By Furaha Asani (Orisirisi Blog)
As a PhD student, have you ever thought about what you will do in the event that things don’t work out according to your plans? This isn’t something a lot of us tend to think of at the start of the PhD process. I would encourage you to make a basic risk mitigation table to cover any sudden changes that may affect your research or life during your PhD. This may not be something you will ever have to use, but better to be prepared in case it comes handy somewhere down the line.
Thinking back to the start of my PhD, I was quite naive. In the past three years certain things have happened which were highly unexpected and unplanned for. If I could go back to the very beginning I would advise myself to think about how to deal with them.
Here are some points I’d strongly suggest thinking over before (or at the start of) your PhD. In some cases these are life-changing, and in others just something worth thinking about to provide more clarity for future. In no particular order:
Motives for doing the PhD
We all have different reasons why we’ve chosen to do a PhD. And I think it’s highly necessary to be open and honest with yourself about what your motive is/was. This doesn’t mean you owe it to anyone to tell them. Just that knowing and owning this for yourself could actually empower you to focus or re-focus your energy appropriately when the time comes. Whatever your motive was, the PhD process is a great time to gain loads of transferable skills which will come in handy when your job search begins.
Mental health disclosures
I suffer from anxiety and OCD, which have been quite debilitating to me. At the start of my PhD I just took it for granted that the way I’d self-managed and remained functional during two years of intense Masters research, was the way I’d carry on through my PhD process. I didn’t account for the normal stresses of the PhD taking its toll, and other personal issues muddying the already murky waters.
Why does this matter now? Well, not because I expect any free passes due to mental battles, but because perhaps the reasons for my difficulty in communicating across my struggles: the days when I’m so anxious when everything fails, and the times when I leave early because I just cannot ‘take it’, would be better understood. More so because I sincerely believe I would be much more productive if things were transparent. I’d imagine there is a kind of power in declaring something in front of those who are meant to support you. Letting it out into the open so all parties involved don’t tiptoe around it, but know how to deal in spite of it. Even if the outcome of my PhD wouldn’t have changed (which probably, it wouldn’t have) I’d feel less anxious about already being anxious. I wish I had been transparent from the start, and not let things build up to the point I had to take a break due to mental burn out.
I appreciate that this is a very personal one, and can imagine that many students may fear being discriminated against in an already competitive academic environment. It is however really worth thinking about. My supervisors are now aware, and adequate support strategies have been set in place. Don’t be like me, shout for help before the burn out!
Delays can happen due to so many reasons – ethics applications, awaiting reagents, patient/participant recruitment. If I could go back I would seriously think about how I could maximise all the time I had during several delays that peppered my PhD. I’d consider trying out different experiments which could have further enriched my thesis. I’d also have participated in other experiences organised within uni and my department for career development, and just for fun!
Within the first two years of my PhD, I lost three friends in my circle. At the start of my third year my primary supervisor passed away, and less than three months later my dad passed away quite unexpectedly.
Death isn’t something that anyone likes to think about. And I’m not suggesting that anyone go out of their way to plan for how to handle a death of a loved one or someone closely linked to your research. Neither would I encourage an attitude of worrisome thoughts about death. However, life happens and it is not always pleasant. There may be the need to become familiar with the necessary steps to take should death of a close person (or any other serious circumstance) occur during the research period. This, with the hopes that such information won’t actually need to be used.
As an international student not only did I have an interest in Brexit, but I also wondered what it would mean for the international (not just EU) community. My university does a good job of sending round information to international students every time a change in policy occurs which could affect us. They usually break it down in an easily understandable way, explaining what it means for us.
It isn’t just the current climate one needs to think about though. Do you really understand what your current visa entails? Are there limits on it you aren’t aware of? Are there certain part-time jobs you actually aren’t allowed to do which may jeopardise your stay if you’re unknowingly doing them? Are you allowed to work full-time on your current visa if you finish your PhD early?
The value of gaining transferable skills during your PhD cannot be over-emphasized. There may be various opportunities for you to gain these, and because you are at the stage of independent study, will likely be expected to follow up on these by yourself. In other words, it is unlikely that people will always point out opportunities to you. Therefore, apply yourself to finding out about events and opportunities for you to gain new skills and improve your CV.
Finance is a big part of life, and that is no different for the PhD student. Additional sources of income could be one way of taking pressure off an already pressurized mind!
Tutoring is something I love doing part-time. It has helped me gain valuable experience for my CV, and served as a part-time paid job. Obviously the PhD needs to be the primary focus. Let’s be real though: there will come a time when we PhD students may need to rely on any extra monies we’ve managed to save up. This is where the side-hustle comes into play. Is there any extra job you can take up on the side (which is manageable of course) which could help you out in any way? Your uni job-shop could help point you in the right direction. There may also be opportunities within your department for teaching (and thus gaining recognition with the UK Higher Education Academy) or doing other jobs.
Some students I’ve come across also use their talents and passion to make extra money. For example one student may be very good at making braids and Senegalese twists and so may do this to make money. Another may make home made jewellery and sell at open markets. This is something that may be time-consuming and so shouldn’t be embarked upon unless you can actually follow through with it and can embark on such ventures legally in the country where you’re studying.
Whether support comes from your friends in or out of university, place of worship or study group, you need a support system. You need people whom you can let lose with. A place where stories can be shared, be it moaning or asking for advice, confidentially. Friends can help you stay sane during the PhD process. I am not convinced I would have been able to make it through without the support and friendship of certain people in my life. Some are friends I met less than four years ago. Others are friends I only see once a year, but whom I am in constant contact with. We all need a solid support system.
Most, if not all universities have some form of career service, health service, and counselling/chaplaincy services. Never hesitate to use the resources provided by your university to help yourself.
For further information, have a look at this newly-released book with accounts from 70 scholars reflecting on academia with regards to identities, struggles and triumphs.