Are You Struggling With Your Writing?

Computer-Frustration-Cartoon-2‘How do I write an introduction?’

‘What do I put in my conclusions?

‘How do I manage to keep on track when I feel I have completely lost my motivation?’

‘My submission deadline is approaching fast but I still haven’t completed my thesis and I’m now panicking. What can I do?’

‘How do I decide what to reference in my text?’

These are just some of the questions that I get asked all the time.

Do you relate with any of these? If so, don’t miss my FREE Webinar:

‘How to Write Your PhD Thesis, Proposal, or Research Paper in 5 Easy Steps That Will Save You Time, Stress, and Sleepless Nights’

In this webinar, I’ll be sharing:

  • The single most important thing to get right in your thesis, proposal or research paper
  • My top 3 tips for productive and effective writing
  • The worst mistake you can make and how to avoid it
  • My proven 5-step approach to writing that will help you enjoy it and become more confident

Interested? Then, make sure you register now as spaces are limited and they are filling up quickly.
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

After the webinar, I’m also going to open up registrations to my online course ‘Hands on Writing: How to Master Academic Writing (in the Sciences)’ where I teach the very same strategy that I now use for my own writing and when supervising my PhD students.

And… I’ll be telling you about some juicy bonuses on how to avoid procrastination, stay on track, enjoy a great work-life balance so you can feel confident and in charge again.

I’ll tell you more at the webinar, so just make sure you do not miss it! :)

Here is the link again:
http://www.handsonwriting.com/webinar

Tips for a Successful PhD

If you have recently started your PhD, you may still be at a stage where you wonder what is actually expected of you and more generally, what is the secret for a successful PhD.

adviceSome time ago, I was asked to write a guest post on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog to provide some advice to new PhD student.

If you are a new PhD student, or an aspiring one, here is a re-post of my original article Beginnings – Top 10 Tips to Succeed in Your PhD. I hope you’ll find it useful.

***

So, you have just graduated and are about to start a PhD. Well done and congratulations! This is certainly an important milestone in your education and you deserve to celebrate both an end and a new beginning. No doubt you are expecting exciting times ahead and plenty of new experiences and opportunities. For the luckiest of you, your PhD might turn out to be an easy ride. For most, however, it will not be all rosy as you first thought.

There are good reasons why this is the case.

The acronym PhD comes from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor (or Doctor of Philosophy), where philosophy is not to be understood as a branch of science, but as its original Greek meaning of “love of wisdom” or “the pursuit of in-depth knowledge”. In itself, a PhD is just a title: an advanced academic degree awarded by a university for original contributions to knowledge. However, the PhD has become a requirement for a career as a university professor or researcher in most fields. Although the roots of the “doctorate” degree can be traced back to the Middle Ages (see for example [1]), its status as an advanced research degree is much more recent and dates to the early nineteenth century, when the doctorate was first introduced at Berlin University.

The requirements for a PhD vary greatly from country to country. In the US, Canada and Denmark, for example, specific coursework is required over a prescribed minimum amount of time, in addition to the research project that forms the core of a PhD. In other countries (such as the UK, although things are gradually changing), there is no such prescription but other activities, e.g. contribution to teaching, are equally expected. The culmination of the PhD consists in the submission of a written thesis describing a suitable body of original academic research, which is deemed worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals. The candidate is then expected to defend his work before a panel of experts (their number varies greatly across countries), in a process known as the “Viva” (Latin from Viva voce, i.e. “by live voice”). Provided the panel is satisfied by the work carried out and by its oral defense, the PhD title (at last, a Dr in front on your name!) is finally and formally awarded.

Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the end of the story for, ultimately, a PhD is merely a professional qualification. Stated simply, it is a qualification that certifies your aptitude to be a practitioner in your own field of expertise. Thus, rather than an end, this is just the beginning: the beginning of your profession and your career. In this respect, a PhD is nothing more (or less!) than an “apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster” [2].

Maybe then, it comes as no surprise that a PhD is not for everyone! Independence, self-drive, persistence, adaptability, brightness, commitment, motivation, reliability, discipline, creativity, are only some of the key traits that make for a successful PhD student. Sadly, excellent academic grades alone are not enough as the requirements for a good PhD student can be very different from those of a good undergraduate student [4].

Having worked in academia for almost 15 years, I have seen many students becoming disillusioned with their PhDs at a very early stage because of misplaced expectations of what it would be all about. I have also seen students making the same mistakes over and over again. And while it is true that every PhD is a blend of unique and distinctive circumstances (project, supervision, personal abilities), some aspects of it remain unchanged throughout countries and across disciplines.

So, you may want to learn from the pitfalls and setbacks of others to save yourself months (if not years!) of frustration and dissatisfaction. The advice I offer below is mainly aimed at PhD students in science (my background being Physics), but some of it can equally be extended to other fields of research.

Here, my top ten tips:

1) Choose your project and your supervisor wisely (see [3] for more advice on this). Nothing can make your life a misery as an ill matched supervision or project.

2) If you are going to do experimental work, be prepared for unexpected setbacks. Despite your best efforts, things can (and sadly will!) go wrong at some point or other. Just stick with it and be patient. Also, be open to take a different direction if the original one proves unworkable.

3) Devote your mind and soul to your PhD. This is a unique time in your career as a scientist to work almost exclusively on your research project. You will hardly ever have the same luxury again! (Well, unless you start another PhD, that is).

4) Be reliable. Follow through with your words, stick to what agreed with your supervisor, and always communicate as early as possible if you are prevented from fulfilling your commitments for any reason (make sure it is a good one).

5) Ban perfectionism, but be professional! Be scrupulous, careful and accurate. Check, double check and check again your data and your results. Do not let your supervisor lose trust in your results, or worse, in you as a researcher. Reward yourself for major achievements and stop working when you are on holiday.

6) Write at every opportunity. Be it a report, a first year summary of your progress, a proposal to gain access time at international facilities for your research, a first draft of an article, always make sure you work at it with the highest dedication and professionalism. Do not make the mistake to assume that your year report is not worth the hassle. Look at it as a useful training towards the writing up of your thesis. Ask for feedback and act upon it. Most people are not naturally gifted writers, and writing well always takes far longer than expected. On the positive side, scientific writing can be learnt and luckily there are plenty of resources out there.

7) If you are required to take on teaching commitments, choose courses which you feel genuinely interested in, or courses from which you can learn something useful for your PhD project (whether it is directly related to it, or whether it just allows you to acquire new skills). Also, make sure you strike the right balance between teaching and research.

8) When attending conferences or summer schools, use these opportunities to network and expand your circle of influential contacts and to increase your knowledge base. Ask questions and be interested in what others are doing. Focusing on others is the best way to make an impression and to get others interested in you and your work.

9) Be prepared and accept that there will be tough times. It is in the nature of doing a PhD and everyone goes through such times sooner or later. If this happens to you, try and keep the right perspective on things. Do whatever you can to address any specific problem that may have led to a hault. If you cannot solve the problem, adopt a constructive attitude: remind yourself that you are privileged to be doing a PhD and that soon enough you will see the end of it. If things get seriously worrying, ask for help. Many departments have organizations specifically designed to provide help and advice to students on all sorts of matters.

10) Be careful about initiating personal relationships with fellow students or other colleagues in your own department and for sure stay well away from your supervisor! It is often heartbreaking when a relationship ends. If this happens with someone whom you are likely to meet again every day, or worse, with someone who has some sort of power over you (as is the case with your supervisor) this can be the end of your PhD too. Do not risk it!

And finally, for as much as you can, enjoy it! It can be the beginning of a fabulous career.

References

[1] http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Philosophiae+Doctor

[2] Though love: An insensitive guide to thriving in you PhD  

[3] How to Choose Your Supervisor and Sail Happily Through Your PhD 

[4] Top Ten Tips to a Great PhD Start (part I and part II)

Insiders Views on Doing a PhD (Video)

A new academic year starts today at the University of Edinburgh.

This also coincides with the arrival of all our new PhD students. For some, this is the time to start thinking about choosing a project, or a supervisor, and finding out what to do to begin in the best possible way.

For others, this is the time to start thinking about applying for a PhD, or even finding out whether a PhD is a good idea for them. Last year, I posted some advice in this blog and you may find it useful to read Ten Good Reasons for Doing PhD (part I) and (part II) or to read my guest post at Nature’s SoapBox Science Blog.

This year, we decided to ask some insiders about what a PhD means to them.

In the video below, three of our PhD students (Daniel Doherty, Salome Matos, and Tim Bush) speak about their experience as a PhD student in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

These are the questions we have asked them:

  • What made you want to study for a PhD?
  • What are your career aspirations and how do you think a PhD will help?
  • Is your PhD related to previous studies?
  • Do you have any advice on how to approach a potential supervisor?
  • So far, what have been the hardest and most rewarding moments of your PhD?
  • So far, has the PhD been what you expected?
  • Do you have any advice for prospective PhD applicants?

Click on the image below to start watching the video. I hope you will find it useful.

Video credits: Noe Ardanaz-Ugalde 

Do you have any comment or question? Just let us know and share your experience.

Top Ten Tips to a Great PhD Start (part 2)

“Chi ben comincia è a metà dell’opera!” This is an old Italian saying that means “The one who starts well is already half way through”. This holds for your PhD too. There is a lot to take on board when you start a PhD and sometimes things can get overwhelming. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to start well and give the best impression you can. Last week, I shared the first five of my top ten tips to a great PhD start. Here, are my other five.

6) Be interested. Doing a PhD is quite a bit more than just working at your research project. It also means getting involved in your community, taking part in the departmental life, finding out what your peers are doing. Apart from the social aspect of it, being interested and being involved will give you plenty of opportunities to broaden your horizons.

7) Take advice. Let’s say you are smart. Ok, let’s say you are very smart. Maybe even smarter than your supervisor. That’s a great thing. However, as long as your doctorate is concerned, this is probably new territory for you (unless, of course, you have already done a PhD before). Your supervisor, on the other hand, will have been there before and most likely will have already supervised other PhD students. As such, they have a better view and understanding of what it means to do a PhD. So, just take advantage from their experience and be open to take advice.

8) Communicate well. Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance polymath and my greatest genius of all times, developed quite a remarkable way of writing, from right to left, that could only be read holding his scripts in front of a mirror. Some people say it was because he was left-handed, but others believe that he was afraid to have his ideas stolen or copied by others. In fact, an incredible number of inventions and discoveries remained unexploited during his lifetime and had to be “re-invented” centuries after. The morale? No matter how good your research is, the point is that unless you are willing to communicate it and communicate it in a way that others can understand it, there is little point in doing any research at all. The communication skills that you will have to master during your PhD (and ideally in any career you choose after that) will involve mostly written, oral and poster presentations (more about these in future posts). However, when it comes to communication, also the way you interact with your supervisor, your colleagues and your peers matters. In fact, even the way you communicate by email says a lot about the type of person you are. While there is no need to be unduly formal, it is always worth keeping in mind some etiquette rules. When writing to people on more senior positions, always make sure you use a proper salutation (no “heya” or the like) and a proper ending. Be polite and to the point. Avoid sms-like text. Don’t be sloppy and check for possible grammar mistakes!

9) Follow your words with actions. I just cannot count the number of times I have been promised something (a thesis chapter, a report draft, a meeting at a given time) just to be met with a delay, a problem or simply nothing. It is frustrating. Sure, there will be times when something genuinely happens that prevents you from sticking to your words. It happens to all of us. But if not following through your words happens just all too often, then your credibility is lost. If you suspect that you may not be able to meet a deadline or an arrangement (however informally agreed that was), say so at once. Always assume that whatever you are asked to do is going to take much longer than you anticipate and plan accordingly. This will minimise the risk of having to come up with some reason as to why you did not stick to your words. Ultimately, this is part of becoming professional, which takes us to our last point.

10) Become professional. The holder of a PhD is a fully professional research scientist; can produce research of interest to other professional research scientists; is knowledgeable enough to evaluate the work of others; and can communicate their results to an audience of professional researchers. Of course, it will take time to acquire all these skills, but these are the goals you should be aiming for from the very beginning of your PhD. Knowing in advance where it is that you are heading can help you better define the path and focus on the key tasks that will allow you to gain such skills. The way you will operate during the years of your doctorate is likely to set the stage for whatever comes next, whether it be a post in academia or a job in the “real world”. The people with whom you interact are the same who will provide references about your achievements, but also – and equally importantly – about your personality and attitude. Make sure you get the best possible reference by being the best possible professional you can be.

PS This is the last post of this series for this year. We’ll resume in January. Until then,  very best wishes to all for a happy festive season!

Top Ten Tips to a Great PhD Start

Have you ever thought about the difference between under-graduate and post-graduate studies? Do you have an idea of the major challenges you will face in your PhD? Do you know what to do to make sure you start off in the best possible way?

The transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies is a crucial one. Learn quickly about what is expected of you and you’ll be able to make the most of your doctorate. Just to give you an idea, here are some key differences between being an undergraduate and being a PhD student. Undergraduates follow a prescribed and well-defined curriculum; are told what to study; are given textbooks as recommended resources; focus their learning on well-established knowledge; and do all of the above as part of a class (which means they can get help from their peers). If one gets stuck, there is always “the answer” to look up.

As you embark on research as a post-graduate student, on the other hand, you have no curriculum to follow; you mostly teach yourself what you need to know; you barely know what the questions are; and nobody provides an answer. Indeed, very often nobody knows the answer! If this wasn’t enough, you do most of the above on your own, with only some guidance from your supervisor.

It is no surprise then that fully accomplishing the transition is going to pose some challenges. Luckily, there is a lot you can do to set off to the best possible start in your PhD. Here, are five of my top ten tips to make sure that you achieve precisely that.

1) Be proactive. Once you have met with your supervisor and have decided on your project, make sure you take initiative. Ideally, your supervisor should set up regular meetings with you. A good frequency at the beginning is about once a week and later on you can decide to meet less frequently or whenever required by the progress on your work. However, if your supervisor is one of the very busy types, being proactive is crucial for you. Ask your supervisor to meet you for half an hour whenever (s)he is available. Come up with an agenda of issues you want to discuss. After the meeting, write a brief summary of what has been agreed and send a copy to your supervisor, together with a list of actions to be completed (most likely by you) by the following meeting.

2) Take the lead. This means realising that your PhD is YOUR project. As such you need to take the lead on the way you want to organise your work and make sure you are always on track to achieve the milestones that you will agree with your supervisor.

3) Set your path. Develop a system that helps you make the most of your time. Remember that you will have plenty to do in addition to your research. Depending on your departmental rules, this may include: tutoring or demonstrating in undergraduate classes; taking courses for your PhD; attending summer schools; presenting your work at conferences; preparing yearly reports; and so on. A good PhD planner can be a very useful tool to manage your time effectively, to make sure you have everything under control and never to miss a deadline.

4) Ask for help. If you do get stuck or indeed if you realise that something is not quite working as it should, do ask for help. And do so as soon as the problem arises. People tend to underestimate early signs of problems and hope that somehow the issue will resolve itself in due time. While this may OCCASIONALLY be the case, more often then not problems have a tendency of getting bigger and worse if left unattended. Depending on the nature of the problem you are facing, you can talk to other members in your group, to a secretary who is familiar with the system, or indeed to any caring person who is wiling to offer a sympathetic ear.

5) Turn up at useful times. Let’s face it. The freedom to manage your time as you please is one of the best aspects of working in academia. No one will tell you when you should arrive and when you should leave. But there are circumstances when you really need to make an effort to be around and available when other people are (most notably your supervisor) so that you do have plenty of opportunities to overlap. It always pleases me to come in in the morning and see one of my students already there.

If you manage to put in practice all of the tips suggested so far, you are already in a great position to make a good impression on the people around you and on your supervisor. Remember: you only get one chance at making a first impression! Next week, I am going to share with you the other five top tips to help you achieve the best possible start. Stay tuned :)

Marialuisa