The journey to the first chapter of your PhD thesis or the first paper to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal is typically one of challenge and struggle. Here are some tips that may help you on this journey of the first chapter or first paper.
Firstly, writing a PhD chapter or journal article is very different from writing notes or summaries as we do during our Bachelor’s and Master’s phase, and overdoing is punished rather than rewarded. The art of doing a PhD is to explain your topic to people who are unfamiliar with your topic as concisely as possible. Besides, the more concepts and terms you mention in your paper, the more you need to explain and refer to other work. Most journals have wording limits; if you clearly exceed those limits with no good reason, you will most likely not see your work published. So you will have to make some choices.
Secondly, when writing your paper, keep in mind that you are not just presenting a study, but that you are telling a story, and that you are going to tell readers of your paper how this story can be anchored as a narrative in the (growing) series of stories on the topic under study. Keep in mind that research is rarely if ever carried out in a vacuum; there is virtually always a drive in the form of a practical problem or a theoretical issue that is considered worth studying
Finally, you have probably experienced that when you ask two supervisors about an issue related to your topic you may get three different opinions, which may partly conflict with each other and may or may not align with your own thoughts on the matter. Keep in mind that you are the captain of the ship called “My PhD project” and that the thoughts from your supervisors form a (probably, and hopefully, not random) sample from a population of possible thoughts on the issue. You have to make sense of their input and – together with your own thoughts – use them to make a coherent story.
Both to myself and Irina (Researchista) took about 2.5 years to see the first paper from the PhD project published in an international journal. At that point, I thought it might take six years to finish my PhD. However, about one year later, I defended my PhD with more chapters than expected, and that work has been one of the cornerstones of my research since (the past four years).
I hope these three tips will help you on your journey to the first chapter or article. I will share some more tips on how to write effectively and efficiently in a next post, so stay tuned!
Clinician asks: I am considering to do a PhD project but I wonder if it is worth the effort given the many roles I am having already not just career-wise but also family-wise (kids).
Jimmie answers: This is an important question that quite a few people in my network have been asking themselves. It is one thing to start a PhD in the mid-20s, when most of us have not really started a career in a particular area and many of us are still not responsible for kids, but it becomes more difficult when we have started a career in a particular field and also have kids.
Luckily, our self-regulation skills tend to increase with time. That is, where it may have taken effort to manage different things at age 20, we become more skilled in it with practice. We become more aware of our skills and limits, and learn to anticipate when certain things require too much. Moreover, where we may struggle to figure out what we want in life and what things we find interesting career-wise in the mid-20s, we tend to develop a somewhat more defined view on these things in the years that follow. From this perspective, people who start a PhD at a somewhat later age than usual – be it at age 40 or perhaps after age 50 – may have some things in favour compared to younger candidates. This is even more so if the PhD aligns to some extent with your current career. For instance, I know dozens of people who have 5-20 years of experience in clinical practice and at some point go for a PhD project in medical education while continuing their careers in clinical practice. This combination works out well in many cases, because the clinical experience is of great value throughout the PhD project.
However, one should not take it lightly and think that doing a PhD next to family life and ongoing career is peanuts. This combination will require an ongoing careful regulation and planning of activities, such that responsibilities and joys of family life and career will not be under pressure. You may not be able to go as fast as some candidates in the early 20s, who do not yet have to take care of family and/or career, and that is okay!
When reflecting upon the question whether or not to start a PhD next to family life and career, a good question to ask is what is your goal of doing a PhD; what do you hope to get out of it? For instance, many clinicians who go for a PhD in medical education do so because they want to become more involved in teaching and perhaps research in medical education and less involved in the clinical work (and sometimes: clinical research) they have been doing. If you are considering a similar trajectory and see a way to do a PhD without compromising on the roles you are having already, time may be right to get started.