The struggles of a PhD student – an outsider looking in

Luke Humphrey blogs about the annual RiDNet conference which was held in Leeds in January

As a final year undergraduate student, the idea of studying a PhD crosses the mind often as plans for what comes next are put together. It can seem like a logical step or nice idea to play about with for someone who, after an undergraduate or master’s degree, is not sure what is next for them. However, after a brief time spent at the 5th annual RiDNet conference on the 27th January, one thing became immediately apparent: A PhD, is by no means, an easy ride.

The annual RiDNet conference, held at the University of Leeds, gives PhD students and early career researchers a great chance to network and learn from one another. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for established academics to give first-hand experience on the struggles and accomplishments that come with doing a PhD. One such talk came from Dr Nilam Ashra-McGrath, a researcher and writer at the University of Leeds. The talk on the rollercoaster ride of victories, defeats and of course, emotions during her PhD research provide a personal and captivating insight into what three years of PhD research entails. The talk is certainly accurate in its title, Nilam’s story is a rollercoaster, each year work-rates, emotions, progress and success fluctuates endlessly, perfectly laid out in her invaluable Prezi presentation which is available here – https://prezi.com/l27f-35hm86m/nilams-phd-rollercoaster/.

One week may bring jubilations as data for research in the form of surveys comes in floods, but the next brings panic and stress as now these replies have come in, someone has to go through them. As Nilam says herself, this process is not a learning curve, it is a rollercoaster. But this doesn’t have to mean it cannot be enjoyed. After all, rollercoasters are a thrill for some and a nightmare for others. This story isn’t meant to scare, but to give an insight into what a PhD can be like. It can be the best decision a person can make – but be prepared for it.

Talks by Gemma Pearson, Andrew Papworth and Sarah Linn also gave priceless tips and tricks for researching whilst in the field. Again, preparation is crucial to the actual process of conducting interviews, surveys and censuses during trips for PhD research. But however much preparation may be put into the research before the trip, the most vital commodity seems to be communication and improvisation whilst undertaking research. The main talking point was how to manage the expectations of participants in research who are from impoverished or disadvantaged areas. Upon hearing that a Western academic was looking for people to take part in research, many people in the area Gemma, Andrew and Sarah were working in applied. However, it was not necessarily because they were interested in helping them achieve their PhD, but because they believed them to be UN or NGO workers with the ability to help them. Having to tell people that they cannot help them in any immediate way was admittedly a challenge for the researchers. Furthermore, this then brings questions of ethics and morality as money incentives come into the frame.

Ultimately, there is much more to consider when undertaking PhD research than just the thesis and survey/interview questions. The best advice seems to be to plan ahead as much as possible, expect the unexpected. When things don’t go to plan, then be flexible, adapt to the situation at hand. Don’t skimp on assistants and translators, as when things do go wrong, they will be essential to help you adjust. People may often expect the world from you, so communication with participants as well as assistants and translators is also a vital skill. The question over paying participants and having to tell them that what you are doing is not necessarily going to benefit them remains murky, but it comes down to what you decide is most suitable to your specific research.

The rollercoaster of undertaking a PhD, and it is indeed one hell of a rollercoaster, must not be taking light-heartedly or on a whim. Those who take it do have to brave the storm more than once over the three years. But as Dr Nilam Ashra-McGrath and the other speakers proved, the reward can largely outweigh the cost. Perhaps the best advice came as a quote from the Harvard Business Review: “Manage your energy not your time.” This is perhaps the best mind-set in which you can approach a PhD – time is finite, but energy is infinite given that you give yourself time to rest and reset.