Last week I ran three days of induction with 1st year PhD students starting in the Faculty of Science. It is always an exciting time to welcome scientists starting their research careers in our institution. I view the induction as an important point, that can allow researchers start building supportive peer communities. There is always a fine balance when running induction sessions; we want to enthuse early career researchers make the most of their research period in our institution and inform them of the many opportunities available to develop as professional researchers. At the same time, we aim to get researchers consider strategies for balancing the many demands they will face and develop the resilience to maintain their wellbeing.
There are certainly many ways to make the most of the doctoral experience. I always start the workshop by asking researchers some very simple, but critical questions:
- Why are you doing a PhD?
- Why this PhD?
- What are your expectations at the start of your PhD?
- A successful PhD experience…what will it look like?
I view the induction as an important space, that enable researchers share with peers different narratives of expectations and motivations. Such complex narratives of the self often remain hidden in professional circles, where individuals may feel compel to only showcase certain types of motivation for embarking into doctoral work. I was reminded this weekend of Brene Brown’s research and TED talk on the power of vulnerability. I started to think how some elements she describes from her work on vulnerability could be of use for starting doctoral students. Socialising starting PhD students into the cultural norms of research environments may not advocate for an approach that fosters vulnerability. However, based on some ideas Brene Brown shared in her 2010 TED talk, I would like to propose new PhD students and early career researchers a few practices to ponder on:
Practice the mantra “I am enough…”
If you are a new PhD student (or an experienced researcher starting on a new research project), the first few weeks of induction may feel quite overwhelming. You are adapting to a new environment and starting to realise what you’ve got yourself into. Whilst all our induction events are trying to convince you that we are here to support you and that you will have loads of wonderful opportunities, the reality of starting as a novice in research and embarking on acquiring loads of new knowledge could certainly make you wobble a bit, when considering the task ahead.
- Take a breath and proceed one small step at a time.
- Remind yourself that you need to establish your own rhythm of work and progress
- Stop comparing yourselves to others
Practice gratitude and joy
During the induction, I suggest to doctoral students that they may “start with the end in mind” with the view of being strategic with the diverse opportunities they will be offered to enrich their research period. Such approach is about fostering pro-activity, careful planning and forward thinking; it is certainly not, about not enjoying the journey. There is always a risk through induction events that our researchers may misunderstand our message on starting with the end in mind. One practice, researchers may want to integrate, is that of gratitude and joy throughout the journey. Being able to acknowledge small research progresses and have joy in the daily process of research work. Only focusing our mental energy on the work still to be done without acknowledging our small daily achievements, is missing an opportunity to feel joyous about our small successes.
- Consider keeping a gratitude log/ a tab of your small daily successes
- Remind yourself each day of why you started your research/ why it matters for this work to be done and which part of your research work you have liked today
- Make this worth it, by deciding each day that you will enjoy your research journey
Courage to be imperfect
Research work is never finalised; each piece of work only just represents a step, a transition towards the next stage. Undertaking research means entering new territories with no defined or guaranteed endpoints. You need to accept that you are taking a risk, and you cannot control and predict the outcomes of your work.
- Dare to share your research ideas, even if you feel you are not quite ready yet
- Connect with others along the way- don’t wait for the perfect results!
- Accept the transitory nature of knowledge
First and foremost, enjoy the ride!