How to Fall in Love with Your PhD

Three tips to help you (or you students) fall in love with your PhD:

  1. Take time away from and deprioritise the PhD.
  2. Get to know your student/supervisor.
  3. Host and participate in department, school and faculty activities.

Transcript:

I was having a chat with my mate, Craig Harper the other day and he was asking me a question. I don’t think he wanted to know for himself, but it was more asking generally. You know, how do people fall in love with their PhDs? Coming to a PhD as a mature age student I guess, Craig’s probably already in love with his topic with his idea because he suggested it. But if you come into it from a different angle or maybe over time your love wanes, how do you re-fall in love with your PhD? Particularly, when I guess what we hear from supervisors and what we hear anecdotally as students is that when you’re signing up to do your PhD, everyone tells you, “It’s going to be awesome”. “You’ll be great at this”. But then when you’re in it everyone’s like, “Oh! it’s going to be the hardest thing ever”. “You’ll be rubbish”. “There’ll be down times”. “You’ll be crap”. All those kinds of things. So, how can you I guess, fall in love with your PhD?

The first thing that I would request is that supervisors try to stop giving these mixed messages. So, if a student comes to you, don’t just tell them they’ll be awesome, and the PhDs are great. Give them the other side too. Let them know that it’s hard. Let them know that the data says 1/3 of students will have mental health issues caused by something to do with their PhD. Let them know that overcoming challenges is going to be part of the PhD process, and if you’re not up to overcoming challenges then don’t do a PhD. But if you’ve got a mindset or a personality profile that means you want to take on problems and you want to wrestle with the problem not just for days, weeks or months but potentially years, then doing a PhD is for you.

Secondly, as a student, don’t use confirmation bias or sampling bias to color the way people talk about your PhD. I reckon a lot of students go into the process of finding out whether they want to do a PhD, and they select all the information that they want to hear. They remember that the supervisor said it was hard. That it was challenging and worth taking on, but they’ve didn’t remember that if you’re not good at challenges or if you can’t stick with something for many years that they shouldn’t do it. They didn’t remember that the supervisor said lots of students have problems with mental health throughout their PhD. If you are prone to mental health difficulties maybe you should make sure that those things are short up before you start your PhD. So, as a student, make sure you don’t use sampling bias or confirmation bias, and as a supervisor tell the whole truth.

On to falling in love with your PhD in general, here are some things that I think might help. The first is recognizing that age might play a role. So, falling in love with your PhD might be easier for people who are older simply because as we get older, we get better at dealing with problems, and so falling in love and staying in love with your PhD might be easier. But if we look at the factors that contributed to a successful and a happy PhD, the number one factor above all else is the relationship between the student and the supervisor. So, as a student, I’d encourage you to get to know your supervisor better. So, don’t just realize that that’s a project that they’re looking after you about, and don’t be annoyed when they don’t know the answers or won’t give you an answer. Find out about your supervisor. What drives them? What are some good qualities or what are some experiences that they’ve had? When was the time when they totally failed at a presentation or at a journal article submission or at a grant submission? When was the time that they felt elated about their research? Get to know them a bit more. And supervisors, do the same for your students. Find out what it is that motivates them. Why they’re in the research? Why they chose your research group? All those kinds of things are going to be useful to setting up a good relationship between the student, and the supervisor that isn’t going to. That’s going to help students fall in love with their PhD.

The second thing is the student itself. And specifically, what comes up in the data is your non-PhD time. Lots of students report that their PhD has taken them away from other parts of their life. I would argue that actually isn’t the case the PhD didn’t take you away. You took yourself away. You prioritized the PhD all the way up here when really it needed to be down here or even all the way down the bottom. So, I would encourage all students if you wanted to fall in love with your PhD, take the mantra of treat them mean, keep them keen or absence makes the heart grow fonder. Spend less time on your PhD. Now I’m not saying spend 3 days a week when you should be spending 5. But what I am saying is don’t spend 12 hours when 8 is probably enough. Don’t spend 7 days when 5 is enough. And know that no matter how you slice your PhD, there will be times when you think you need to spend more hours or more days. That’s not going to be the case. Giving more hours and more days will just mean that you use up more hours and more days. So, spend time away from your PhD.

The third thing that you can do to help fall in love with your PhD is to get to know not just your supervisor, but the academic environment that you operate in. This is the third most important factor, the culture, the environment of the school. The department. The center. The research groups. The faculty. The university. Whatever level you might be nested in get to know that. So, attend the social functions, and I know that with covered or distance ed, this might be difficult. But we’re making more and more accommodations for people to attend remotely. So, do that. Get involved in those. Attend the mixes. Go to the morning teas. Talk to other researchers. As a supervisor, introduce your team to other members of the department. If you’re having weekly group meetings for example, why not invite a guest member from another research group inside the department to just introduce themselves for 5, 10 or 15 minutes. So, that your team can feel part of a more a larger hole inside the school or department.

So, just in summary, 3 things that you should be doing: One, take time away from your PhD, so that you can fall in love with it again; Get to know your student or your supervisor, so that you can fall in love with your PhD again; And host and/or participate in departmental school, and faculty meetings in order that you can fall in love with your PhD again.