If I could give one piece of advice (part 2)

This is the second of two blog posts talking about this question, posed on Twitter:

If you could give one piece of advice to a new PhD student, what would it be?

The first post talked about health, wellbeing, and support. If you missed it, you can find it here.

In this post I’ll share the replies that gave writing advice.

Again, thank you to @OKLibrarian, @BVLSingler, @Peter_Tennant, @LaurenKnifton, @StinaMary, @Bohr_research, @evalantsoght, @JessicaMcdnld, @DrHelenKara, and @AmandaMichelle for your responses, included either in this post or the previous one.

Writing advice

The three replies that focused on writing posts all had a similar message: Write from the beginning, and don’t expect your writing to be perfect. You are not a wizard. Here are the first two:

“Write from the start, and expect to go through at least three drafts per chapter, sometimes more”

“Just write. You may end up scrapping it but it will focus you and mean you keep moving forward”

Debates exist as to whether it’s sensible to write from the beginning, or to wait until later. The “wait until later” team argues that you don’t really know what you need to say in your thesis until you’ve gathered all of your data. But this assumes that all “writing” is “thesis writing”. For me, designating something as “thesis writing” makes it all too easy to obsess over getting it just right. And this is where the “write from the beginning” team comes in: Learning to write is a big part of a PhD. Do free-writing. Blog. Write summaries of the literature. You’ll find them later, and be very grateful (it happened to me quite recently). And a particularly practical way to write from the beginning was included in the third writing reply:

“Document what you did – you won’t remember 3 years later”

This is really important. We’ve all had those moments when we assume we’ll remember something: A recipe in a cookbook, a reference in an article, or, once, where I’d put a particular stone on a pebble beach (I was 5, and very confident of my own memory skills).

Don’t let that happen to your PhD. I recommend having a Scrivener file full of questions and answers, explaining what decisions you’ve made, and why. I started my Q & A file when I was still awaiting data but couldn’t wait to start writing.

And finally…

Two tweets didn’t fall neatly into either “health, wellbeing, and support” or “writing advice”. Rather than try to make them fit into a place where they didn’t belong, I’ve given them their own mini-section.

The only one-word response:


I’m not here to tell you whether or not to do a PhD. Embarking on a PhD is rarely (never?) the only option, so it’s important to think about if it’s what you really want. And like anything in life, a PhD is made up of good parts and bad parts.

To maximise the good parts:

“Be passionate about exploring what you are researching: its a long road and that will keep you going”

This is important. PhDs are fun, they are difficult, they are exhilarating, they are stressful. Studying something that you find fascinating and important is brilliant. Still difficult at times, but brilliant. If you’re not interested in what you’re researching, you may get all the “difficult” bits without the “brilliant” bits.

That’s all of the replies I received, folks. I hope you find it helpful. People are gifting out beautiful words of advice everyday on Twitter – I particularly recommend keeping an eye on #phdchat. If you have any advice of your own, or any questions or comments about the tweets in this post, please let me know in the comments section.


An update…

It appears that the “don’t” tweet was a case of hitting-send-too-soon, and was intended as a much more positive message:

“don’t become your PhD. It can consume your life so take time off to do things you enjoy!”

I’m delighted to hear this, as it means that the tweeter is not deep in the valley of shit (to the best of my knowledge). But for now, I’m going to leave the post as it is. I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to decide that a PhD isn’t for you.

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