Surviving Your PhD – Year One: Innovation
(Last updated: 3 March 2020)
Year 1 of your PhD is all about innovation. If you're reading this because you recently started a PhD, you'll already be aware of how new all this feels - but also how daunting and even disorientating. Although UK universities do increasingly offer North American-style taught components to their PhD degrees, the majority are still research-focused. The relative lack of structure in a PhD degree is probably something that's quite new to you, and your brief is both simple and challenging: write a thesis. Do all the research to write a thesis. And come up with something new. The fact that you may very well be technically enrolled only on an MPhil programme at this point, and be required to upgrade your registration to "full PhD" status at the end of your first year, doesn't exactly fill you with comfort either.
But all this really means is that a lot is going to rest on your capacity to convince other people - and yourself, in times of self-doubt, which you will have! - that you're capable of innovation. That you can read in-depth for months at a time what the greatest minds in your field have said and done and still make an intervention in that field that changes some small thing about it. That intervention may be a methodology, a theoretical paradigm, a new classification, or simply a reading of a text or event that goes against the grain.
Believe in yourself! If you've made it into a PhD programme, or completed a Master's degree with enough ongoing appetite for research in your field to be putting together an application, the chances are you have the necessary understanding of your field and the spark of originality to make a meaningful intervention within it. Your first year is really all about subjecting those qualities to two competing forces, which together form the essence of creativity: the freewheeling divergent thinking processes you need to engage in to explore the theories, half-formed ideas, and unexpected associations from which your interventions will spring, and the convergent thinking processes that reject the wilder of these ideas and hone the remainder into solid, research-based innovations that will shape your impact on your field.
Your first year is your free-form jazz year
Yes, you've got requirements to fulfil (see below). You're going to have to convince your supervisor that you're on track to meet your goals, and you're going to have to prove to your department that you've got the structure in place to allow your ideas to coalesce into an original and well-argued thesis. But this is also your time to experiment, to explore freely and see where your reading takes you. As you close in on your final deadline and have a structure more firmly in place (and a supervisor who expects you to deliver on it), your options for divergent thinking around your topic are likely to decrease significantly.
Right now, though, it's expected that you take a few weeks or months to get acquainted with your field, your supervisor may even set you some preliminary tasks - annotated bibliographies and so on - to ensure that this is how you spend your time. But don't get intimidated by the size of this body of scholarship, or the sheer volume of literature you've got to read through. Embrace it. Take lateral steps. If you were headed to the library for one book but the one sitting next to it looks irresistibly exciting, pick it up and check it out, even if it takes you off on a tangent. This may well be the only time in your research career that you get to indulge in such freewheeling exploration, absorbing new ideas and exploring different possibilities that may or may not lead anywhere, all under the banner of "work." That's something to celebrate, so don't lament the lack of structure or focus. You'll miss it in a couple of years.
Propose, propose, propose!
You didn't think we were going to let you get away with doing nothing but browsing the library at your leisure, did you? There's one professional skill that every PhD student should learn ASAP, and ideally within their first couple of months in-programme.
All PhD students should, at the very least, apply for funding to the RCUK Council into whose area their research falls. Your department may very well require that you do this, and even if you think there's no chance of being granted a financial award, you should still go through the process. The simple reason for this is that PhD research proposals - and summaries of research you've already conducted, which require much the same structure and set of information - are one of the fundamental skills you'll need to master if you're serious about a career in research.
But it's not just for your long-term career prospects that you need to hone your proposal-writing skills. They're indispensable to first-year success, for a few very important reasons:
- Not only Research Council funding is available to you. Your institution probably has a limited number of in-house scholarships on offer, and depending on your field of study and your personal circumstances a variety of public and private bodies may be willing to fund all or part of your study. If you plan on getting scholarship money or bursaries of any kind at any point in your studies, you're going to need to earn it with a strong proposal. You don't want to be wholly self-funded, do you?
- You're more-than-likely going to need to hand one of these in to upgrade at the end of your first year, to demonstrate that you've developed your ideas into something achievable.
- Your proposal can and should serve as a template to guide you as you progress through your thesis project. You should revisit it often to make sure you're on track and that each of your chapters is contributing to what you set out to accomplish. If you find you've changed direction and now have different goals, rewrite the proposal to keep a clear idea in your head of what you're aiming to do. You never know when you might be asked to submit it again!
And if you happen to be reading this before you apply to a PhD programme, these steps will stand you in good stead for the proposal that you send in along with your programme application as well. Many PhD students don't learn how to write a really good research proposal until a year or two into their studies, by which time numerous funding opportunities may already have passed them by. If you're yet to apply, learning this stuff now will ensure you're in very strong shape to begin your studies!
What to include in your PhD research proposal
- Emphasise what's new. This, remember, is the year in which you sell your innovation, and you've hopefully been doing this with gusto for several months now - since you first applied for a place on a PhD programme. But this really is the most important measure of the value of PhD-level research for people who are evaluating funding applications. What are you offering to the field, and how will it be changed by your intervention? Make sure you're specific about the intervention you're making, describing not just how it challenges existing parameters, methods or beliefs, but also the assumptions it makes and the prior interventions it builds on.
There's a caveat here: what's regarded as new or exciting in a research field isn't necessarily anything that would be recognised as such. Research moves forward by incremental step, and generally not by paradigm shifts. It's certainly possible that you might eventually transform your field utterly, turn it on its head, and provide it with an entirely new way of seeing the problem you're investigating. But you've got a long career ahead of you, and even if your PhD is setting up a research trajectory that will ultimately shake the discipline to its very foundations, your thesis is unlikely to accomplish this all by itself. If you're promising a "whole new way of seeing", prepare for your claims to be met with skepticism my awarding committees.
- Tell a story. This will be easier for you if you're in an arts or humanities discipline, where you'll be familiar with working with narrative (though unfortunately it will also come naturally to everybody you're competing with for funding!), but regardless of discipline, committees respond well to a compelling narrative. Position your intervention in an ongoing chain of discovery, innovation and contestation. If you can succinctly express where the field has been, where you think it's going, and the part your research will play in that, so much the better.
- Describe your project succinctly, in terms suitable for the educated lay reader. This is a term you'll encounter a lot during your research career, and it’s a crucial concept to understand. You shouldn't interpret this guidance as an instruction to dumb down your project. If what you're doing is complex, difficult or controversial, you need to communicate this, and nobody who is assessing the quality of your work is going to shy away from intellectual challenge. But you should bear in mind that the people assessing your application for funding may not be experts in your particular field ("economic and social research", for example, encompasses economics, psychology, law, and linguistics among other areas). PhD research is sufficiently specific that even an expert in your discipline may still not fully comprehend the significance of your work or all the terminology and detailed background associated with it. So you should make sure that you briefly explain any particularly challenging concepts or highly specific terminology, and ensure that you go especially slowly when you're explaining how your work differs from other projects that may appear superficially similar to a lay reader.
- Identify beneficiaries. Not all PhD projects are going to change the world, but in a research culture that is increasingly driven by the agenda of "impact" - or the social, economic, or other effects research has on the wider world outside academia - it's handy to be aware of this. Research councils are looking to fund the next generation of researchers, so the more you talk like you already understand what it is to be a scholarly researcher, the better. It may simply be that your work will benefit other scholars and students in your field, and that's fine, but you should remember that the value of your work lies in what it offers to others - even if that's just a small number of participants in a particularly esoteric field of research.
On the other hand, if your work has potential implications for policy, or could lead to the development of something tangible that could be delivered beyond your academic discipline - whether that's a therapy or a product - be sure to explain what this is. But be sure also to explain how that might occur. You don't have to prove that it will occur, but you do have to demonstrate that there's at least a theoretical pathway from your scholarly work to the potential impact you're claiming. There's nothing more irritating than being told that a project is going to radically transform public policy if there's absolutely no evidence of this!
- Establish your credentials. A common mistake made by many postgraduate students and early career researchers is that they sell their research but neglect to sell themselves. Remember, you're not only making the argument that someone needs to do this research; you're suggesting that you are best-placed to conduct it. Be sure to trumpet your scholarly achievements, even if at this stage in your career they're relatively modest. If you've had a journal article published or accepted in your field, make sure your reader knows about it. The same goes for conference presentations or invited talks you've done, research projects you've been involved in (even if you were only a lab tech or research assistant), and even for your grades in your Master's degree. If you wrote a dissertation or embarked on an extended research project as part of your MA or MSc, be sure to add a description of this to your proposal.
- Propose a realistic timeline. Indicate how long it will take you to accomplish each part of the project, and be honest with yourself if doing so makes you realise the project you're about to propose would take closer to six years than three to complete. Don't plan on setting up a complex experiment inside a fortnight if it should take two months. It will cast doubt on your credentials as a serious researcher, and put you under intolerable pressure.
- Master the art of meta-commentary. We've talked about this before in a blog post on developing a dissertation methodology, but it bears repeating here as it becomes more important as your level of study increases, and, again, many of the people you're competing against will have mastered this art too! If you haven't seen it before, you might want to pick up a copy of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's book "They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, which offers all kinds of tips and tricks about the words and phrases seasoned professional academics use to signpost their own writing. The key thing to learn about signposting or metacommentary is that it allows you to dictate the terms on which your work is evaluated: you use rhtetoric to guide your reader as to what’s most valuable or innovative or important about your work, and, most importantly, to set your own criteria for success. You might use phrases like "this project's central innovation is…" to ensure that the aspect of your work that you consider to have the most value is the aspect that an assessor will scrutinise most closely. Or you might use cautionary phrases like "This is not to suggest that…" to guard against undesired interpretations that might follow from a conclusion or a methodology you advance. An experienced assessor coming to a thoroughly signposted piece of writing will not (of course) allow you to get away with unsubstantiated claims simply because of a rhetorical flourish or two, but they will assess your work against the success criteria that you define, rather than inventing their own because you weren't clear what you were setting out to accomplish.
The exact schedule for these varies from institution to institution, but you should expect to have to submit a progress report very early in your programme (often just three months in) and then approximately six monthly thereafter. A progress report - either in extended form or as part of a package of other evidence - is also likely to form part of your submission to upgrade your registration to a "full" PhD student. Progress reports don’t replace regular contact with your supervisor - which should be a lot more frequent than once every six months! - but they do provide a useful written record of your progress. They are also a great way for both you and your supervisor to assess what tangible progress has been made. It’s easy to get into talking about big ideas or discussing your project in very broad sweeps in meetings with your supervisor, and for you both to remain somewhat hazy on how much of your project you’ve actually completed.
If you’ve made less progress than you expected during a particular reporting period this is nothing to panic about. Although this may impact on exactly when you get to upgrade your registration: research ebbs and flows, and it’s not unusual to spend a month or two going down a blind alley. Whether that’s reading exhaustively about a theoretical framework or analytical model you thought you were going to be able to use only for it to turn out to be useless for the particular application you’re trying to use it for, or setting up an experiment whose design flaws you didn’t spot until too late in the process, and consequently gain no useful data from it.
Progress reports can be daunting to complete the first time you have to do them, but the key thing to remember is that their purpose is to help your supervisor and department support you more effectively, not to provide a means for judging you or pronouncing you inadequate. So here’s the information you should include:
- How is your work coming along overall? Are you ahead, behind, or about where you’d be at this stage?
- What specific things have you achieved in this reporting period? This applies both to work you’ve done directly on your thesis and also to other activities relevant to your research: conferences attended, modules taught, talks given, research assistant-ships undertaken.
- If you're currently off-track, how do you plan to get back on target in the next reporting period?
- What do you think has gone well, and what could have gone better?
- Are you clear on what you're doing next, or do you have concerns about it? How could your supervisor or department help you address these concerns?
Above all, be honest! It's never comfortable to admit that you've done less well at something than you'd hoped, or that you need help. But that's exactly what these exercises are for. If you claim everything's going swimmingly when it isn't, things may fall apart completely a little further down the line.
If you've been enrolled in an MPhil programme (as is very common) you'll be given an earliest and latest date (typically the range is 9 to 18 months from your start date) by which you can upgrade your registration to a full PhD. It's common to feel that you haven't really "made it" into proper PhD study until you've accomplished this step, and as such it's a cause of anxiety for many first-year PhD students, and the majority want to make sure they've done it before the summer at the end of their first year. But it's important not to rush things: if it's taken you a bit longer than you'd hoped to get your thoughts together into a coherent project, it's better to wait until September or October before you arrange the process.
The process itself usually consists of an interview and some or all of the following documents/pieces of evidence:
- A progress report, either standard or extended
- A research proposal detailing the structure of your thesis (see our section above for tips on how to write this!)
- Proof that you've gained any necessary research skills that were agreed at the start of your programme (very often this will just be a research methods class or similar, but it could involve learning a new programming language or piece of analysis software)
- Possibly a longer piece of work, such as an introductory chapter or a report on a preliminary experiment.
As with the progress reports, try not to get too stressed out about this part of the process. It's routine, and if you've been checking in with your supervisor regularly and working on the outline shape of your research, and your supervisor thinks you're ready, there's no need to doubt that your registration will be upgraded. Again, the most important things to get across are that (a) you've got an innovative and achievable project on your hands that is capable of making a decisive intervention in your field, and (b) you've grounded yourself sufficiently well in the field that you know how, why, and where your intervention is valuable.
Once you've done all this, and sold your capacity for innovation sufficiently well to upgrade your registration, you're ready to consolidate all this work as you begin your thesis in earnest in Year 2, which is what we cover in our next post in this series.