PhD Timeout: A chance to reflect

Guest blog post from Dr Joanna Young, Director of The Scientific Editing Company

Every now and again a researcher needs to escape from their daily stomping ground to reflect. The second half of a Ph.D. has a tendency to be all consuming: you have battled through the insecurity of your first year and managed to defend a plausible thesis proposal; had time to become well acquainted with the literature in your field; learned a variety of new techniques and accrued a sizeable set of data, but your working days are growing longer and chunks of your weekend are dedicated obsessing about your research. Now that your funding deadline is looming, expectations are higher and there is pressure to condense what you have discovered into a document three inches thick.

At least, these were the thoughts that were running through my head towards the end of my Ph.D. back in 2007. I decided to take a break and forced myself to leave the lab for a few days to attend a GRADschool, where I could reflect on my progress and consider possible future career options. The structure of the course appealed to me, including career planning, achieving goals in your Ph.D., case studies and a variety of exercises designed to make you think differently. These were topics that I was already thinking about on my own, so the opportunity to discuss it with others in the same situation as me was appealing.

Right from the start of the course we were put into teams. I found myself in a group with seven other Ph.D. students, none of whom I knew, who hailed from a variety of different universities. After the initial “icebreaker” session, we discovered that we were all doing research in completely different fields; from biological sciences to languages to history of art.

Up to that point, I hadn’t actually met many other Ph.D. students outside of my own department, apart from those I knew through teaching and demonstrating work, but they had been in a similar field to me. The academically cosmopolitan environment at GRADschool offered the opportunity to discuss the Ph.D. process with students who worked in the field or the library, not the lab, and to compare this with my own experience.

Doctoral student life has a number of common elements regardless of what subject you choose to study, including managing your project efficiently, research productivity, interacting with your supervisor and the dreaded “impostor syndrome”, among others. Having a forum to discuss these issues with my peers not only helped me to reflect positively on my own research, but it made me think about how I could approach certain things differently. For example, in my department, I usually had to attend a weekly lab meeting which I considered something of a chore; when I mentioned this to the others in my team half of them pointed out that I was lucky because they never had a regular opportunity to present and discuss their work with colleagues. I realised that I had been taking this for granted.

All of the elements of the course were enjoyable and the tutors, most of whom had done Ph.D.s themselves, were enthusiastic and supportive. They facilitated interesting sessions on working in the public sector and the voluntary sector, were happy to discuss their own careers and chatted about a variety of subjects over a beer at the end of the day.  Ultimately, the most valuable part of the whole experience was meeting the other students. After the course had finished, several of us stayed in touch and continued to meet up regularly for years afterwards to discuss thesis writing, surviving the viva and postdoctoral positions.  Seven years later, I’m still in touch with at least half of the people from my GRADschool team and I would recommend the GRADschool courses to all Ph.D. students.

Dr. Joanna Young is the Director of The Scientific Editing Company which specialises in preparing research articles for publication. Joanna also delivers researcher development workshops at universities around the country.

This years Edinburgh Local Gradschool will take place on 1st – 4th July 2014.  For more information please see: