Things I learned during my PhD – Do’s and don’t’s for students to staff

Anyone that knows me and readers of this blog may know that my PhD did not exactly go according to plan. This started basically exactly half way through my PhD, at the beginning of my 3rd year when my supervisor left, initially temporarily, and then a few months later that turned permanent. I will not talk about what happened in more detail, and this is not what the post is about.

My supervisor leaving was horrible, and it nearly destroyed my PhD. But I learned a lot from the experience, and this is what the post is about. Consider this to be some advice from me about what to do when shit hits the fan, some do’s and don’t’s about PhD life, for PhD students, supervisors, and staff. This is particularly relevant to my experience, but can be applied in many situations. This is not a general PhD advice post, since there are a lot out there, but specific to some more difficult things to talk about.

For students:

  1. Don’t let yourself get pushed around by those above you. If you are unhappy with something your supervisor is doing, don’t just take it, say something. If you need to go to someone above them, do it. This is an important relationship, and it’s not fun if you’re miserable for 4 years. This applies to not just your supervisor, but also to others above.
  2. Do make sure you have other supervisors. Most unis have some kind of system in place to prevent you from falling into the trap of having just 1 supervisor that is an expert in your field. This is important. You never know when something might happen and your supervisor might leave or be away for an extended period of time. Make sure you have a backup plan, and if you have to go to someone from another uni for this, do it. My uni had only 1 vertebrate palaeontologist, so I had other supervisors from other unis, but some people in our group weren’t as lucky, meaning that when our group leader left, there was little support for them.
  3. Don’t do it alone. Really. This is important. If there isn’t anyone at your uni for you to turn to for supervision or technical assistance, ask other people. Most people are happy to help, especially if you’re in a bind.
  4. Do get things in writing. If someone promises you something, especially if it has to do with money or funding, get it written down. If you’re relying on that money or agreement, and the person it was with leaves, having it in writing can help it happen if something happens to them.
  5. Do support your fellow students. When stuff goes awry, these are the people who will help you make it through. If it wasn’t for the other members of our group, those 2 years would have been impossible. We had to go through and get through a lot, and while it was tough at times, we came out of it stronger together.

For supervisors/advisors:

  1. Be honest with your students. I cannot stress how important this is. Even if telling the truth is tough, it is 1000x better than lying. Didn’t get a grant you thought you would? Tell them, even if it means they may have to fork out some of their own funding to do something they thought they wouldn’t have to. At least it’s their choice then, rather than finding out too late after they’ve committed. This is especially important for self-funded or partially-funded students. Don’t promise funding to help their projects if you don’t have it. It just results in huge disappointments and in some cases, financial hardships for students committing to things they can’t afford.
  2. Do limit yourself on how many students you take on. Unis tend to have policies about how many PhD students a single supervisor can take on, but this doesn’t always stretch towards Master’s and undergraduate students. It can be tempting to take on more students and thinking that you can handle it, but in reality, too many students means you can’t give them the time they need and you don’t have the time you need for yourself and your own work. I have seen other advisors say no to further students, despite temptation, and this is important.

For staff/head of department/head of grad school staff:

  1. Have a policy in place to deal with people leaving. If a staff member leaves for any reason, leaving students supervisor-less, have a clear policy for what happens next, account for absences greater than 6 weeks. For us, there was only something really in place for the first 6 weeks, and after that, nothing. I went 6 months from the start of the whole thing until I was given a replacement supervisor from the university, which resulted in me getting my scholarship money late, and being late on a tuition payment. Unexpected things happen, and students need to be supported. For example, this Guardian Academics Anonymous post touches on this exact topic, and how detrimental it can be when there is no good policy in place.
  2. Support the students when things happen. Be human. Help out in whatever way you can. This doesn’t mean telling them everything or saying things you can’t, but keeping them in the loop with what is going on especially before announcements are happening is nice. There are a few staff who went out of their way to help me, and I am extremely thankful for them. But there were also people who didn’t seem to want to help at all, and those people were exactly the people who should have.
  3. UPDATE: Have at least 2 active staff members for large research groups. If a group is successful and is greater than say 10 people, bring in additional people to support it, or don’t let it get larger. A single staff member should not be responsible for 20-25 people, which is what happened in our situation. This is related to staff members limiting themselves, but also unis should not force additional students on people to keep things going.

Some of these probably seem obvious, but in my experience, they clearly weren’t. There are a lot of other things I could say about bits I learned during my PhD, but I’m going to leave it at this. My PhD was difficult and downright traumatic at times, but I am so glad that I did it, and very proud of all of our group for making it through. And it has certainly given me a lot of ideas of what to do and not to do in the future. I sincerely hope no one has to go through something like this, but if you do, hopefully this will help.

The Guardian Academic Anonymous article shows that this is not a one-off event. Unis (and students) rarely have a plan B for when things go down the drain, and it results in failed PhDs and stress for students. This needs to change.


3 thoughts on “Things I learned during my PhD – Do’s and don’t’s for students to staff

  1. Yikes! There is evidently a HUGE untold story here. I hope one day you’re in a position to tell it properly. Anyway, the key point is: congratulations (to you and to all in your cohort) for making it through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mike, it was certainly a battle at times! Definitely lots untold here, and perhaps one day more will be known, but a lot of it isn’t my place to tell. These things have a tendency to see the light of day eventually…


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