I have reflected on my PhD so far to consider what I have learnt, and it boils down to this: Embrace failure! Here are some of my tips for doing that.
#1 Be ready to get things wrong
As a teacher I tried to get the children to celebrate getting things wrong. To appreciate the beauty of mistakes and to enjoy having another chance to try things again. As an adult I rarely embraced failing. I don’t think many people do. Yet if we can see the benefit of perseverance for children, we need to cultivate that in ourselves. My PhD strap line is now “Failing my PhD every step of the way.” I have to say I am doing exceedingly well at the failing part; although my mental health has improved, I am still not a natural at writing! However, because my attitude to failing has changed I am kind of enjoying it.
#2 Accept vulnerability
You will never be more vulnerable than when doing a PhD. We are taught at school, and in work that we should succeed. Yet a PhD turns this around and looks for all the ways we have failed. The only way through for me is to enjoy failing.
#3 Take charge
Ultimately, a PhD is a solo project. Having been a manager in various guises I was used to working as a team leader, with staff whom I would ask to do the work, based on what I knew of their skills and expertise. I could manage weaknesses by balancing team skills. I like being in the background, with other people getting the praise and limelight. That can’t happen in a PhD. You are on the spot. It is your PhD and up to you to defend it.
#4 Don’t expect to bluff
Having worked in marketing, teaching and communication, everything is about presenting and arranging information to appeal to others. A PhD is the antithesis of marketing and especially social media. There you create a surface impression and depth doesn’t matter. In a PhD it is the depth and “the screw it up, throw it around, stamp the hell out of it, and if it survives it might be of worth” that matters.
#5 Rely on yourself
This is my PhD, no one else’s. Yes, I need to work with my supervisors, but ultimately it is my choice what I do and if I continue.
#6 Supervisors don’t matter
At the end of the day, this is your PhD and up to you to make it happen. Your supervisor knows about your subject area, but this isn’t their project. Hopefully my story proves that, even if they have no faith in you, you can still continue by having faith in yourself.
#7 Supervisors matter a lot
The relationship with my main supervisor has transformed from a real low, and I now trust that she will advise me well. This makes a huge difference to how I approach the work, my enjoyment of the whole project, and, having that concept of someone there for you is a really big deal.
#8 You can turn things around
Your PhD doesn’t have to go well from start to finish. Each step may be hard, and you may fail many times along the way, but it has been done once, so can be done again.
. . .Finally, I like to remember that if Neville Longbottom can become a professor, maybe I can become a doctor.