5 Notes of Advice from a Former Doctoral Researcher

by Nicole Mennell (CHASE-funded and University of Sussex alumni)


I successfully defended my PhD thesis in March 2019 after 4 (and a bit) years of researching, writing, editing and rewriting 100,000 words. My thesis, entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Sovereign Beasts: Human-Animal Relations and Political Discourse in Early Modern Drama’, explores the ways in which animals were used to represent and complicate concepts of sovereignty in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature.

My doctoral experience was full of many highs and quite a few lows. I struggled with the various issues that come with studying for a PhD, such as balancing conflicting commitments, overcoming imposter syndrome and worrying about future job prospects. I largely found solutions to these issues, or at least some comfort that I wasn’t alone, through talking to fellow PhD students. This blog post is my effort to pay forward the help I received from others by sharing some things I learnt during my time as a doctoral researcher.

1. Make a project plan but accept that it will change

You are expected to complete a PhD within 4 years, which can feel like a very long time. However, and trust me on this, it will go very fast and it will always feel like there is never enough time to do all the things that you need to do, or to read all the books and articles that you need to read. Within the first month of my PhD, I attended a workshop on how to be an effective researcher and the facilitators could not stress enough how important it was to plan the 3+ years required to finish your PhD, taking personal time and inevitable setbacks into account. It was during this workshop that I was introduced to Gantt charts. While it is a lot of effort to plan a project of this scale, it is completely worth it. I didn’t devise a Gantt chart until the beginning of my 2nd year, and this was only after I realised I was nowhere near as far along as I hoped to be by that point. However, once I had a Gantt chart in place, I found it invaluable for checking my progress and ensuring I stayed on track.

Gantt charts can also be easily adjusted when a project changes, and your project will inevitably change! As you progress through your PhD, you will fall down research rabbit holes (sorry, I can’t resist an animal metaphor), new findings will be published, and your focus will change as you become an expert in your field. To put things into perspective, what I planned to write for my first chapter became my whole thesis once I realised the scale of material and the depth to which I could write on just three animals (horses, hawks and hounds, in case you were wondering), rather than the multitude of creatures I had planned to discuss.  

Gantt charts may not work for everyone so I would recommend going through Vitae’s list of project management tools for researchers to find a method that works for you.

2. Make the most of development opportunities

During your PhD, you will be offered numerous exciting opportunities. You will quickly find – and your project plan will show you – that there is a limited amount of time that you can dedicate to activities that do not involve completing your thesis. However, it is important to make time for development opportunities as they will enrich your doctoral experience, make you a better researcher and enhance your employability post-PhD.

My doctoral experience was not defined solely by completing my thesis. Like many other doctoral researchers, I taught students of all levels; co-organised workshops, symposia and conferences; published my work in various formats; presented at local, national and international conferences; and served on committees. I also co-founded the postgraduate e-journal Brief Encounters with Emily Bartlett, which showcases work by CHASE-affiliated individuals. While co-founding Brief Encounters was one of the most challenging periods of my PhD, it was also the most rewarding and helped me to secure my current role.

For further discussion on the importance of making the most of professional development opportunities during your PhD, I highly recommend Marie-Alix Thouaille’s report ‘One size does not fit all’.

3. Learn to say no (at least to some things)

To ensure you make the most of development opportunities and preserve time for yourself during your PhD, learn to say no to things that you believe will be of little benefit. It is very common for doctoral researchers to feel pressured into taking on additional teaching, contributing to departmental activities or presenting at conferences that are not quite relevant to their work. While many of these activities will contribute to your development in some way, you will quickly learn what activities are not worth your time. It can be very difficult to say no but a quick glance at your project plan will show you the cost of saying yes. These activities will also take away from time you should spend on your personal life, which is just as important and will prevent you from burning out.

To stress my point, I will keep this one short and sweet: protect your energy and your time by saying no to things that are not a priority.

4. Make PhrienDs, not AcadEnemies

In the current academic climate, we are continuously reminded of how difficult the job market is, which naturally creates a sense of competition between researchers. Competition is a good thing – it can push us to do and be better in our work. However, it can also lead to the creation of academic enemies, or AcadEnemies (yes, I made this word up). While I have taken brief moments of joy in reading snippy footnotes between notorious AcadEnemies, this form of corrosive competition does not benefit anyone. For PhD students, this sense of competition can make us feel that we are pitted against our peers and must safeguard our ideas from one another. For example, many of us dread encountering our PhD doppelgänger – the person working on the same research topic – as this would undermine the “original contribution” of our theses. I met my PhD doppelgänger through a seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) and, rather than fighting it out in the middle of the conference, we had a great conversation about our shared research interests over lunch in Atlanta. It was a pretty unique experience to speak to someone about a particularly obscure passage in Jacques Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign and for them to understand the ways in which I wanted to apply it to Shakespeare’s plays! If I had been overly protective of my work, I would not have unlocked some of the trickier aspects of my methodology while eating a plate of fried catfish.  

Without a doubt, the best part of my PhD journey was the PhrienDs I made, many of whom I collaborated with on exciting projects alongside completing my thesis. My doctoral experience was enriched by working with these talented individuals, reading their work and sharing ideas with them. They not only made me a more effective researcher but also acted as a support network during the more trying aspects of the doctoral experience. There are very few people who will understand the pain of having to switch your referencing system of choice in order to have an article published in an academic journal!

If you are still worried about encountering your PhD doppelgänger, read Nadine Muller’s post on this topic.

5. Have faith in your abilities

Nearly every single PhD student I have met has experienced the dreaded imposter syndrome at some point during their doctorate. This refers to those moments when you feel you don’t belong, think you aren’t smart enough and doubt your many skills. Whether this be confidence in your ability to present a conference paper, lead a seminar or finish your thesis, those moments of doubt can be debilitating and can have severe consequences for your mental health.

It is a sad reality that there is a mental health crisis among doctoral researchers. I myself struggled at various points and nearly quit half a dozen times, largely due to the pressure I felt to write the “perfect thesis”. Once I accepted that there is no such thing and that “done is better than perfect”, I overcame some pretty terrible patches of writer’s block which severely disrupted my progress (and led to some major adjustments to my Gantt chart). If you require extra support during your PhD, reach out to the student services department at your university. I would also recommend reading Frances Lewin’s blog post on ‘Managing your mental health – advice from a PhD student’.

It is important to remember that undertaking a PhD is a learning experience – you are not expected to know everything when you start out, or even after you have submitted your thesis. Looking back, I realise that while I brought a whole host of skills to the PhD, I built on these skills as I progressed through the different stages of the doctoral journey. If nothing else, undertaking a PhD developed my resilience and, as clichéd as it is, taught me to believe in myself.

Your family, friends and PhrienDs will probably need to remind you of this several times over the course of your doctorate, but I will say it now for those that need to hear it – have faith in your abilities because you are smart enough, you do deserve to be here and you absolutely can finish your PhD!

For more general advice on completing your thesis, I would recommend Joan Bolker’s, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation and the Thesis Whisperer’s ‘How to write 10,000 words a day’.

Do you have any tips for those just starting out? Share them in the comments below.