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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Grad school, Irish style.

Taking some time off from my placebo series, I'd like to talk about my experience as a Phd student in Ireland.

This is somewhat inspired by the zomg grad school blog carnival, but i was too busy to submit in time.

Its also inspired by the fact that everyone who submitted to that carnival was a natural scientist, which impels me to give the social science side of the equation.

First, a few notes on Irish phd's versus the american grad school experience.
First off, there is very little funding, Ireland is in a depression at the moment, and never really put much money into the social sciences before that.
Secondly, what funding there is (in my area at least) tends to be awarded to the student rather than to a PI. Luckily enough, i did get funding (although it doesnt cover conferences or expenses, which sucks).

Also, there tends not to be many courses, you are essentially thrown into research, which I prefer but which many people would not find appealing. I sometimes wish that I'd had people to explain methods and stats in a lot of detail to me at the start, but then again, learning that stuff myself has been extremely rewarding.

So, without further ado, here are my top ten tips for surviving a PhD.

1) Do something you like - this is extremely important, as if you don't like your thesis, its unlikely that you will finish on time or that anyone else will care. Liking your Phd also makes it easier to write good grant applications.

2) Try to figure out what you want to do, in some detail, ASAP. This again is critical to finishing on time. Don't worry if your methods or approach changes, just figure out your key question and how you are going to assess it. Then draw up a schedule. You won't stick to it, but it can often be a spur to ensure that you keep working.

3) Work consistently. This was really difficult for me, as I was always a crammer in school and undergrad. However, this will not work for a PhD (if you want to finish on time at least) so get into the habit of doing some work at least 4 days a week. This is very important when you are, like me, an independent scholar without compatriots in a lab somewhere.

4) Read outside your discipline, especially for methods. Often, the methods in your field will be some amalgam of tradition, stupidity and lack of thought. Other disciplines can often point out the blind spots of your own.

5) Read, read, read. Spend at least six months reading before you start collecting data. Make sure you read around any instrument you plan on using. This can often give you a good idea of unanswered questions, which can help you get published (which is important if you want to stay in academia).

6) In total contrast to the last point, start collecting and analysing data ASAP. There's nothing like trying to figure out your own data to help you to understand the methods you are using. If something doesn't make sense, google it and read some papers. Its likely that someone else has had the same problems, and they may know how to solve it. If you cant collect data quickly for some reason, search the internet and start analysing other peoples data for practice.

7) Use R - seriously, if you intend to do any kind of hardcore statistical analysis, use R. Its the best stats program out there, and is constantly having new packages added. Its made me a much better scientist, both by forcing me to learn exactly what i'm doing (to decipher the error messages) and by centralising all of the routines i need in one place. Most psychologists end up using SPSS, some IRT program, some SEM program and various other odds and ends. R does all of this, so just learn it now before you get left behind.

8) Take some time off. I've lost count of the amount of times I've been stumped on a problem, have taken a couple or hours or a day off and the solution has come to me while I was relaxing. Creative thought and hard slog do not often co-occur, so make time for both.

9)  Use as many useful computer tools as possibe. Get a computerised reference manager, cos references are annoying. Get a good stats program (Use R). Get a good qualitative analysis program (I'm using Nvivo, but theres probably a good open source alternative). Learn LaTeX, lest you lose a whole chapter to the demons that infest Word.

10) Write, write, write. Its often easier to understand what the problems are once you try to explain yourself. Aim to write a few hundred words a day. Take notes on absolutely everything you read, this will save you time in the long run.

Finally, have fun! Doing research is supposed to be fun, and you can bet your ass that all the greats enjoyed their work. To paraphrase something I heard once: Doing a PhD is like living your life; if you're not enjoying it, neither the life nor the PhD will turn out to be any good.