When I started my PhD in the fall of 2019, little did I know about what lied ahead for the entire world. So when writing my reflections for the first year of my PhD, I did not foresee how the COVID-19 pandemic would shape a significant part of my PhD experience. As the world is heading into a new form of “normality”, I will try to keep these learnings general and relevant for different contexts. Without further due, here are three lessons now that I’m two thirds into my doctoral studies.
Ride the challenging waves early on
Regardless of one’s discipline, a PhD is about learning to do research. Although everyone’s journey is different, I learned a lot from going through the whole research process as early as possible – roughly one third into my first year. From designing a study to writing up the results for a research paper, this process helped me identify some of my strengths and the skills that needed development. It was tough to realise the messiness of research, but embracing and making sense of this messiness is a core advantage for the entire journey.
Doing research involves making mistakes and learning from them. Again, going through the research process helped me make mistakes early in the journey, such as realising that academic writing takes much longer than one can think. I found it helpful to reflect on what went wrong and write down a few bullet points on avoiding the same error next time. In fact, some genuinely insightful ideas have resulted from this reflection process of digesting what went wrong along the way.
Being open to change is part of the learning to ride these challenging moments. It’s easy to become attached to an idea or a project direction; however, it is challenging to let go and adjust course. In other cases, the research journey might require learning (and unlearning!) things. Cultivating a growth mindset helps to pivot when things don’t go how were expected.
Cultivate meaningful communities of support
It’s easy to underestimate how isolating doing a PhD can be. Especially when working from home, it might feel daunting and discouraging. However, as more research labs are re-opening, this is an opportunity to pop in and meet with other colleagues. It’s beneficial to chat with people sharing research interests or at a similar stage in the research process (i.e., writing a paper or designing a study). These interactions help talk through one’s experiences, getting feedback, or simply hearing a different perspective.
There’s a fantastic community of researchers online too! While there might be a lot of negativity on Twitter, there are also incredible communities. Communities such as #AcademicChatter, PhD Balance, Thoughts of a PhD, Career Conversations, Dr Meming (a bit of humour), and more generate great connections and spark healthy debate! I would also encourage finding communities related to your research interests. Some of these communities are even on Discord, where one can ask for support or attend virtual events (i.e., writing retreats). The bottom line is that feeling part of a wider academic community has been a core motivation to remind me that doing a PhD doesn’t have to be isolating.
When possible, get involved in academic conferences, workshops, doctoral consortiums, and the like events. Attending these types of events help promote your research, meet new people, and get feedback. I’ve found various opportunities on Twitter and LinkedIn, hence the power of investing time in developing a community. At the same time, applying for and attending these events can be time-consuming, so keep an eye on your workload. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of events, your supervisor might help you decide which ones are worth attending.
My supervisor told me the importance of connecting with people at a similar stage of one’s research journey because these are the folks one grows side by side professionally. It’s been a piece of advice that has stuck with me at every event I attend, trying to stay connected with these peers at a similar stage. In the field of HCI, the CHI Mentoring Workshop has been incredibly helpful to access a community that I identify with and where I feel supported.
Taking time off is one’s most undervalued asset
Striking a balance between my research and other activities was particularly challenging during my second year. Perhaps, this was because of various lockdowns and pandemic restrictions; it felt like work crept up most of my free time. Now, I’m making a conscious effort to take enough time for myself and detach from my research. Finding off-work activities that have a consistent time and place have helped me in this process. I know that I’ll be doing something different each week, helping me have a consistent routine.
Also, finding my preferred work style has helped established a balanced routine. For example, I’ve always been a morning person; I feel like I can easily focus and get the work that requires concentration out of the way. Also, in the afternoon I get distracted more easily, hence I do activities like answering communications and reading papers. In the evening, I seldomly get anything done, so I reserve those for myself. For instance, to cook a nice meal for dinner or play some videogames. Find the routine that works for you and adjusts to your circumstances.
Taking time to explore new activities can spark new ideas. In last year’s blog, I mentioned the importance of branching out from one’s discipline to generate new ideas. Taking time off is also a fantastic opportunity to go out from your environment and explore new things. For instance, travelling to a new city, going on a hike or even returning home (especially if you’re an international student) can help recharge energies and foster reflection. I talked in a different blog about how to explore being one’s best version and, with ups and downs, I believe this is an ongoing journey. This past year, I’ve learned that doing a PhD is another dimension of this journey of self-exploration. Carving time to knowing oneself is key to generating new ideas and having breakthroughs during challenging times.
To sum up, I learned this past year that:
- Facing challenging moments is what fosters growth.
- Investing in supportive communities on- and offline is essential to navigating these challenging moments.
- Finding one’s best-structured routine helps to detach from work, and making time for things outside work are the moments I cherish the most.