A quick tour of PhD milestones (Catherine Nixon)
Catherine Nixon - joined the unit in 2007 as a research assistant, and in 2009 secured funding from the Scottish Chief Scientists Office for a PhD to explore how looked after and accommodated young people and the adults caring for them communicate about sexual health and relationships. She now works as an Investigator Scientist within the unit.
Whilst the PhD experience differs for each person, there are a number of shared milestones that all PhD students encounter throughout their studies. During your first year as a PhD student you will be expected to undertake a literature review and develop the ideas for your studentship. The way in which this happens often depends upon your supervisors. Some supervisors like to set their students formal essay questions throughout the year in order to provide structure and direction to literature searches within the first year. Other supervisors may be less formal in their approach and set broad research related tasks that place the onus upon you as the student to decide what literature and theories you should be reading in relation to the topic area. You will work out the supervision style of your supervisors early on within your relationship, and it is important that you use the time that you spend with them to discuss challenges. Regardless of how your supervisors ask you to undertake the literature review, the aim of the first year of your PhD is to develop your research ideas. This is often a collaborative process between student and supervisors, and it is worth remembering that whilst the sky might seem like the limit to you, your supervisors will often have their own ideas and research questions that they think your research should be addressing! Whilst this can cause tensions to develop, it should be remembered that through having these discussions you are learning to negotiate and engaging in academic debate with some of the leading academics within your discipline.
By the end of your first year it is expected that you will have a “rough” idea about the research questions that you hope to answer with your study. In addition to having undertaken a literature review you will have developed ideas about the methods that you will use, what data you will be collecting/analysing and be engaging with the potential theories that underpin your subject area. It is also possible that if you are undertaking a study where original data is collected that you will have submitted an ethics application and conducted some pilot interviews or questionnaires to test the research tools. One of the things that all students have to go through is “the first year review”. As part of this you will be asked to give a 15 minute presentation to the rest of the unit, submit a 10,000 word research proposal to the PhD convenors at the unit and orally defend the ideas presented. Depending upon your topic area the document may also be given to another senior academic to review. Whilst this process sounds frightening, and you will be extremely nervous on the day, the point of it is to assess whether the ideas for data collection that have been developed by you and your supervisors are realistic and deliverable within the next two years of funding. It also provides an opportunity for individuals who are not immersed in the study to provide feedback, encouragement and advice upon your work.
Once you have passed your first year review you enter second year. The next year is effectively a race to either collect your data or analyse the data that has already been provided for your PhD. If you are going into the field to collect data you will need to ensure that you have ethical approval in place before doing so. You will then find yourself spending the rest of the year collecting, cleaning and analysing the data. Throughout this process you will also have to provide written and oral updates on your progression. You will be expected to draft your methods chapter and you may even be asked to start drafting research findings. Often second year can be a frustrating year for students, especially if you are having trouble recruiting participants to your study. This is something that everybody goes through, and you will probably find yourself staring enviously at the student doing secondary data analysis. Don’t. They have their own frustrations and if you ask them they will list them in incredible detail! It is also a year where you tend to feel like you really aren’t getting much done. And yet, most students finish their second year with a wealth of data that is in the process of being analysed and will have drafted about a quarter of their thesis.
Third year is a challenging year as not only do you become incredibly conscious of the fact that you have a 70-100,000 word document to produce at the end of the year, but many students start stressing about the fact that they have less than a year until their financial stipend runs out! Before you start freaking out, make sure you start saving a little bit of money each month so that you have a little bit of money to tide you over at the end of the PhD. Then, sit down with your supervisors and develop a schedule for writing up your research findings and stick to it! Once you have those deadlines in place set yourself miniature goals to aim for because the only way that creating a large document can be manageable is to break it up into smaller chunks. Over the course of this year you will find that you have to revisit your literature review in order to start thinking about how your findings fit with the existing literature base and what the implications of your research findings for practice and policy. Being a third year is actually not that much different from being a first or second year, and the frustrations that you will feel are largely similar to those you’ve experienced at other stages in the PhD. The only difference is that you become more aware of the fact that you no longer have the luxury of two more years to get everything completed!