Being a PhD Student

Published on: Author: Ian MacNeill

At the start of the year many are considering the benefits of further study and embarking on a career in research. PhD Student Ian MacNeill, who has just completed his first year with the Unit, reflects on his experiences to offer some advice.

By Ian MacNeill, PhD student, researching how interventions delivered by football charities can improve the outcomes for young offenders leaving custody. Ian is a former youth worker and adult educator in China and Scotland.

Ian MacNeill

When I was applying for my PhD people would ask me (often incredulously) why I wanted to spend another three years being a student. In response, I could quite comfortably reel off all of the things that I had read on websites and blogs about the skills I expected to acquire and develop through doing a PhD – I wanted to develop my research skills, I wanted to improve myself as a communicator, I wanted to be able to teach at a university… – but really, I had found a topic that motivated me and it was something I believed could, in some small way, be used to improve the lives of other people.

That motivation was key as I started my PhD having just moved half way around the world and my wife was about eight months pregnant. I’m not suggesting that people should begin their PhD journey in similarly hectic circumstances; in fact, I would suggest that you don’t.

What I am trying to get at is that having a keystone reason why you decide to embark on this process can be a source of strength and resolve over the next three years because, I’m afraid to say, there will be moments when you feel like throwing everything in the bin and start looking for jobs as a ‘fire lookout’ for the Parks and Recreation Service in Oregon (true story).

So, before you start, whether your research topic is about nuclear isotopes or medieval literature, make sure your chosen field is something that you have an interest in, actually, more than an interest, a passion for!

Advice for adjusting to the PhD life

At certain points in your PhD you might feel like you are ploughing a lonely furrow, especially when you are awake at 3am raking through your notes for that elusive reference you wrote down somewhere (reference software, seriously, use it, from day one!), or transcribing interviews (if you have to do this, never underestimate how long this process takes), but you should remember that you are not alone on this journey.

You will, hopefully, have a supportive pair of supervisors who can act as your ‘spirit guide’ to get you to the end and be there to offer a hug and a gin when it is all over.

I would strongly suggest that you try to form a functioning working relationship with these sage-like figures as they have likely been down this path several times before. They will tell you some home truths over the course of your PhD and offer robust criticism of the work that you do – learning how not to take that personally was a significant process for me – but this should result in the quality of the work you produce improving.

At times you’ll have to fight your corner about the direction of your research but if they keep telling you that your ideas are unworkable or your fieldwork plan is too ambitious then I would suggest that you listen to their advice.

Young adult Hispanic woman is adult college student. She is talking to mature adult Caucasian female professor or classmate in library. Women are discussing class assignment or essay. They are wearing modern casual clothing.

You will have the opportunity to do lots of different things during your PhD including sourcing literature (a more satisfying process than it might sound); reading a huge amount of research in your chosen field – be prepared for people’s eyes to glaze over when you start talking about your research in the pub; designing your research plan; submitting ethics applications; negotiating access with gatekeepers; conducting fieldwork; exploring and analysing your data; getting the chance to meet and learn from respected academics; developing your research skills; attending conferences (sometimes in warm places – important if you live in Scotland); and maybe you will teach or give presentations to stakeholders. Amongst all of this, you will write your thesis and make a contribution to scientific knowledge. I know this sounds like a lot but the time will fly by!

Boxing clever

My last piece of advice would be to not to go so far down the rabbit hole of your PhD that you lose sight of the world around you. You will probably find that it is hard to leave your project completely alone when not at work – some of my best ideas have come to me in the shower. However, you were a ‘normal’ multi-faceted person before you started this and you will be again once it is over. So try and find something to do for a few hours a week that is completely unrelated to your research. Me? I took up boxing. I find that unplugging for an hour or so for a few nights a week really helps me organise my thoughts and I can return to my laptop refreshed (after a thought-provoking shower) and ready to start again.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

The MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Medical Research Council or the Scottish Government.