What I wish I’d known when I started my PhD

Recently a few colleagues and I set up a reading course in which we read and discussed articles and books on different themes related to being a researcher. The themes were: to review, to publish, and to write. To read on our own and then to meet and discuss based on our own experiences proved to be a great learning opportunity and we all agreed that discussions about these core aspects of being a researcher should take a more natural part in our everyday work life. However, we also felt that some of the reading materials would have been more helpful to read in the beginning of our journeys toward a PhD. Accordingly, this is what I wish I’d known when I started my PhD: 

Write first, and write every day (even if it’s only for 15 minutes). Sometimes I find myself putting my writing on hold until some distant time in the future when I’ll feel motivated and productive. This does not work! Instead of waiting for motivation to come to you, you should write often and regularly, and most importantly, you should write also on those days when you don’t feel like writing or when you feel like you have nothing to say. A common recommendation in the texts about how to be an efficient writer is a technique called “fast writing”. This technique means that you should write fast and without overthinking it. Save all editing to later. I tried this technique during a period of not having anything to say, and realised that writing about that feeling helped me discover that I indeed had things to write about and to generate ideas for the next step in my research. I wish I’d known when I started my PhD how useful these two golden rules are for sorting of my (sometimes very confused) thoughts, to feel more in control of my research progress, and to boost my productivity. 

The time and effort it takes for a manuscript to get published does not reflect on how good of a researcher you are. A long process with multiple re-submissions, being asked to make large revisions of the manuscript, and sometimes receiving nasty review comments can really make you feel like a failure. I wish I’d known when I started my PhD that this happens also to the more experienced researchers and more importantly, that it does not mean that my research is bad or unpublishable. 

We’re all peers. I think we all remember the first time being asked to review a manuscript. For me, I felt honoured but also very nervous because I convinced myself that my task as a reviewer was to judge the quality of the paper and to find all errors or scientific problems in the text. Hence, if I would fail at that, I would be a bad reviewer. No wonder I felt nervous and that the famous imposter syndrome came knocking on my door. I wish I’d known when I started my PhD that the peer-review process is built upon researchers being peers, supporting each other and providing feedback based not on an objective truth about the manuscript and its quality, but based on the reviewers’ respective knowledge and perspectives. Accordingly, my perspective on a manuscript is valuable and there is no need to feel as an imposter.

For those interested, I can strongly recommend to read the following texts:

  • Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: a guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis.
  • Mingers, J (2002). The long and winding road: Getting papers published in top journals. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 8, 330–339.
  • Bohannon, J (2013) Who’s afraid of Peer Review? Science, 342, 60–65.
Rebecca Cort

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