The thesis that never was – Advice to postgraduates

Or more to the point, avoiding having a thesis that never was.

I’m now a fourth year PhD student, doing physics, coming to the end of my time, clearly using my time well writing a blog post.  During my time leading up to starting and in the first few years many people gave me many bits of advice.  Some as a joke, some serious.

I have done the same to those who have followed in my footsteps and propose to discuss the most useful below.   I’m a physicist, and this is written from my perspective, but I would hope that they can be stretched out wider into the other sciences and perhaps beyond…

I think I should point out that I have enjoyed my time as a postgrad. I have worked with some very good people on some very interesting projects.

Doing a PhD is hard, not necessarily because what you are trying to achieve is conceptually difficult but because it’s hard work, long hours, often for little thanks.  Things very rarely work the first time around, this is for varying reasons, but often it’s because the universe hates postgrads… or so it sometimes seems.  This feeling is, I believe, a case of availability heuristic where you base probabilities of things happening on how easy similar events are to remember.  As things not working are more emotionally stimulating (infuriating) than things just working these events are more likely to be remembered.  Also, all of the easy things have already been experimented on, that’s because they’re easy… Although I’m not convinced there was ever any easy to conduct…

Now, onto some proper advice.  There are a few things you need to think about when you are applying to grad schools/postgrad courses.  Obviously the project is important, if you find the formation of stars dull you probably shouldn’t be spending several years of your life and possibly your whole career thinking about them.  I’m not exaggerating there, there are times, more often than not currently, where I spend whole weeks thinking about nothing but my current work.  I fall asleep (or often fail to fall asleep) thinking about it, then wake up a couple of hours later still thinking about it…  It’s just the way it is, sorry.

There is something which I believe is just as likely to make you stick it out or not though, which people are more likely to ignore. The people you work with, obviously your supervisor is important and it’s a very personal choice as to what you like here.  It’s possible that you like the idea of an academic who spends most of their time leaning over your shoulder and telling you what to do next, you probably won’t end up being quite as good a researcher as you could have been that way though.  Or you might like the idea of completely self motivating where you’re lucky if you can guess in 3 what continent your supervisor is in let alone seeing him every day.  I know people who are in similar positions to this, one sits behind her supervisor, the other no one really knows where he is ever, whole months pass with no one seeing them.  Most are somewhere between the two.  If they’ve got current students talk to them, if they don’t talk to current students in the same research group, they’ll have some idea of what they’re like.

And whilst we are at it, you should talk to the current students in the group any way.  They’ll be your colleagues, your friends, I spend more time with the girl I sit across from than my girlfriend!  These people will be your first port of call when you need help, when you need a chat when you just want to cry because you know NOTHING. Most people experience these feelings at least once through their three to four years of research, it’s not unusual, and if you don’t you’re probably crazy anyway.

I have to say I’m very lucky here.  Some of the people I liked most from my undergraduate degree started a PhD at the same time (including the girl who sits across from me) and we get on great.  It’s a lovely atmosphere where you can ask any question and you might get laughed at but you’ll get answered and it’s never done in a hurtful way.

People will probably suggest that you can write elements of your thesis in your first year. This is probably just a waste of your time, you’ll end up throwing them away or re-writing them, they will not be good.  Even if you think they are great at the time, things change so much in a couple of years it’s scary…  Even your introduction, your research might, and often does, take strange turns which cannot really be predicted until you start doing the experiments, so you may be introducing a thesis that never was or never could be…  That isn’t to say that they may not help you understand the background physics better, which is a very good argument for doing such exercises.

So people are important.  A big part of this is realising you are not alone! No matter how much it might feel like it sometimes, everyone goes through what seems like the same stages, the second year blues are well documented, and really the third year gets worse, sorry everyone.  I’m led to believe it’s worth it.  I intend to get back to you on this.

One of the things that has helped my sanity is doing something away from physics.  Once a week, pretty much without fail, I go and spend an evening with non-physicist friends.  This is important.  It reminds me that there is a world outside physics, other people out there aren’t doing this, and trust me, they don’t understand what writing a thesis is like, it’s so different from anything I’ve done before, including my masters dissertation!

Before you start make sure you’ll be happy with the people and the project, and have people to talk to.Take breaks, talk to people, spend some time doing something that isn’t physics.  Don’t worry, you’ll be going through the same feelings everyone else does, it’s scary, trust me, I know, but you’ll get through it and then be a doctor.

I hope this might make people feel they are not alone, and maybe helped people decide on where they would like to do their research a little bit more.

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