PhD Dos and Donts... experiential reflections by Mohsin Khan

Sharing a few ideas from my own PhD Research experience at Pondicherry University. Hope it helps those of you who are about to enrol into PhD or aspiring to pursue PhD someday.



In the era of greater (impactful) and faster (disruptive) changes being witnessed, PhD becomes viable for those with an academic and research orientation to pursue. This is one part of the story. The journey however may get frustrating and exhausting at times. This is also a reality. I wish to take this opportunity to share some of my ideas and suggestions, more so as someone who has been recently through the process that culminated in public viva to defend my thesis. The final result, wherein your Thesis is defended successfully for the award of degree, is worth all the efforts. To me, I treasure this as amongst the major achievement in life. I am because each member of my family has put their trust, confidence and prayers to give me the strength and support to meet with this success in my life journey. 

Pursuing PhD is a journey in itself with so many learnings, revelations and rewards. It's the only time in your life that you can spend 100% of your working time learning and conducting research, finding out new things, given the freedom to explore new areas of work/practice and also get paid for all this while, without too many administrative or other obligations. It's all we want to do because of the intellectual gratification it brings, the thrill of exploration, the freedom to make your own work schedule, travel places and meet various people, the joy of being in a community of like-minded people and the hope that we can actually contribute to knowledge creation.

From my own experience at my university, Pondicherry University, located in Puducherry in South India, I have compiled a few ideas and suggestions to help those of you who are just about enrolling into Ph.D. or aspiring to pursue PhD someday.

Choose an Institution and/or supervisor you admire - The PhD journey starts prior to admission in Ph.D. itself. The first thing I would like to suggest for every research aspirant is to make a list of the institutions that awe you, understand what it takes to secure admission and then try to get in there. Sometimes, it is not possible to have an institution of our own choice, but that is only possible to know after you have really tried. Then, it becomes necessary to choose a research guide. Ask your seniors, and as well as alumnus (who graduated in the recent past)  to gather information regarding a particular faculty. I state this because you must realize that PhD is a long journey, that may seem even longer since it is different from any other preceding academic pursuits you would have undertaken. At one level, it is an independent and solitary effort although there would other fellow scholars, guide, faculty members of the department / school. Therefore, the foundational basics in place should be kept very carefully considered.

Be honest with your supervisor - the more honest you are with your guide, the better your relationship will be. I still remember an incident that happened with me. It was my first month with my guide, and he was performing administrative duties (as Dean) as well. I approached him to take his signature on my fellowship form, and in the column of “How many research paper you have reviewed in this month”, I simply filled 24 articles. I gave that form to my guide. Although he was busy and I was expecting that he will sign without getting a deeper go through, he looked into the form and asked “Where are those 24 articles, you have reviewed”. I was caught sweating in an air-conditioned room since I have not done rather I have copied the format of my senior colleague. He simply smiled and told me do not copy others, write the things you have done as they are... Since then I have never ever again lied to my guide and I have enjoyed a memorable relationship with my guide. I would like to say: Please be honest. Let the Guide know if you don’t understand something, or if you’ve messed up something or if they forgot to give you feedback. Seek help sincerely and you will have the best of times!

Maintain a healthy work–life balance - this was actually something suggested by my supervisor in our very first meeting I had with him. As a research scholar, you have to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Therefore, choose the work pattern that best suits you. To each, his own. So, think deeply and observe what makes it most convenient for you and adopt that work-pattern. Developing a good balance and working steadily during the course is better than working intensively, then and there and burning out. It is key to success to look after yourself. And establish clear PhD aims or questions on the basis of your thesis requirements. Goals can change later, but a clear plan will help you to maintain focus.

Discuss expectations with your supervisor - everyone works differently. Make sure you know and express your needs to your boss at an early stage so that you can work together productively.

Spend enough time on Literature Review - read the literature in and around your immediate area; the current as well as the past. Unless you know what is already in there, you may not be able to make original contributions to the literature. See it as a challenge to put your supervisor's desk with an interesting paper before putting it on yours! In the morning or weekends are the best time to read papers. These reviews, both before and after data collection, help you to develop your research goals and conclusions.

Prepare everyday Notes - "I don't have to write down that, I'm going to remember that," is the biggest fallacy you can believe in...! There is nothing like “remembering”. Write down all that you do / have come across during readings,  etc. It includes, among other items, meeting notes, descriptions of the process, code annotations. Make lists of what you have to do tomorrow at the end of each day while today’s work is in your mind. This also allows your mind to think about the next day’s work while you sleep.

Be active, not passive, in your approach to research - Seek information and advice, and don’t assume that it will just diffuse into your head. Your supervisor won’t know everything, so find the right people for advice and don’t be afraid to ask for it. Don’t go off for weeks without talking about your research with your supervisor and DC members. If your supervisor doesn’t seek you out regularly, go and talk to him/her. When you are inexperienced it is very easy to get off track and waste valuable time and resources.

Socialize yourself - Socialize with your department group and other students. It’s a great way to discuss PhD experiences, get advice and help, improve your research and make friends. Attend departmental seminars and group meetings, even (or especially) when the topic is not your area of expertise.. But don’t just go to these meetings for the sake of it. Sit up in front, listen carefully, take notes, and ask questions of the speaker during Q&A Session following his/her talk. Afterwards, what you learn could change the direction of your research and career. Regular attendance will also be noticed.

Have a life outside work - While your department group is like your work family, being able to escape work is great for your mental health. This could be by sports, parties, hobbies, holidays, or with friends spending time.

Take a notepad and write down the action items when you meet with your supervisor- My Supervisor used to tell me about my seniors that when they come to meet him they comes up with full preparation and with a notepad containing all the queries and records the replies also. Therefore I understood that to save mine as well as my supervisor’s time, it is better Take a notepad and write down the action items when I met with my supervisor, unless I have a perfect memory.

Don’t compare yourself with others- PhD provides an opportunity for original research revealing new data. All PhD programs are therefore different. You just need to do what works for you and your project. Research's nature means things don't always go as expected. That doesn't mean that you're a bad student. Keep quiet, take a break, and then continue. It is still possible to write down things that fail as part of a successful PhD.

Start writing your thesis - It’s never too early to start writing your thesis. Write and show your work to your supervisor as you go — even if you don’t end up using your early work, it’s good practice and a way to get ideas organized in your head. Break your thesis down into SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals. You will be more productive if your to-do list reads “draft first paragraph of the results” rather than “write chapter 1”. Many small actions lead to one complete thesis. The best thesis is a finished thesis. No matter how much time you spend perfecting your first draft, your work will come back with lots of corrections, and you will go through more drafts before you submit your final version. Send your drafts to your supervisor sooner rather than later.

Present your research. This can be at group meetings, conferences and so on. Presenting can be scary, but it gets easier as you practice, and it’s a fantastic way to network and get objective feedback at the same time from those listening to you.

Back up your work! You can avoid many tears by doing this at least weekly

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