My name is Hannah Ryan, and I am a final year student in the School of Sociology and Policy at Aston University, researching the visual representation of refugees and asylum seekers in UK newspapers. As I come to the end of my PhD journey and I’m hard at work writing my final thesis, I have given myself some time to reflect on the lessons that I have learnt along the way. I share these lessons here in the hope that they may help other PhD students along their journeys.
1, There is more to a PhD than writing a thesis.
Yes, doing the research and writing up your thesis is a huge part of doing a PhD but there is so much more to it than just that! Throughout my PhD journey I have presented at numerous conferences, I have submitted a journal article for publication, I have worked as a research assistant on another project, I have taught on three modules, and I have gained a teaching accreditation. These experiences have been incredibly valuable to me, they have taught me about what it means to be an academic and I feel really privileged that I have been given the opportunity to do so many varied things throughout the past three years. If you’re interested in getting into a career in academia, I can’t recommend these experiences enough – although you also need to learn when to say no so that you don’t get too overwhelmed.
2. A PhD can be lonely but there are ways to combat it.
Getting involved in all of the things above also helped me tackle the loneliness of doing a PhD. For days, maybe even weeks at a time, you can find yourself sat alone doing your research so it’s really important to make sure you stay connected during those periods. I think this is something that has been particularly important for me being a PhD student during the COVID-19 pandemic when offices were closed and everything moved online. So, my advice would be to connect with people both inside and outside the academic community. Find a hobby that gets you out and with people (I go to a yoga class once a week and it’s something that I’ve come to really look forward to), facetime your family to catch up, arrange a midweek dinner with your friends! Attending and presenting at conferences has also been really helpful for me. Last year I presented at the Midlands Graduate School ESRC DTP Annual Conference, and it was such a great experience, to be around like-minded people (albeit virtually) and sharing my research. Listening to all of the interesting research being done at other universities gave me a really big boost at a time where my motivation was feeling quite low. I am presenting at my first in-person conference this summer and I cannot contain my excitement about being able to network with academics in my field and learn all about the exciting research that is being done.
3. A good relationship with your supervisor/s is key.
One of the most important relationships that you will have during your PhD is with your supervisor. I have been incredibly lucky that I have had three brilliant supervisors throughout my journey (shoutout to Dr. Katie Tonkiss, Dr. Graeme Hayes and Dr. Gaja Maestri!) and I really believe that I wouldn’t have got to the point that I am at without their support. Make sure that you make the most of your supervisors – they are leading academics in your field with a wealth of experience that they can share with you. They have also been in your position so they know how it feels to be battling a PhD. And also remember that they agreed to be supervisors – and they did this because they believe in your research and they believe in you! Don’t suffer in silence – they are there to support you. Having said that I know I am very lucky to have had such a positive experience with my supervisors and that this is not always the case, so if you don’t feel like you are getting the support you need from that, make sure that you make your university aware.
4. Keep writing.
Now that I am at the stage where I am writing my thesis, I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am that I have continually been writing for the past three years! With the deadline being so far away, I think it is easy to coast through the first year of your PhD, but I guarantee you will regret doing that when you’re in your final year. Throughout my PhD I have had monthly meetings with my supervisors and at each meeting we agree on something for me to write up and send to them before the next meeting. Sometimes these are big pieces of writing (chapters of my thesis) and sometimes these are small pieces of writing (some key findings or a brief description of some key readings I have found), but this now means that I have so much of my research already written down which I can edit and use for my final thesis. It’s also just good practice – academic writing is a skill that you can only perfect through doing it and getting feedback on it.
5. You might have to deal with rejections but use them as learning experiences.
Being an academic is hard and unfortunately rejections are all part and parcel of the job. I have experienced rejections both when trying to get articles published and now that I am entering the job market. I would be lying if I said that they didn’t bring me down. But one thing that has really helped me is to use these rejections as learning experiences. We are all so early on in our academic careers, we are not going to sail through and get everything straight away and that’s okay as long as we are learning along the way. Keep your chin up and remember to celebrate the small wins too because doing a PhD is tough and you are doing really well!