Things to know before the PhD

There are a lot of things that I would like that somebody would have told me before I started my PhD. Unfortunately, I learned most of these issues by myself during the process. But, if you search a little bit you can find articles of people that, like me, decided to write their own experience. So, instead of telling you my whole story, I am going to make reference to those articles, just adding some comments.

The first post that can clarify (a lot) many issues about a PhD is Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD, which has been my inspiration for this post. Here are some of the points that I find more important:

  • Always back up your work! Make sure that you can always recover your work, a PhD is a long time project, and many things might happened in the middle. Actually make as many back ups as you could, on an external HHD, on your laptop, on your office's computer, on the cloud, everywhere and periodically.
  • I would definitely emphasize more: Submit to journals asap! Journals are a pain in the ass, you have to change the manuscript of your research to the format of the journal (and each journal has its own format), which might requires some effort, the times for review are long as hell and after waiting for MONTHS your work might be rejected, with completely useless comments. Just move forward and try in a different place, but remember that publishing requires A LOT of time!
  • Definitely DO NOT compare yourself with others. There is no worldwide standard for a PhD (I will come back to this point later). In some places a PhD is just a continuation of your advisor's research and is focused on publishing. Other PhD's (like mine) are focused on the development of your own original research, so you might have less publications that others.
  • "I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it" is the biggest lie you can tell yourself! I could not have told it better.

Like I said before, there is no standard of what a PhD thesis is. From one institution to another the rules are different, and the conditions to get the degree are different as well. In a nutshell, everybody knows (more less) what a doctor should be, but there is no consensus on how to become one. About these problems I really recommend to read What’s the point of the PhD thesis?. There is a sentence there that I find really interesting: “The job market for postdoc positions is very competitive, so if you can get a paper published during your PhD then you’re helping yourself. I’m wondering: would it not have been better to write these instead of the thesis, which took me five months to write?” Like I said, submit asap!. Right now I feel in the same way, I wonder why I expended so many months writing a manuscript (that nobody really gives a damn) instead of writing papers.

As commented in Back to the thesis and The past, present and future of the PhD thesis the concept of what is and what is not a PhD thesis has changed during the time, but that is not what I would like to emphasize in this part, instead I want to retake the sentence: “(…) students in the process of writing a thesis can find themselves in a very dark place indeed: lost in information, overwhelmed by literature, stuck for the next sentence, seduced by procrastination and wondering why on earth they signed up to this torture at all.” Writing the manuscript is everything but enjoyable, start doing that as soon as possible.

In a nutshell here are some comments:

  • Writing a thesis is BORING as hell, start asap!
  • Submitting to journals is a pain in the ass, start asap!
  • You better make a plan for such a long time project as a PhD.
  • Take notes!

One more thing, if after the first year or two years of doing the PhD you feel discouraged and do not want to continue, just leave it.The beginning of the PhD is the most enjoyable part of the process, if you already feel discouraged and overwhelmed by that point, I think that those feelings are just going to increase with time. Nobody should complain you for that decision and there are plenty of interesting things to do outside academia!