Advice for starting a PhD can come from a variety of sources including other candidates, administrators, supervisors, family, friends and the internet. It’s hard to know which advice to follow and what will make the biggest difference in the long run. Before you make that three to your year commitment, consider the following first.
1. Research the universities or organisations where you could complete a PhD
Generally, there is much less support to guide you in choosing where to complete a PhD compared to an undergraduate degree.
When I had decided to complete a PhD, I had to contact potential supervisors and research places where I could apply. My list also included the prerequisites for acceptance as I hadn’t received a first class honours but instead a second class division 1 that was 1% off a first class. That ruled out a lot of places that required a first class grade. The university I attended didn’t send out information on what to do next after graduation from honours so I had to seek out the information myself by asking a lot of questions and what I had to do next to get accepted.
My advice, no matter what grade you received for honours, is to seek out information on the next steps for acceptance. If you feel this is your dream and you want to pursue it, find out as much information as possible on your chosen institution in terms of how to get accepted.
2. PhD research is not a continuation of an honours program
Although you may choose research that is similar to your honours research, a PhD is multiple layers of this one small project. Most students don’t understand this idea until they have begun a PhD project. The goal is not to follow your supervisor’s objectives but to develop original and significant research in your chosen field. You will be required to make your own decisions and develop your own set of critical thinking skills. You may even disagree with the ideas of your supervisor at times and this is the project that will help you develop as a scientist.
3. Make sure there is a break between undergraduate and a PhD
After the rush of an honours year, many people start thinking about what lies ahead. Some students think that the next possible process is starting a PhD because they want to do independent research or that their supervisor suggested it. A break between honours and a PhD is necessary to determine what research you want to do, where you want to do it and if research is really what you want to spend the rest of your life doing. You need to gain perspective.
It can also provide you with some experience and experimentation with other job prospects. You can use your break to test the waters for a variety of job prospects that you could do without a PhD and think about whether this is really what you want to spend the next four years completing. It can also help you to decide on a research topic that will get funding and provides you with all the aims and skills you desire from completing a PhD.
4. Develop time management and organisational skills
A PhD project requires excellent time management and organisational skills as well as the ability to write daily, weekly and yearly goals. The best advice here is to get a full time job in the break you have between your honours years and the start of your project. That way, you will already have the ability to organise your time effectively within your workplace and around it for other things that need to be completed outside of work, particularly if you have a 9-5 job. This experience greatly improved my own set of organisational skills during my PhD as I worked in a law office during my break and gained valuable skills for organisation, document management and delegation. These skills greatly improved my ability to save and organise files, prioritise tasks and get in a working routine in balance with a social and family life. All of these skills are required for adequate project management, dedication and motivation during the process that is a PhD.
5. Flexibility has already been mention but I’ll say it again YOU NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE
The main point of the PhD process is that you are incredibly flexible. You will need to fit in grant proposal writing when grants come up, write scientific papers, attend conferences, mark assignments, demonstrate practical classes, spend time with family and friends and do all the normal things that people do during the day such as washing your clothes. Things can and do pop up unexpectantly like anything in life but they seem to be more stressful during the process that is a PhD just because you have so many things going on at once.
It is hard to take advice from other students on this topic as well because each project is different and your workload may be different due to the things you are investigating and the opportunities that arise.
There are many things that you need to consider before embarking on the PhD process. It is a life experience that will change you for the better and you will learn a lot but it must be a decision based on the right reasons, not merely because you don’t know what your next step is. Make sure you get some life experience before you start because this will benefit you in the long run and in my experience, definitely helps you with project management of a research project that you are making a big commitment to.