Jose posted an article last week about one person’s PhD experience, highlighting many of the common difficulties encountered when doing what’s largely a self-directed research project. There are about how to finish a PhD that expand on these questions – of supervisors, organizing your time and so on – but I’ve found that their advice can be frustratingly abstract. When I started my PhD I couldn’t help but wonder “yes but what should I do RIGHT NOW?”.
One useful trick I discovered was to set myself regular assignments. If you’re coming to a PhD from an undergrad or Masters level degree, chances are you’re more used to having teachers give you tasks rather than setting off into uncharted waters on your own. What’s more, you’ve got a big mountain of work sitting in front of you labelled ‘lit review’ and it can be hard to know where to start.
I tried to overcome these problems by dividing up the task into about 8 two-week long assignments. First, I did some brainstorming and together with my supervisor identified the subject areas with which I should become familiar, before dividing these topics into specific research questions. In my case, these were things like “How do people and societies respond to new technologies?” and “Describe the policy issues associated with metering of microgeneration systems in the UK”. I then gave myself two weeks to write an essay on these topics. It gave a clear direction to my reading and by the end of it, I could present my supervisor with a tangible product that we could then discuss.
In theory these mini-reviews could be edited together into your lit review chapter, making one of the most difficult parts of writing up much easier. In practice though I found that, because I was working in a fast-moving field, much of the material I’d gathered in the first months of my PhD was out-of-date by the time I got around to writing up three years later. But the essays only needed some updating, it was excellent writing practice and it was an invaluable way of establishing a routine at the start of a daunting project.
As a footnote if you have some experience in teaching and learning theory, you may recognize this technique as an application of learning outcomes (see this for a brief introduction). My assignment questions can essentially be re-written as:
In two weeks time, I will be able to:
- Describe the policy issues associated with metering of microgeneration systems in the UK
You can evaluate your own success against these outcomes, recognize how far you’ve come, and be clear about what you’ve achieved for things like your transfer report. The above link has some good tips on how to write and use learning outcomes.