Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

Thoughts from a second year doctoral student

Last week I went to a presentation entitled “How I finished my PhD in 183 weeks”. Before even going, I had to work out how long 183 weeks is and whether this is a good amount of time to finish a PhD in (turns out it’s about 3.5 years, so yes!). 

The speaker had a lot of good analogies, like that the PhD is a marathon, when laying bricks you should remember you’re building a castle etc. What I thought I’d do today then, is to share what I’ve learned over the last 2 years. So here we go, in no particular order:

1. Push yourself
For me personally, I found I had a bit of downtime now and again e.g. waiting for drafts of papers to be reviewed, waiting for ethics to come through etc. I could have used this time better by doing readings or starting to write other methodologies.

2. Write everything down
This is definitely easier said than done because at the time it seems so silly. Trust me though, you won’t remember everything you did/thought when it comes time to writing things up for a paper.

3. Take heaps of photos
Again, at the time it seems silly to have a ton of photos of your experiments. It totally pays off though when it comes to presentations, trying to describe your experimental setup or just as a “souvenir” at the end of it all. 

4. Be social
The downfall for a lot of people during their studies is that they overcommit on the social side of things and their work suffers. For me, it was the opposite. When I started, I thought I had to be this super serious student. I started off working from home (more about this a bit later) but soon found I was becoming a bit of a hermit. Play a team sport, meet colleagues/peers for coffee, have lunch dates with your partner. Relax! (but not too much).

5. Separate work/play
This follows on from the point above. Like I mentioned, the first year and a half of my PhD I worked from home. I thought, great! I can be more productive, not have to spend time travelling to work, get to wear bum clothes all day. However, I soon found that I was beginning to associate home with stress and work with relaxing (not so good for either). So, when I came back from overseas, I made a conscious effort to be in the office more and I haven’t looked back. I found I was more productive, able to ask people for help more easily, made some great friends and felt more connected to my department. 

6. Ask for help
Although a PhD is self-directed, you don’t have to slog it alone. My weakness is statistics so for a long time I got others to do this part of my work for me. I finally went and saw a statistician by myself and, although a bit scary, it was useful. He was very patient and well-spoken, which meant I not only found it easier to understand what he was saying but also allowed me to do some stats myself. My biggest fear, and possibly why I put off seeking help for a while, is looking stupid. No one can be good at everything and most people are happy to help if they are asked.

Good luck to all those undertaking Doctoral, Masters or even Honours study. I never thought I would enjoy research as much as I do now and am grateful for all the challenges that have come my way.

Disclaimer: What I’ve written above is what I found useful. However, the PhD is a time for personal development. So do what works for you!