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9 ways to succeed in a research degree

11 April 2019
It's not just about surviving – but thriving too

Embarking on a PhD is not easy. Rachel Cole, a doctoral candidate researching media classification in Australia, shares her top tips for getting the most out of doing a higher degree.

You're at the start of a three-year project and by the end you'll have written some 80,000 words that contribute new knowledge to your field. Nothing to it, right? Wrong. They say all great journeys start with a single step – and great researchers take good care of themselves. Here's how.

1. Get to know what works

Become aware of how your body functions and what helps or hinders you. When is the best time of day for you to write? Are you getting enough exercise? Enough sleep? How much coffee and sugar are you taking in? What are your early signs of stress? You may not always be able to stay within your limits, but knowing and recognising what makes you tick is helpful for those final stretches when you need to be a well-oiled machine.

2. Develop a few quick fixes

In second and third year, find ways to step back in times of overwhelm and stress. The stakes are high and it's easy to get frazzled. Consider what makes you feel good rather than look good: do some slow stretching for 10 minutes; call a friend or family member; or going for a walk. These simple measures can help change your mood. Treat yourself well on the weekends.

3. Build a workable routine

A good routine should deliver you into your working day and ensure you can sit at your desk for long hours. Do something for yourself in the morning, before anxiety can set in. A routine doesn't have to be interpreted as a regimented time schedule – do whatever works for you. It can be a way to ensure you get the necessary amount of self-care and exercise alongside maximum work hours. 

4. Don’t bottle anything up

Intensive research brings many rewards, but it can come with some difficulties too. No matter what you may be struggling with – overwhelm, insecurity, anxiety, precarity, financial issues – you are bound to find others who feel the same way. You don’t have to share your concerns with the world, but do talk to someone you trust. And remember that the University offers a free Counselling and Mental Health Support Service.

5. Make informed choices

Many opportunities to develop your career will arise, but you don't have to say yes to everything you may be asked to do. Only you know what you're capable of and whose advice you trust. Understand just how much work a request is likely to involve. Research careers follow all kinds of trajectories – and that’s OK.

6. Cultivate your headspace

Your thesis and fun are not mutually exclusive, and the balance between research and socialising is different for everyone. It's also OK to decline invitations, if only to preserve and cultivate the headspace you need for your work. Practise a few polite ways to say no. You are not obliged to explain yourself and how the receiver reacts is up to them. 

7. Go easy on your errors

This is by far the most important piece of self-care: no beating yourself up. Everyone is at the University to learn – this is the whole objective of undertaking a research degree. If you learn from any mistake you make, you’re doing it right.

8. Let setbacks make you stronger

Instead of letting problems dent your confidence, use feedback to strengthen your resolve to develop and complete your project. More than intelligence, resilience is vital to completing a research degree.

9. Trust yourself

A research project's coherence emerges in the finishing stages, so three-to-four years is a long time to trust that what you’re working on will make sense in the end. It will. Stick to your guns.