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Postgraduate Research

5 truths every PhD student will understand

Read these before you decide if a PhD is right for you.

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Three years ago I completed my Masters in International Conflict Studies. The only thought I had (apart from excitement to step into a big career world) was I will never come back to the university and I will never do a PhD. Three years later here I am – a PhD student at Queen's.

As someone who has already gone through this process, I know that it is very hard sometimes to understand if a PhD is something you would want and something you can manage. And as someone, who has successfully survived the first year, I think I can now share some things that you should know before making your final decision.

1.You’ll become borderline obsessed with your topic

Really this is probably the first and the most important thing to consider. Remember, you are going to spend three years – minimum - reading about a certain topic, writing about a certain topic, thinking about a certain topic, doing training which would help you get a better understanding of that topic... And if you don't want to find yourself getting sick of it, you need to make your choice carefully.

2.Your proposal will change multiple times

Unlike a Master's dissertation, a PhD has a much larger degree of unpredictability. When you are writing your first proposal, very often you may be unaware of potential difficulties which may arise when you start your research (lack of data, changes in your research field, ethical issues, etc). Therefore you need to be mentally prepared to make changes, and have at least a plan B (and ideally a plan C, D and E) according to the realities you are facing. My own research proposal has already changed three times since the beginning of the academic year, and I am not yet sure that this is its final version. It can be stressful, obviously. But it is also exciting and allows you to awaken your creative self.

3.Not everyone will ‘get’ your brilliance

You've chosen that cool, exciting topic you are ready to dedicate all your life (or at least three years) to. You’ve done the preliminary research and then when you tell people about it, their response is: 'I don’t understand it’. Yes, the hard truth is that even though you may be a great expert in your professional field, it does not necessarily mean that everything you do for your research is perfect. Your ideas may be unclear to a wider audience, or you may disregard some important aspects. That is why it’s so important to listen to criticism from your supervisors, colleagues or other academics. It is very likely that they may have spotted something you missed.

4.You'll become a master procrastinator

This is probably the hardest thing to do ever. The peculiarity of a PhD is that you have plenty of time… and no time at all. The temptation of postponing all that boring writing til tomorrow and have fun today is something we can all relate to. And this is actually the luxury of PhD – you can do that. But it is also a burden – sometimes that ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ can happen every day. That is why it is crucial to be able to find that work-life balance which would allow you both to get your work done but also not get bogged down with writing and reading 24/7. If you can do that, you are half-way there.

5.Your work will not change the world…but it can change your life

One of the main requirements for a PhD thesis is to make an academic contribution. You might have a romantic notion that you are doing something extremely important and revolutionary which will change the world. And for many people this is true. But many PhD students, will most likely not make any life-changing discoveries. Does that mean it is not worth doing a PhD in those fields? Certainly not! Firstly, even if you feel that your work is not going to be a sensation, you still have plenty of opportunities to make a valuable contribution. A new explanation of a problem, using a new research method, doing a more robust statistical research – all these minor novelties can lay the foundation for major changes in your field in the future. Secondly, you should remember for three or more years, you are going to be involved in creative work which requires a lot of responsibility, reflection, diligence and constant learning. So even if your work doesn’t change the world, it will definitely change you for the better.

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Anna Kruglova
Guest blogger