I am about to commence year three of a PhD in visual sociology within the centre for education, arts and media at the University of Westminster in Central London. This much I know about surviving and thriving in the first two years of a doctorate:
The most common thing people tell me when I tell them I am doing a doctorate in photography is that I do not need to be a doctor to be a photographer. People outside the academy may not know the difference between practice and theory. I now say I am doing a doctorate in visual sociology.
It's okay to view a PhD whatever the way you wish, I view a PhD as a form of activism to affect change, for me, research should be for the betterment of humanity. A chance to be a cultural influencer for change.
The best definition of a PhD I have heard is a "PhD is a responsible intervention in a particular, highly specialised debate."
Read, read and then read again. Learn the art of skim reading and taking notes, I write a paragraph for every article that I have ever read and referred back to that when I can.
It's okay to feel intimidated by your supervisor's accomplishments. One of my superiors is a world-renowned professor in photography and at times, I am intimidated by the massive size of his brain and have to remind myself that he interviewed me on my PhD selection panel and requested to supervise me. He sees the merit of my research and the value in me academically. Take that as a massive compliment.
Do the bibliography as you go as well as the textual references and visual/figure references. I keep a copy of every journal article I have read, saves time looking for them again. This will save you massive amounts of time. Do not cut and paste the titles of figures, rewrite them as that can be considered plagiarism.
It's easy to say that don't allow the PhD to become your whole life but it will become your whole life.
The literature review is all about finding the gap in the existing body of work, to do this you have to know what field/s your research transgresses. Know the area you are researching.
Seek inspiration from online. The Vlogs on YouTube by Tara Brabazon, Dean of Graduate Research and Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders are exceptional.
You'll continually read throughout the entire PhD, don't think this happens in just the first year for the literature review.
If you are concerned about the quality of your writing, don't be. Just write, the idea is to get your ideas on paper and communicate your original contribution to research.
This does not apply to lab-based work but try and change your workspace as it helps with the momentum of working. I work from home so you can often find me in the Bibliothèque Publique d'Information (or BPI), a library inside the Centre Pompidou, in the heart of Paris.
Being self-funded comes with the added pressure of finding the money to underwrite your research. I spend more time hustling for funding for my PhD than I do writing my PhD. A very good website for alternative funding sources is the Alternative Guide to Post Graduate Funding. Don't be shy to crowdfund. Don't be shy to ask for funding or ask people to pay for your intellectual content. See the button beneath this post.
Use professional proofreading - too many grammatical errors and you'll be at minor corrections before they judge the content. I can recommend Scribbr proofreading & editing service, or even Grammarly (paid subscription) works very well.
As women, we don't always scream about our accomplishments, best advice I was given (will not say by whom) was to write your thesis with all the overconfidence of a mediocre white dude applying for a job he is underqualified for.
I'm Generation X, so I print out all my reference as I find reading from a screen to taxing on my eyes, I read with a pen and highlighter, taking notes as I go. I collect these notes, for instance, when I am researching in Paris I called the folder "Paris Reading List".
Understand what the phrase "significant original contribution to knowldge" means. This can mean different things for different areas of research.
It's super easy when you write to put (REF) in place of a reference because you are hammering out the writing and you don't want to interrupt your flow. DON'T you'll waste time having to go back replacing the citations. Trust me on this.
Listen to your director of studies, it is their job is to get you through your doctorate.
Take detailed supervision notes, this is crucial for several reasons, acts as a wonderful memory prompt about what was discussed and serves as a paper trail, especially in the event of a dispute.
In year two, start thinking about life beyond the PhD. Fellowships, teaching, possible job opportunities.
You will encounter classism. No point sugar-coating this.
Know the difference between self-plagiarism and plagiarism, avoid them both, at all costs.
You'll be able to get away with not citing Foucault in year one but you will not in year two.
Cite your supervisors published work (if possible) and find out who is sitting on your year two upgrade viva and if relevant to your research, cite them as well.
Think what discipline/s your research sits in and think about this interms of research and employment post PhD.
Public engagement is essential for marketing your research, you need to put your research out there.
If your research subject is highly emotive such as sex work or animal testing people will attack you regardless of what you say. You have the right to speak about your research is safe spaces on university campuses.
Learn how to address being heckled at conferences and public events if your research is emotive. People will say to you but what did you expect, your research is controversial. What you expect is respect, common decency, professionalism and a platform to talk about your research. To be safe.
It's okay to feel overwhelmed. It's okay to fall apart. It's okay to feel the intense pressure of undertaking the doctorate.
Pick which battles with your supervisors that you're willing to stand your ground on.
Ask to sit in on MA courses, Twice a week during term time I sit in on classes my professor supervisor teaches. Great way to learn and pick his brain when it can be exceptionally difficult to get supervision time on his schedule. Sometimes you have to be a bit proactive.
Supervision sessions do not always have to be held on campus, cafes, libraries, open spaces. This takes the pressure off.
Ask (pester) the graduate school for funding or about upcoming opportunities you can apply for.
It's okay to get upset if as a woman a journalist mentions the colour of your lipstick in an interview about your research. Everyday sexism exists with the academy and reporting on it.
It's okay to feel like an idiot most of the time. Imposter syndrome is very real. Very painful. A PhD can trigger a multitude of mental health problems due to pressure.
You are the subject matter expert on your area of research. You've got this.
It's okay to find some of the feedback brutal, paper cut to the bone brutal. I have cried more than once after getting feedback.
It took me about 16 months to find my footing, those first 16 months were plagued with self-doubt and I was beset with fears.
You will spend way to much time thinking about fonts and you will change it more than once.