Managing your PhD Studies

PhD can be a long and difficult road, not to mention challenging and can get extremely lonely. Occasionally you will find those who breeze through the whole process, but for many, it is an unbelievably difficult uphill climb BUT, once you get to the end of it, you will feel an extreme sense of achievement and calm. For those of you who are feeling stuck and feel like they are not making much progress, I would  like to share with you some tips that I got while I was doing my own phd in London from 2011-2014. This advice is more suited for those in the humanities field because research with lab work (which I believe to be different in nature) would require a different set of advice.

Topic selection

Choose a topic that you are interested in. you will be working with this topic for approximately  four years. You need to find everything you can (literally mining down to every minute detail) about the background of the topic and in the end setting your own contribution to the topic. The trend for research within the area of education in Malaysia is usually focused on development of module, model, program to contribute to the change in teaching and learning delivery in Malaysia. Personally, I feel that this is very interesting because your contribution will be something tangible that other people can immediately use in their practises as teachers. There is also opportunity for you extend your contribution such to app form, or from model to module and so forth and your face will be the face of the new ‘product’ you invented. So be proud!

Introduce yourself to phd work

Spend time in the library and look up recent phd thesis. Get used to the style of writing and try to compare between good and not so good phd thesis. If you find a thesis that is along the lines of your research interest, then look at the references they have used, the instruments and the research design.

Selection of supervisor

Some people talk about selecting supervisors who are well known in the field you are in. But, sometimes this could mean that you are very much left alone in your struggles because he or she could be very busy. Personally, I think it is a good idea if you select a supervisor who you have ‘chemistry’ with. Someone you can get along with, you respect and also who can understand your needs. Some students might prefer a supervisor who is little bit on the strict side, but for me, I think mutual respect is important as I believe that PhD students are adults and so should be treated as one.

If you’re not sure yet, you can drop the potential supervisor an email (as I did). He or she would be more than happy to reply to your questions and concerns and from there you can start to gauge if he or she is suited to you.

Time allocation

If you are a full time student, you should make your phd your number one priority. You can think of it as your full time job where you can really focus on something that you are truly interested in and it will also be a significant contribution. In the beginning of my own studies, I tried to do 8 hours a day, but this was nearly impossible. So I found that 6 hours a day of work was more manageable and went for 3 hours in the morning 9-12 then 3 in the afternoon 2-5. If I had not reached that target by that time, I would work on it about an hour at night.

Sometimes, if I was just having difficulty to focus, I would time myself, just so I get sooome work for the day if not much. Or if it was just too difficult, I would just tell myself, I’m just going to do this, then I will take a walk outside or do the laundry, by then I hope that I can focus.

Also, if you have the privilege to have won a scholarship or to be paid by a research grant, it only makes sense for you to be fully committed to your studies so that you are working based on the money you are paid for.

I f you do have children, as many PhD students do, it is a good idea to arrange for babysitting because with little ones, it is almost difficult to concentrate (I find this with my babies as well). So try to arrange for time in a week where you can really sit and focus on your work in quiet and times when you can still do the work even with all that’s going on around you. You probably need more quiet when you are writing and you can do reading and thinking while you are with your children.

If you don’t have kids yet, then this is the best time for you to simple concentrate on your work. Parents, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews would have an easier time understanding your workload as a phd student. If you find that you still struggle with time, it might be a good idea to sit down and talk to your family members about your responsibility and needs as a phD student.

In UTM it is highly encouraged that you submit your proposal by the end of the third semester and your draft for viva by your ninth semester. Logically, this means that you get only one semester per chapter. This can feel overwhelming, but if you truly focus and spend the six hours a day on weekdays on your work, and write a little everyday, it is quite possible to achieve this.  

Write a little everyday

80% of Phd work (especially in the humanities field) involves writing and Tone of the best advice I received before I did my phd was  to write a little everyday. Even half a paragraph a day would mean about 150 pages a year which is 450 pages in 3 years! Of course, not all of your writing will be included in the final draft, but once you start writing, then you and your supervisor can see how you are thinking, what is still missing in your study, whether your justifications are suitable or not and he or she can guide you better. If you delay the writing process, you are simply delaying your PhD progress. There comes a time when you might get writer’s block. But, for me you should just force yourself to write even a little bit. So, start writing and write a little everyday!!

How often to meet up with supervisor

In my own experience, in the beginning I would meet up with my supervisor once every two weeks, but once you have laid out the foundations of the your study and the varibales and connections are clear, once a month is sufficient.

Make friends

PhD can be an extremely long and difficult road and it can get lonely. So, make friends with fellow phd students. Know who your colleagues are and support each other throughout the journey. It might not be a good idea to get so emotionally attached to your phD friends as everyone is under quite a high level of stress. But it, is a good idea to have some support from the friends around you.

So there, you have it, my advice for all phD students out there. Good luck and wish you all the best. I know you can do it. You don’t need to be smart to get your phd, what you need is diligence, hard work, acceptance of comments and commitment. InsyaAllah I pray you will get there soon.

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