Necessary Skills for a Successful PhD student

So you have got the PhD checklist and you have brushed up on your time management skills but what other skills are you going to need to get through this PhD?

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So that chart may look a bit scary (particularly as this is not even an extensive list) but here’s the good news – you must already have some of those skills otherwise you would not have come this far in your academic career.

However it is a good idea to identify any weaknesses you have at the START of your PhD. That way you can you can:

a)      Plan for where you have difficulties / tasks will take you a bit longer to complete

b)      You will be less stressed when it comes to the really important stuff like doing the data analysis, writing up and getting published.

c)       You will finish your PhD with more and / or stronger skills than you had before

One way of improving your skills (particularly IT skills) is through sessions that your University might provide. Although you may be tempted not to sign up to these sessions because they can take time out of your working week, they will be worth it in the end. So if you sign up to these early (in your 1st year) then at least these sessions won’t be eating into precious time to write up your work.

The careers service at your university should also be able to point you in the direction of workshops / seminars etc. both internal and external to help you with your personal development.

Sounds like a good idea? But wondering how you are going to fit it all in and keep track of it all?

Well there are tools that can help you with improving your skills and help you keep tabs on your progress!

One of the good resources that I know of is the Vitae Researcher Development Framework Planner

(http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/291411/RDF-Professional-Development-Planner.html)

This tool allows you to identify areas of improvement and keep records of what you have done to make improvements. What I really like about it is that it allows you to set deadlines for improvements which helps motivate you to actively change your skill set so you do make improvements at your own pace.

Alternatively you could set up plans / time scales using programmes such as Excel and Project planner*.

Well that’s it from me. I hope my final piece of advice is useful to you, putting you ahead of the game before you have even started. Have fun and good luck!

-Dr Fran-kenstein

*other programs available.

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Survival Guide for a PhD Student

We’re ending this week with our final scheduled blog posts that are all to do with the actual PhD process, and being able to survive throughout, up until the very end! So here is a survival kit we’ve knocked together for you:

  • A Diary or an electronic Calendar is your best friend!
  • To-Do Lists are also good chums of yours

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  • Compile a useful list of resources for reading material
  • Make and keep a Reading/Writing schedule
  • Find some motivational quotes and articles. Maybe stick some on your wall. And fridge. And on all your clothes so that you’re constantly reminded of why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you should keep at it!
  • Make sure you have de-stressing activities (exercise, books, video games, knitting) at your disposal, and use them wisely (not for procrastination!)
  • Have a Happy Place/Thought that you can ‘go to’ when necessaryimage
  • Officemates (if you have an office)/Colleagues/Other PhD Students, people who are also doing what you are doing – find them, and keep them.
  • Put “No” in your toolbox. Learn how and when to use it and you just might not end up having to do everything all at once whilst juggling 15 coffee cups and leaping through flaming hoops all the while belting out “Oh My Darling Clementine” at the top of your lungs.
  • Confidence – believe in your work and your work will believe in you! (Also, other academics and your supervisor)
  • Perseverance. When the going gets tough, the tough get going! But not you, you stick it out!

Most importantly – make sure you enjoy the ride! It won’t be easy but it doesn’t have to be hell.

Dr. Neo, out!

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Tips on Time Management from a Serial Procrastinator

During your PhD you will have a lot of demands on your time (including: research, lab work, classes, teaching duties, meetings etc.) and it will be your responsibility to manage said time effectively in order to meet all your deadlines. This means that good time management skills are absolutely essential for a PhD student, so if you know this isn’t a strong point of yours then it might be worth getting into good habits now to prepare yourself.

As a serial procrastinator myself (semi-reformed!), I know how hard it can be to break the habit of a lifetime and actually start your work ahead of time; there are so many time-wasting traps and temptations to lead you astray…

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Top ten things NOT to do when you’re on a deadline:

  1. 1.       Think that just making a list of important tasks counts as an important task. Yes, it’s very important to make task lists and schedules and suchlike to help you keep track of things. But it’s also very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, because making the list is work related, it therefore counts as work. If you’ve put more time into making your work schedule than you have into any of the actual work on it, then you’ve probably procrastinated enough.
  2. 2.       Think that colour coding the list also counts as an important task. Seriously, put down the colouring pencils! And the highlighters. And the multi-coloured biros… When you make your task lists or schedules, start from the current day and make sure you put in a task for that day, to be completed straight away. This will encourage you to make a good start, otherwise you will have already ruined your beautiful list, and it will help you feel as though the schedule is helping you already, making you more likely to stick to it in future.
  3. 3.       Pretend that cleaning the whole house down to the skirting boards counts as a productive day. This is another tricksy one as you’re doing something that needs to be done, so you feel less guilty about not working than if you’d just watched TV.
  4. 4.       Stay up late working but then use it as an excuse to sleep all day afterwards. If you’ve been up late working hard, odds are you’re going to feel pretty tired the next day. So you’ll have a nice long lie in as a reward. The only trouble with this is that if you’re have to catch up on sleep then you will probably want to sleep for longer than normal, which then wastes more time than if you’d gone to bed a little earlier and got up and started working again at your normal time.
  5. 5.       Start reading Game of Thrones just before your dissertation is due. This is equally true of watching Breaking Bad. Or getting Candy Crush on your phone… Just say no!
  6. 6.       Make unrealistic time plans that you know you won’t stick to. To plan your time better you need to know how you work best. Do you prefer to work for long stretches so you don’t lose focus or do you prefer to take lots of little breaks so you don’t overload your brain? Are you better at focusing on one assignment at a time, or switching between assignments to keep your interest up? Thinking about your work style like this will help you to plan your time more effectively.
  7. 7.       Kid yourself that even though you can’t be bothered right now you will definitely, absolutely, 100% get it done tomorrow. Yeah right! Once you start putting things off its all too easy to keep doing so until suddenly its snowballed out of control and you only have 2 days left to write 3 assignments! Try to make a start, even if it’s something small like reading a couple of papers or making some notes and before taking the rest of the evening off. Having something down already will make it easier for you to write it up later, you might find that simply starting a project inspires you to keep going and get even more of it done.
  8. Think that, because you’ve started something you don’t need to work again for ages. This is a very common trap for people who struggle with time management (in fact, this is actually my personal weakness!) You’ve started a project ahead of time; you’ve got some research ready, a few notes or a plan; you’re feeling pretty proud of yourself for making a head start. So you think it will be fine if you leave for a couple of weeks. After all, it’s not due for ages! The problem with this approach is that you will get other assignments in the interim so the work can sneakily pile up with you noticing. Also, by the time you come back to it you may have forgotten some of the details and end up having to go back and re-read a lot of the research you already did, which means that the time you spent making a good start, was effectively wasted. Once you have started working on a project, try to come back to it at least once a week to add more research or work on the next section. This will help you make slow but steady progress and keep the work fresh in your mind.
  9. Have Facebook and iPlayer set as your internet homepages. Try getting rid of these sorts of things from your home pages as it will merely tempt you to procrastinate every time you open your laptop. If you’re on a really tight deadline then blocking them for a little while might be a good idea; it may sound silly but just making it that little bit harder to access your procrastination tools, will help you think twice about whether you should be doing something else.
  10. 10.   Tell your friends you can’t come out because you’ve got too much work. Denying yourself any time for relaxing/socialising won’t help to keep your motivation or energy up. Try to allocate some time for friends/ family/downtime each week to keep you motivated (and sane!) Just try to keep your work and social lives in a healthy, manageable balance.

The above advice may seem like common sense, but for less organised people, myself included, it can be very easy to get off track and end up with a huge stack of work, deadlines looming and a week of panic and sleepless nights to look forward to.

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So I’ve told you what NOT to do, but here are some tips on what you can actually do to improve your time management skills:

  • Plan well ahead of time.  This applies to both long-term and short-term goals. Make sure you keep an eye on how well your PhD is progressing and whether you are on schedule to finish it, as well as planning your smaller task and assignments.
  • Leave enough room in your plans for flexibility.  Unexpected things happen in life and in a PhD. Make sure that you’ve left enough flexibility in your schedule to adapt and stay on track if life throws you a googly once in a while.
  • Learn to prioritise tasks. When you’re making your task lists try to think about how important and how urgent a task is and prioritise accordingly. Complete tasks that are both urgent and important first and then continue with important but not urgent tasks etc.
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    (Image retrieved from: http://www.positive-change-tools-for-success.com/Time-Management-Matrix.html )
  • Know your own working style and capabilities. Only you will know how you can work most effectively, so take some time to honestly consider your own style, how you can be most productive and plan your time accordingly. For example: are you more productive if you take frequent short breaks, or do you find it easier to focus on a task for a long time and rest afterwards?
  • Learn to say ‘no’ sometimes.  It can be very hard to say no to your supervisor when they ask you to do something but you have to be realistic about how much you can take on at once. There’s no point agreeing to a task if you KNOW you won’t be able to complete it in time or to the desired standard.
  • Respect deadlines!
  • If you’re getting behind, tell someone! Speak to your advisor if you feel that you are falling behind, and don’t wait too long to do this. The sooner you address the problem, the easier it will be to fix.
  • Use your time effectively/Learn to multi-task.
  • Update and refine your task lists every day. This will help you keep track of your progress and which tasks you need to prioritise the next day.
  • Keep a good lab notebook. Keeping detailed notes about your methods, lab protocols and analysis as you go will help you write up these parts of your thesis later on.
  • Meet with your supervisor regularly. Part of your supervisor’s role is to help you to make the most of your PhD and keep you from going way off track and wasting time.
  • Make some time for yourself!

 

    • finish all the things

    I hope these tips will be of some help to you lovely ninjas as you progress through your PhD’s. For further information on effective time management and a truly inspiring lecture, check out this link: http://www.awakenedamerican.com/content/randy-pausch-lecture-time-management

    Finally I’d like to say a huge thank you to Dr Emily Cross from Bangor University for letting us source information from her  Introduction to a PhD presentation “Getting the Most Out of Your PhD: Expectation, Organisation & Strategy” . Her presentation featured excellent advice and information on time management, which really helped to shape this post.

    -Dr L

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After the PhD

After the PhD

Diagram from “The Scientific Century” by the Royal Society. Their caption reads “This diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people into other sectors. It is a simplified snapshot based on recent data from HEFCE, the Research Base Funders Forum and for the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s annual Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. It also draws on Vitae’s analysis of the DLHE survey. It does not show career breaks or moves back into academic science from other sectors.

Source: Dr. Emily Cross, Bangor University – “Getting the most out of your PhD: Expectations, Organisation & Strategy” (presentation)

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December 16, 2013 · 9:34 pm

Interview Dos and Don’ts

DO dress appropriately and professionally – whether this means wearing a suit or just a sensible (think visiting conservative relatives) outfit, make an effort, be tidy, and tick that “good first impression” box!

DON’T make inappropriate comments, rude jokes etc. Remember this is a professional setting, so even if you are made to feel very comfortable, watch what you say very carefully! The interview lasts from the moment you see the interviewer to the moment you are no longer in each other’s company. Even if you are not answering a formal question, or are just having a chat, you are still being assessed, so make sure you don’t say anything you wouldn’t say during an interview!

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DO make sure you know exactly where you’re going and how to get there. It is important to show that you are able to think ahead and plan successfully. And on a related note:

DON’T be late! Leave at least half an hour before your appointment if you don’t know the area or building, to allow yourself time to get lost! If you know the place well, then arrive at least fifteen minutes in advance.

DO prepare. There are plenty of resources online with example questions, read them, practice answering them, and make sure you are comfortable with your answers. Look in your application for questions that might arise, make sure you can answer just about everything concerning your research!

DON’T PANIC! The panel knows you are nervous, and they expect that you might make some mistakes. If you do, don’t flail or make a big deal out of it, compose yourself and move on.

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DO study up on your interviewers (if you know who they will be in advance), and make sure you know how to address them and how they are relevant to the position you are applying for!

DON’T ask your interviewers what their work is on, if you would like to talk about it, do your research, read a couple of their papers, and bring it up if relevant!

DO say if you don’t know something! They WILL know if you are making something up, and it will make you look much more unprofessional than admitting that you don’t know the answer to a question, then offering possible solutions like where you would find the information from.

DON’T take all the time in the world to answer questions! No one will be timing you (in most cases) when you are given a certain amount of time for questions, so make sure you are on the ball and aren’t wasting time. Even if what you’re saying is impressive, if you take 40 minutes to complete a 20 minute interview that will create a bad impression.

DO ask questions. You can either prepare these in advance or wing it, but having a couple of interesting questions about the post or the work is what makes a lot of interview candidates stand out. Be one of them! But,

DON’T ask stupid questions. Now while it’s true that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, there are some that you just shouldn’t be asking in an interview setting. These are anything practical to do with the position that you can find out via admin routes (hours, pay etc.) and especially anything that was already in the grant/proposal/advert. 

And anwyay, what’s the worst that could happen??

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Interview Questions

Hi Ninjas, as you may or may not have noticed yet, this week’s posts are all about preparing for interviews and presenting yourself. As part of this I’ll be talking about the types of questions you might get asked in an interview and why you’ll be asked them and giving you a few tips on how to respond.

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Unfortunately there’s no way you can ever prepare for every possible question you might get asked, but practising on similar style questions will make it much easier to interpret and answer such questions in your interview. So my advice to all of you is to find a friend you’re comfortable with and practise asking and answering interview questions with each other; even if it’s really informal and degenerates into silly answers and giggling, if it gets you thinking about the questions then it is all good practice! Also, if any of you have any examples of super-tough interview questions, or want to share your own interview stories, then please go ahead and comment. We’d love to hear them and your fellow ninjas may find it useful.

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Interview questions can often sound very challenging but most of the time each question will have a specific aim that can be identified by simply breaking it down and considering exactly what qualities that question is trying to assess. Take the classic example: “What is your greatest weakness?” This is a tricky question to answer as you will probably feel as though admitting to a fatal flaw could jeopardise your chances of getting the position, but nobody is going to believe you if you say you don’t have any weaknesses.

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What an interviewer wants to find out with this question is whether you can honestly and accurately assess your own abilities AND also to take steps to reduce the impact of any weaknesses on your work. An ideal answer to this question would be to identify a real weakness of yours and either talk about what you do to overcome it, or how you have turned it into a strength (or both!).

Broadly speaking there are five main types of questions you will get asked during an interview:

  • Questions to assess your academic knowledge/skills. These will depend on the PhD you are applying for, so make sure you swot up on the main topics and methods in your area beforehand. It is also worth bearing in mind that, depending on who is conducting the interview, your interviewer may not be as familiar with the topic as you are, or they could be an expert in the field. So try to pitch your answers at the right level; avoid using lots of jargon as it may not be understood by a non-expert, but also don’t skim over important or difficult concepts as an expert may think that you don’t really know your stuff.
  • Questions about why you want this specific PhD, or why you want to work in that specific department. These questions are designed to assess both your passion and your knowledge, so again make sure you do your research about the course and the department. They want to know that you’re interested in them and their work, not just any PhD you can get your hands on. They may also want to know about how you plan to approach your research should you get the PhD, so make sure you’ve considered things like: the time course of your project and how you will complete it on schedule, some details of the methods you want to use, what you will do if you don’t find what you’re expecting, and what sort of resources you will need. This is where having to write those darn research proposals will come in handy!
  • Questions all about YOU. (For example, about your personality, work ethic, experience, academic/research skills, ambitions for the future etc.) Think ahead about the qualities you want to portray and some instances when you have displayed those qualities or skills. While it can be ok to use examples from your personal life, they are likely to be more interested in examples from a university or work setting as they will want to assess how you will deal with the challenges of a professional, academic environment. Having said that, interviewers will of course want to get a sense of your personality during the interview as well, so some personal touches wouldn’t go amiss as long as they are appropriate for the context.
  • Scenario-based questions. (Such as: ethical dilemmas, problem solving, dealing with challenging work situations etc.) This type of question will almost definitely come up if you are applying for a PhD that involves working with a clinical or vulnerable population or one that will include some teaching duties. For the former, I would recommend familiarising yourself with general ethical guidelines for the type of work you would be doing as this will help you to give a more informed answer if you are presented with a scenario involving an ethical dilemma. For the latter, try to think ahead about: how you would approach teaching and motivating students, what sort of teaching strategies you find effective as a student, or whether you have had any experience teaching others and how you approached it. For example, if you have worked as a tutor before or even just helped your friends when they have had trouble understanding a topic, think about what sort of methods you found most effective and how you could apply them in a classroom situation.
  • Oddball questions. These tend to be more common in job interviews than PhD interviews but you might still get a couple, so it is worth being as prepared as you can for them (luckily these ones tend to be the most fun to practise with friends!) Some of these sorts of questions may sound strange but there is usually a reason the interviewer is asking them. A good example I heard recently was: “Explain your undergraduate research project as though you were talking to your grandmother”.  For an interviewer this is a great question as it allows them to assess your ability to think on your feet and your ability to present relevant information in a way that is accessible to everyone, whilst also giving them some insight into your previous research experience.

The key points to take from the above list are: researching your topic, course and department is vital for an interview; and learning to break down questions (and practising doing this) will help you to give the best possible answers in an interview.

A few other quick tips:

  • Dress appropriately!
  • Prepare key qualities and skills you want to mention along with examples of times you have shown them.
  • Try to build a rapport with your interviewer, but remember to take the lead from them. If your interviewer is being very formal then cracking jokes may not be a good idea, but if they are treating more like a friendly chat then you should treat it the same way.
  • Avoid just saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question as it doesn’t demonstrate any further knowledge, thought or skill and it won’t help the conversation to flow smoothly.
  • It’s ok to disagree with your interviewer. They will want know you have your own opinions and can back them up with facts and research and they may welcome a certain amount of friendly debate about a topic. Just remember to keep it as a FRIENDLY debate; getting into a fight with the interviewer is not the best strategy…
  • Come with your own questions about the course or the university (though preferably not questions you could have easily found out yourself!)

To help you get practising I’ve listed some example questions below along with some links to other articles on preparing for interviews. I hope you have fun practising with your friends and I wish you all the best of luck for your future interviews!

-Dr L

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Example Questions:

Give an example of a time when you showed initiative.

Give an example of a time when you showed resilience.

Why this course?

What are your greatest strengths?

What makes you different from any other candidate?

How do you cope with failure?

How would your undergraduate/masters supervisor describe you?

How would you handle a disagreement with your supervisor?

Describe the statistical analyses you used for your undergraduate research project.

Is there a place for social media in academia?

How would you approach teaching statistics to an undergraduate class?

How do you cope with time pressure?

Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

Are you applying for other PhD courses?

What do you think you would find most difficult about this PhD?

Some useful/interesting links:

http://www.postgrad.com/editorial/advice/phd/interview_dos_and_donts/

http://www.studential.com/postgraduate/study/PhD/interviews

http://studylink.co.uk/postgraduate-advice/the-top-10-interview-questions-and-how-to-answer-them/

Also, when saying “I don’t know” in an interview can be useful: http://business.time.com/2013/10/21/three-little-words-to-never-ever-say-in-an-interview/?iid=obnetwork

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Impactful impact statements and more…

Applications are something we all have to fill out so…

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Here’s my stress-free to an easy application process

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*ideas don’t necessarily have to be awesome but, write it so your personality shines through and please…. DON’T LIE.

- Application forms and all their subsections are a way to get to know a prospective PhD candidate. It allows them to assess your knowledge, passion and motivations to working in an academic environment over the next three years. Don’t panic, if you’re this far into the process, you are clearly interested in academia in one way or another, find your niche, show your passion and put that across in your written application

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-    Write down things you are involved in; both academic and extracurricular activities and identify the role you take and what you’ve learnt. Provide some examples of teaching, as PhD studentships often have an element of teaching undergrads.

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- Everyone has had interesting experiences, WRITE THEM DOWN!

- Not everyone goes on gap years or has travelled round the southern hemisphere (other hemispheres included) but that doesn’t matter. At least identify things you’ve done that relate to the position you’re applying for.  Just because you scaled Everest blindfolded, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to walk into a PhD. Make sure you have relevant experience which shows you can use your initiative, are hard-working and that you can communicate with a variety of people. Potential supervisors want to know that you are reliable.

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-   Show your passion for research and your ideas about the current direction your chosen field is going in.

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Running low on ideas?

Here’s some buzzwords to help you through >>>>

Self-Motivated

Creative

Deep thinker

Passionate

Productive

Reliable

Outgoing

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KISS - NO, Not that type of kiss.

Remember to: KEEP ISIMPLE STUPID

More importantly…. Don’t let this be you!!!!

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There’s more helpful titbits here:

http://www.southampton.ac.uk/ris/funding/impact.html

- Dr. Double D 

 

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