A PhD in wildlife ecology – Part II: How to survive it

By Stuart Dawson

You’ve got in the door, and the novelty has started to wear off. From the 6 months, to the 2-year mark, you can do a lot to set yourself up for success.

Talk to people, they actually aren’t that scary

Being familiar with the literature is fundamental to any scientific pursuit, but remember that the even the most recent article is probably from data collected 7 years before. The author has probably built on the research significantly since then. Similarly, the author may have had conclusions or insights about the data that were not quite robust enough for publication, but still helpful. You can only learn this by talking to people. Cold call them, simply introduce yourself, explain the research you hope to do, and ask what they think. Researchers are almost always overjoyed to have someone reading and following on their research, and you will gain a much more direct insight into their work. In addition, it can be a little annoying for senior researchers when they see a young PhD candidate present work that the senior researcher also did 5 years before, and is in the final stages of publication. They’ll say ‘If only you had called me, I could have saved you so much effort’.  Take the opportunity to go to conferences and talk to these people there.  But be prepared – make sure that you have done a bit of reading (if you want to talk to them about their recent work, then you will need to know what it is about).

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Keep one foot in the real world

In my experience, stress inflates to fill the void that it is given. After three years of thinking about nothing else but your PhD, it becomes existential, overwhelming, and seem like it’s the only thing you are allowed to care about, and the sole achievement by which you will be judged. As an inoculation to this, I found it helpful to commit to other activities. Not just social stuff, but meaningful pursuits. Have a part time job, play sport, do something that reminds you that the PhD is just one component of your life. Your research should be important, but if left unchecked it can inflate to be a crippling weight, which will only make it harder.

You’re the boss, you drive it

As a PhD student, you will be surrounded by very smart, hardworking supervisors. It’s easy to feel like you have to do what they say, because they must always be right. About 6 months into my PhD one of my supervisors told me ‘It’s been 6 months, you now know more about this than I do. I can only make suggestions, it’s your PhD, you do what you want’. When you start to have confidence (even if its fake), you start to own the project, own the decisions, and own the progress. Nowhere is this more important than in supervisor meetings. Set an agenda, set a time limit, set a goal. A final bug-bear of mine; come to the meeting with a prepared set of questions, and suggested solutions, and then ask your supervisors advice. Don’t just say ‘It didn’t work, what do I do’. At the end of the day, the buck stops with you, so act like it.

Tease apart inspiration from distraction

Throughout my PhD, my meetings would often get completely side-tracked by supervisors talking about all the things we could do with the data instead of what we originally set out to do. As a perfectionist, I have to finish one thing before starting something new, so this really annoyed me. I kept having to reign them in, thinking I needed to stay on track and finish one analysis before looking at a new one. This was distracting. Except sometimes it wasn’t…. it was inspiration. A new idea from the periphery that was new way to look at the data which helped my research immensely. Its important to do one job and do it well, but don’t discount new ideas out of hand, they are sometimes the key you needed to unlock the next step. Unfortunately, you never really know how to spot the difference till afterwards.

Experience is that thing you get after you need it.

It’s important to be familiar with the literature and to be familiar with the current state of the discipline. Read, read, and read some more. However some PhD students fall into the trap of reading for so long that they put off starting actual data collection. There will always be another paper to read, you will never completely prepared, but you need to begin nonetheless. It’s entirely likely that the first field trip will be an abject failure, but its better to do that 6 months in, than 2 years in. Don’t be careless, don’t rush in, but also have the confidence to have a crack and learn as your go.

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