5 pieces of advice I wish I’d heard in the first year of my PhD

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m currently thinking about those starting a PhD and the things I wish I had known when I began mine 11 years ago. This post focuses on advice I wish I’d heard, either to reassure me or to set me up for career success. In Should I do a PhD I reminded readers that a PhD is not a guarantee of a job, that the academic job market is saturated and that PhD candidates need to start making choices that will aid them in creating their career, right from the point they start considering a PhD. The advice and skills in 10 practical things I wish I knew in the first year of my PhD will not only help new PhD candidates create structure, develop useful skills and get control of their research, but also provide foundational skills for their future research career. This post offers further advice to help you make positive choices early in your PhD and create a solid foundation for your future career. I assume here that the reader aims for an academic career. The advice in this post is equally applicable to ‘alt-ac’ careers, but if you don’t intend to undertake further research in any forum there is less need to create a solid research foundation.

1. Your thesis is only the first piece of original research you will do

It’s easy to think that this PhD you are starting is going to be your best piece of work ever! People who begin PhDs have generally been high academic achievers during earlier phases of their careers and its sensible to assume that will continue. What’s more, as I mention in my a blog post, there is a general idea that PhDs are something intelligent people do, almost effortlessly, to achieve recognition. These ideas can combine to make you feel like you should be easily writing the most incredible piece of original research – that’s what PhDs do, right?

There maybe some people who experience a PhD like that, but for most of us its much harder. Original research is, by definition, difficult. It involves dead-ends. It involves learning new skills. It involves getting criticised over and over again (hopefully constructively). If you begin with the idea that this should be effortless and incredible, you will rapidly experience anxiety when the inevitable difficulties arise. Begin your research career by reminding yourself that your PhD is an apprenticeship in original research – to achieve it you simply need to demonstrate that you can do research. Let go of perfectionist tendencies. It’s your first piece of original research, it doesn’t need to be the best thing you ever write or most awesome research you ever do. Your masterpiece can come later.

A two-leafed wooden tablet with Greek writing visible inside.
A wooden tablet for writing practice, Greek. (Cairo Museum JE 51323)

2. Academic brand and mission statement

Your ‘academic brand‘ as Cathy Mazak terms it, sounds terribly corporate, but its really just shorthand for knowing what fields, specialisms and techniques you want people to associate with you. Consider those you cited regularly in your previous research, I bet if you think about your most cited academics you can quickly associate them with a field, site, subject, opinion or research method. That’s their academic brand!

Partially erased figures of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the sun-disk of the Aten in an Egyptian tomb.
Akhenaten’s brand was so strong it got him erased from history. Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten, Tomb of Meryre, Amarna.

Now you may think its a bit early to start branding yourself, when you’ve barely begun your PhD, but it’s never too early to start thinking about what kind of academic you want to be. You have already started creating an academic brand in terms of your past research (particularly any previous dissertations for your Masters) and your PhD subject. Your brand is important because everything in academia is easier when people can identify your research profile, see cohesion in your career history (this is especially important for jobs and grants), and recognise you as the academic who does X. Building your academic brand from the beginning of your PhD will ensure you are easily identifiable and can present a cohesive narrative in grants and job applications.

If your academic brand describes the type of academic you are, your academic mission statement describes how you will implement that brand in your field. My academic mission statement is in bold at the top of the About Hannah page of this blog and its followed up by further statements about where I want to go with my research.

Cathy Mazak has a lot of advice on identifying and solidifying your academic brand into something meaningful and effective for you and creating an academic mission statement. Although your PhD research and academic interests are likely to evolve over the course of your studies and into your early-career research, its never to early to start thinking about what kind of academic you want to be. What do you want to research? What methods do you want to use? What theoretical paradigms and principles inform your perspective? And what effect do you want your research to have on academia and beyond? I found thinking about these questions incredibly valuable for deciding how to direct my research, in writing grants and research proposals, and even for preparing author biographies for papers and presentations.

3. Plan your career

An ancient Egyptian stela with a large hieroglyphic inscription in the top two thirds and an image of the deceased in front of an offering table at the bottom.
Plan your career with the confidence of an ancient Egyptian writing a biographical inscription. Stela with biographical inscription of Samontuoser, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, Florence Museum #6365.

Thinking about your academic brand and mission statement is important because it can help you position yourself for your future research career. Your academic brand should ideally include those skills and research areas that, I suggest in my previous post, will help you in your future career: a practical skill and, for Egyptologists, ancient language. You should also consider another horrible corporate phrase ‘unique selling point’ or USP. This is what makes you distinct from all the other researchers and will therefore, hopefully, make you a desirable prospect on the job market. There is a caveat of course. If you are too novel or unique you may prove threatening or confusing. Academia tends towards the conservative and likes what is familiar. The aim of your USP is to be unique enough to be desirable but familiar enough to be comforting. Obviously this is a difficult trick to pull off, and one that we really shouldn’t need. Academia ought to be dynamic and truly interested in inter-disciplinarity, but until the culture of academia catches up we work with what we have. This is also where having ancient language can be an asset for an Egyptologist because it instantly satisfies some of the inherent conservatism that we occasionally find in our discipline.

Now of course during the first year of your PhD you are unlikely to be able to make any firm plans for the rest of your career, but you can start putting your academic brand in place, thinking about the niche you could occupy in academia and developing and teaching the practical and linguistic skills you will need. Your brand, mission statement and career focus may all change during the course of your research, but if you start with the intention of effective career development it will help you to maintain focus and create that cohesive career narrative.

4. Begin publishing

Publications will be essential to your future career, particularly if you are hoping for an academic post. Cathy Mazak is right to describe publications as a kind of currency in academia. Preparing and submitting publications during your PhD provides another outlet for your academic writing practice, lets you develop the skills of preparing and submitting publications, and will hopefully mean you have some published works on your CV by the time you graduate. Ideally you want to develop a ‘publication pipeline‘ as Cathy Mazak has it or ‘research pipeline‘ as Raul Pacheco Vega describes it, with a series of publications moving through from grants to published outputs. In the first year of your PhD you want to start to create that pipeline.

The obvious place to start you publishing career is with your Masters dissertation. Getting your dissertation polished up for publication might seem daunting, but having something under editing will provide another outlet for your writing practice while you do you literature review and develop ideas about your PhD research. If your PhD evolved from your Masters then writing the latter up for publication may improve your PhD research as well.

A Trello Kanban board showing five lists entitled 'Submitted', 'Revisions', 'Accepted', 'Proofs' and 'Published' with cards for individual publications occupying the lists.
The ‘published’ end of my research pipeline in Trello. Each card represents a publication and they move along the pipeline from left to right as they progress.

Practically there are a lot of resources available for those writing their first academic article. As ever Raul Pacheco Vega and Pat Thompson have various posts about writing a journal article. There is also Wendy Belcher‘s book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks which is a step-by-step method for writing a journal article. Your supervisor or a trusted mentor can also offer help and advice, and may offer to co-author the article with you if your dissertation is associated directly with their research.

5. Start a blog or vlog

In my previous post I suggested harnessing the resources of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, to find a wider academic community and learn new research and writing tips and tricks. While starting a blog or vlog (video blog) might not seem to be the most important thing while you’re developing your PhD research, it will have a number of positive effects that I recommend you harness. Firstly a blog or vlog gives you a ‘home’ in the online research community, a place to curate your academic brand and develop who you are as an academic. When I first developed my academic mission statement I included it on the ‘About‘ page of this blog, together with slightly more detailed discussion of my interests and research. A business card is all well and good, but a blog or vlog gives you a permanent online presence that anyone can find and learn more about who you are and what your research is all about.

Old Kingdom statue of a seated scribe.
‘Be a scribe’ . . . start a blog!
Henka, overseer of the two pyramids of Snefru, as a scribe from Meidum, 5th Dynasty. (Berlin ÄM 7334)

Secondly, a blog or vlog gives you experience in writing for a more general audience. A demonstrable ability to condense academic discussion for a popular audience is going to be helpful in the job market whether you’re aiming for an academic career or not. Relatedly, blogging offers another outlet for your writing practice, another place to explore ideas, essay out arguments and go on flights of fancy that you couldn’t indulge in your PhD or publications. My recent post about the Turin Papyrus and the shrines of Tutankhamun is exactly the kind of post that takes a different view of otherwise well-covered artefacts and couldn’t really be included in a formal publication. It occurred to me while writing about the Turin Papyrus for a serious academic article and my blog gave me an outlet to explore it further.

Fourthly, writing a blog can help you recover your individual style. By the time you start your PhD you’ve probably been writing for so long that academic or business style has rather crushed the personality out of your written products. As you progress through your research, the power of academic style over your writing is only going to get stronger. Having a blog or vlog where you can write more freely can allow you to maintain your stylistic independence. Since regularly writing this blog I have found elements of my personal style creeping in to my academic writing. It’s enough to make my academic writing feel like my own, without attracting criticism from eagle-eyed reviewers and I believe it makes my publications better.

Blogging and/or vlogging can be hugely beneficial to you writing and your career, but it’s worth exercising some caution. Blogging and vlogging are a form a publication so its important to make sure you cite anyone you quote, get permission to use other people’s images, avoid defamation and include any relevant acknowledgements. You’ll see in my recent posts (for example here) and youtube videos (such as this one) about georeferencing and satellite imagery I always take care to include a citation for the software and satellite imagery as required by the providers. This is just good manners, and it pays to avoid irritating potentially powerful corporations.

Caution is also merited regarding comments and hot-button topics. For the most part its unlikely you’re going to be blogging about anything politically incendiary but if you do its important to be prepared. A politically difficult subject will rapidly attract attention, you’ll get trolling and personal comments and can, in some cases, be the victim of threats and digital stalking. Please be cautious and take advice if you intend to say anything that could provoke such a response. More generally, if you’re blogging about archaeology, and particularly about Egypt, you should probably set comments to be screened before they are published. This means you can delete pseudo-science, advertising, trolling and edgelord comments before they appear on your blog and will avoid you getting into fruitless debates with weirdos.

Bibliography

Petra M. Boynton 2017. The Research Companion: A practical guide for those in the social sciences, health and development. Routledge

Mark Carrington 2019 Social Media for Academics. 2nd Edition. Sage

Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus

Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber 2016 Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press.

Jon Acuff 2019. Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Portfolio.

About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
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