A mid-candidature reflection

This blog is designed to help us all navigate the research process, by sharing advice and reflections about our own experiences. I recently chatted to one of our Veterinary RHD students over a lovely cup of tea, and it was a fruitful conversation.

In the beginning, there was an opportunity to do a research degree. Like many before, the “masters vs. PhD” question was posed, and the outcome was a part-time PhD enrolment – research would be part of the plan for the next 6 years. “I was to allocate 70% of my time to my clinical work, and the remaining 30% would be available for research. In reflection, this was just not enough – 70/30 might be ok for a masters, but poses challenges for a PhD. Maybe 50/50 would have worked better. 6 years is a long time to work on weekends making up the extra hours.”

Thankfully, previous study meant that skills in critical appraisal of literature were already well developed. A strong vision for the project, and savvy supervisors, resulted in a well-defined project in the first 6 months. But not all has been smooth sailing, so here are 5 “lessons learnt” from the experience so far.

  1. Plan your thesis. Get a chapter outline sorted early on – this becomes your table of contents. Then start writing. In a practical sense, this means turning your early investigations into something you can actually use. Your preliminary lit review notes become an introduction to your thesis. Writing up your methodology properly as you go means your materials and methods chapter is halfway there, before you even think about it as a chapter.
  2. Guard your time. Working in one-hour chunks around your other responsibilities might not be the most effective way to make progress. When you get a whole week to “work on your research”, plan it well. Order your reagents. Get your computer programs installed and working. Figure out how and when you will work, and what you expect to achieve. If you spend two days getting organized and planning, your whole week is quickly whittled away.
  3. A craftsman is only as good as his tools – so make your tools work for you. Referencing software is a good example; although Endnote is widely used, for some tasks (like searching and annotating) it can be clunky. For the purposes of this PhD, Papers for Mac suited much better. The lab book is another very useful tool – having all your records in one place, from thought processes to suggested computer code, becomes invaluable in the later seasons of the RHD process. If you can’t remember when you made a decision to go in a particular direction, writing your discussion will be harder than it needs to be.
  4. Recognise the rollercoaster. There is a cyclical feeling to any research project. Sometimes you’ll make great progress. Other times you might work hard for weeks and feel like you get nowhere. Ups and downs are normal. So, first accept that this is ok, and then do something about it! Often you will be stuck on one small aspect, and getting help from the right person with the right expertise can get you out of the doldrums and back on the right track.
  5. Networking! Get out there and talk to people. Meet your supervisors’ colleagues. Find ways to meet those working in related disciplines (especially our human health contemporaries). Go to conferences, both directly and indirectly connected to your area of investigation, and make the most of coffee breaks. These people will become your collaborators, fresh eyes on your project, and may offer the expertise you need to pull yourself out of a slump. Although some connections might be facilitated by your supervisor, it’s your project – so don’t be shy in getting out there.

From the joys of getting a valuable grant, to the anxiety of having to actually deliver on said grant, and looking ahead to the research questions you will answer post-RHD, it seems the research experience is delivering on the intellectual satisfaction front. There is always more work to do and new challenges to overcome, but satisfying the curiosity of an academic mind is a great reason to “do research”, and in hindsight it will all seem worth it.

So there you are – 5 quick tips from a current student. If you have an insight or thought about the RHD process, why not consider being interviewed for this blog, or even submitting a post from your own pen (or keyboard)? Get in touch at rhdandme@gmail.com

Has this post struck a chord, or do you have something to say about these tips? Leave a comment and continue the conversation!

So you’re an RHD student…

Your research degree, whether masters or a PhD, might be one of the most challenging things you do in your life. It can also be one of the most rewarding – I dream of the day when I can hold my printed, bound thesis, knowing that all my hard work and dedication has paid off. Then it turns into a nightmare about having it examined… but let’s not think about that.

This blog is the brainchild of one early-candidature PhD student in the University of Melbourne FVAS. The first months of the PhD were a very stressful time, trying to figure out what research is and how you’re supposed to go about it. The advice, “you should read as much as you can, and start writing now” only goes so far when you don’t even know what a research question is, let alone what yours might be!

This place is designed as a safe haven during your RHD experience. RHD and me is all about figuring out how to make the your degree work for you, and even having a life on the side. Content will include links to helpful blog posts, reviews of events that you might find helpful (like the University of Melbourne’s Upskills programs), and anything else we think of along the way. Contributions are welcome – just email rhdandme@gmail.com with your ideas.

To start with, check out the Three Minute Thesis and consider coming along to the 3MT grand final on Thurs 25th September 2014. There’s always more lessons to learn about how to effectively communicate your research to the wider world – so it’s definitely a productive way to spend your time!!

In a little while, I’ll introduce you to our mascot, the Rather Helpful Dugong, or Rhodie for short. Rhodie hopes to become the symbol for light at the end of the tunnel and the camaraderie that exists between us all in the Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences faculty! In the meantime, just keep swimming.