It’s official – I’m now a fully-fledged PhD candidate. My project has been judged, and deemed worthy. Now, I have two more years (maybe 2.5, if I’m lucky) to pull off a cohesive research project, publish my findings, and – if I play my cards right – level up, and earn the right to put Dr. in front my name.
For those of you unfamiliar with academic vernacular (particularly Australian PhD administrative structure), confirmation is a PhD milestone every PhD candidate must undergo around the 1-year mark of a PhD. Until you are confirmed, you are ‘on probation’; your tenuous status conditional on your good behaviour, and your ability to prove to your probation officers (i.e. PhD readers) that you are capable of reasoning independently, and are capable of researching something novel and interesting.
My road to confirmation was surprisingly uneventful – but it was still perhaps the most stressful period I’ve been through – at least for a long while. Since my switch from music to science – I’ve been gradually grasping with this brave new world of scientific research. It’s been a slow, laborious process, and I’ve had to relearn a lot about who I am, and what I’m capable of doing. But until confirmation, there’s been somewhat of a divide between ‘learning’ things – the process of understanding core scientific concepts – and the ‘action’, actually recognising what I know, and what I’m going to do about it.
I think every PhD candidate must struggle with this – having the confidence to put their knowledge into action. Advisors can help with this – to build your confidence, and provide some advice for your research. But in the end, it’s all on you. On me.
So, I’m going to offer some advice, whilst it’s still fresh; whilst the adrenaline is still pumping; whilst I drink a celebratory beer to calm my nerves.
1) Don’t stress out.
Everyone will tell you this. In the lead up to your confirmation, and even on the day of your seminar. ‘Don’t stress!’. ‘You’ll be fine!’. Whilst they might be right, even the most prepared person (I like to think of myself as ‘prepared’) will be a nervous wreck – both during the writing of their literature review/confirmation document, or their seminar. My stress levels were on par with an AMEB piano exam – which is pretty damn high.
However, confirmation is not about people judging you and telling you how much you don’t know – it’s about sharing your ideas and talking about research which inspires you. It’s a positive thing, and your readers are there to make sure you are on-track, with all the resources, skills and advisors to get you there. You don’t even get a grade – it’s a pass/fail exercise, and as I understand it, few people ever fail.
2) Do a thorough literature review.
If there is anything that will draw questions from your readers, it’s an incoherent research outline which is either a) too ambitious, b) too broad, c) unrelated to current research, or d) all of the above.
Your chapters (experiments) should have a reason to be there, with a reasonably thorough justification; which is why a literature review is really important, because this gives you the time to understand what’s been done, and where the holes are. Sometimes, other researchers will even directly mention the holes in their research – complete gimmies, that can give you some great ideas to pursue.
I am luckily enough to carry on my research from my Honours degree (i.e. an additional year of research on top of my undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree). However, I was complacent enough to think I was over the literature. When I started to write my confirmation document, I realised I was nowhere near ready. So I read. And read. And read. I was surprised at how little I really knew about my topic, but was relieved to find that that there is still lots to be uncovered.
So read like Hermoine Grainger, and absorb all the work that has come before you. Learn how to stand on the shoulders of giants, and be thankful when you are writing your confirmation document. If you’re lucky enough – you’ll be spontaneously coming up with ideas for research projects as you read – write them down, and store them for later.
3) Have a cohesive research plan.
So you’ve read enough journal articles to sink a digital ship, and your Endnote library is bulging. Congratulations! Now we come to the point where you have to choose your destiny.
This is definitely the hardest part. As an embryo researcher, you might have little idea of what entails a good research plan, including scope, budgets, timelines, and perhaps even the methods involved to investigate certain aspects of your research. That’s OK – this is a good time to talk to your advisors. These kinds of questions will be very much dependent on your field – some of us can be more ambitious with our scope, because experiments can be completed in very short timeframes. However, some fields of research require methodical research plans that develop over longer timeframes. The key here is to get the right balance between workload and pay-off, making sure your research contributes something meaningful within the limited time you have.
Additionally, each chapter of your thesis needs to have a good reason to be there, and in combination forms a cohesive story. Keyword: story. Think about how themes or concepts bind your experiments together, and help develop a story related to that concept. By the end of your thesis, you want to have a significant story to tell about your particular topic, and it’s that story that will engage audiences, and make your research really interesting.
4) Make sure you take time for yourself!
Many of the post-docs I’ve spoken to around UQ have all exclaimed that confirmation was their most stressful PhD milestone. You might work really well under stressful conditions, but if you’re anything like me – the process will send you batty. Bonkers. Make sure that you take frequent breaks from your work – especially if you’ve hit a writing block. Don’t force it, just take a walk. Take a day off. Go to the beach. Play some Fallout 4 for a few hours. Spend time with your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/friend/family/x. Unless you are in the most draconian of labs, PhD students have a particular freedom to their worklife that borders on criminal – make sure you use your freedom to take time for yourself.
Which brings me back to my first point… don’t stress out!!! 😀 I might tell you all about my actual research topic in another post – but for now, the Commonwealth beckons me…