to answer all of the questions that are even remotely related to your discipline.

Unfortunately, the people who write pub quizzes can detect PhD students through a kind of sixth-sense and design their questions accordingly. It doesn't matter how much you know about Jane Austen: tonight's literature questions are all about Harry Potter.

At least you can still get the next round in.

#9 You'll live in undergraduate halls again, for two nights in July

Remember living in university halls as a first year? It was great: you had your own shower, you had your own desk and your next-door neighbour was a crazy sociology student named Steve.

But you've moved on and student dormitories probably weren't the option you picked for your postgraduate accommodation.

That is until you find yourself attending a three-day summer conference on another university campus and discover that they're putting up delegates in their undergraduate halls.

It's just like the old days: you've got a shower and you're actually using the desk. The only difference is that this time your next-door neighbour is an esteemed emeritus professor. . . named Steve.

#10 You'll take part in public enagement activities when you least expect to

These days, there's more to research than simply developing new knowledge. A really successful PhD has a wider impact, with at least some benefits for society at large.

One of the things this means is that 'public engagement' activities are a common feature at many universities, with the opportunity to get involved in some genuinely fun and fulfilling projects.

But PhD students have always been invited to engage in public engagement. And you'll be no different.

Whether it's chatting about literary theory with your hair-dresser, explaining particle physics using bar snacks* or discussing macroeconomics at the family barbeque, you'll have plenty of opportunities to try and explain what it is you actually do. Whether you like it or not.

*Yes, you can do public engagement in the pub. Sort of.

#11 You'll do something important, that no one else has ever done and make a lasting contribution to your subject

This one shouldn't really be classed as a spoiler. But it could be all too easy to lose sight of once you get stuck into the day-to-day of your project.

So try to keep it in mind. Whatever you research, your PhD is going to do something pretty impressive. Hopefully you'll be proud of it.


Editor's note:This post was originally published on 12/10/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers





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