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What to expect from your PhD

Working in a new way

How do you feel as you embark on your PhD? What are your main concerns or expectations of the journey ahead?

Embarking on a PhD will mean that you need to develop a new way of working, in terms of the people that you meet, the hours that you work and how you approach your study. It will probably be quite different to other experiences you have had, whether as a post-grad on a taught Masters programme or as an employee in a job.

“I was not that sure what my supervisor’s expectations were, I didn’t know how many hours I would have to work each week. I didn’t know how fast I should work, [or what] my progress should be. Or how I should approach my course mates or my supervisors.”

What next?

This PhD researcher went on to say that he worked out the answers to these questions for himself over time. Be prepared for a similar period of adjustment. You won’t always get things right first time, but if you make mistakes, don’t worry! You will learn from them. There is no one, right way to write a thesis or to be a doctoral researcher, you will discover your way through trial and error and by learning from the experiences of those around you.

Making the transition from undergraduate and masters degrees to the PhD

The way a PhD is organised means that it is likely to be very different from the learning experiences you have had in the past. Many of the PhD researchers we spoke to said that the level of autonomy they had in their research was very surprising and often difficult to adjust to.

“When you do a Masters, you have classmates, you support each other. But for a PhD student […] we have to work on our own. No one can do the work for you, no one can really help you. You have to work it out by yourself”.
What next?

You may not be used to working independently without direct guidance from a lecturer or tutor. One thing that may help you is to have a discussion with your supervisor early on about any expectations or concerns you might have, and they can explain what they expect of you. Being clear about how things will work from the outset should help to avoid confusion and uncertainty later on. When problems or confusions arise, schedule a meeting with your supervisor rather than keeping them to yourself and hope they will sort themselves out.

Comparing working on a PhD to working in a job

If you have returned to study after working for a number of years then you will probably find that you need to get used to a new way of working. For some PhD researchers the doctoral experience is similar to working, but for many it is likely to be strikingly different. Many of the PhD researchers we spoke to commented on the freedom they had, and on the fact that they had to decide how to structure their work. Some enjoyed this and others found it a little stressful, particularly initially.

“You have your own time. Like, say I want to work till five, you just work to five; if you want to work ten to ten, you just work ten to ten. It’s less disciplined in terms of time keeping. It’s like you are more flexible.”
What next?

The important thing is to work out a schedule that’s effective for you as an individual and remember that it won’t be the same for everybody. For help thinking about how to schedule your work and plan your time, follow this link

Studying in the UK

Getting used to being in a new environment can be difficult. If you have previously studied in another country, you may find it hard to adapt to studying in the UK because some things may be done differently to what you are used to. Some of the PhD researchers we talked to mentioned that the atmosphere was more relaxed and that the relationships they had with academic staff were less formal than they had experienced before. A PhD researcher from China spoke to us about some of these differences:

“The ways of teaching is quite different. In Chinese universities, you just sit there and listen. Ok this is right and this is not right. And you go home, you do your homework and at the end you do the exam. But what actually do you understand? You say ‘well, this is right because my supervisor says it’s right’. Here it’s not like that. You can have your own ideas. Before examinations, we can have group discussions, group study, our supervisor said ‘you can have totally different opinions [from] me or the textbooks, but you have to say why. I don’t want the correct answer; I want your way of thinking.’ That’s totally different”.
What next?

Being independently minded and able to think critically are essential aspects of doctoral research. This means not relying too heavily on the ideas and opinions of others, even those you respect and admire, but interrogating why you think what you think, and what it is that causes others to reach the same or different conclusions.

The differences associated with studying in the UK, however, are not simply related to studying in a new way, but also involve the level of independence that you will have when you live a long way from family and friends. One of our interviewees told us:

“Coming here and doing a degree is completely different from doing a degree [at home]. It’s very sort of like, you have to learn everything yourself. It’s just like experience yourself, live on your own, study on your own.”

There are sure to be other people nearby who are going through exactly the same thing that you are experiencing; befriending them and putting effort into making other friends will really make a difference. The thought of making new friends in a new country can be daunting, but persevere! Friendship is a powerful resource during a PhD, a course of study which is, for much of the time, a solitary pursuit. Remember, all universities have advisers or counsellors who can offer support and advice if you ever feel you need it.

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