Centre Blog

Ayesha Khan – Pre-PhD preparations: Managing expectations

Ever since I began my doctoral studies, I received a lot of enquiries, particularly from young people, asking questions about enrolling onto a doctoral programme. Subsequently, I compiled a list on what to expect when applying for a PhD:

  • Apply to more than one university: I applied to ten different universities and completed seven to eight draft proposals. You may get a place at one university but not receive funding, or funding is available at a university which you cannot commute to. Keep your options open. Refine your proposal but do not see it as final: realistically, this will change. Keep asking for feedback and learn from setbacks and failure. Try, try again.
  • Funding: apply for research grants, subject-specific funding and departmental funding. Find employers and charities who are willing to fund your studies. Apply for a job at the university through the student’s union, get administration work or find a part-time job elsewhere. Never be afraid to ask for guidance and support.
  • Imposter syndrome: during my first semester, I attended a workshop on ‘how to get a PhD’. The speaker informed the group one of us had made a mistake in our application and had to leave the university immediately. Naturally, everyone began doubting their ability and our – accusing – fingers only pointed at ourselves. As panic flooded the room we could comprehend this as the ‘imposter syndrome’. The presenter had used this exercise to show us how we all think we somehow do not belong on our studies programme. There will be (many!) times where you will doubt your own ability or assume you will be taken off the programme. Your resilience will be tested, but always do your best and keep pushing through.
  • PhD isolation: numerous studies have shown academics in higher education are more likely to be subject to stress, depression and anxiety. The PhD can be an isolating process. You may be the only one conducting research in your field or the only one enrolled onto your programme. Often times, you will be left alone to work for a whole month prior to supervision meetings. It is important you build a network with other postgraduate students – even if they are from other universities – and attend conferences and social gatherings.
  • Self-development: create a life outside of your studies. Enrol onto programmes which will build your skills and personal development. Attend a leadership course, develop a new hobby, join the gym or learn a new sport. Listen to audiobooks. Read texts outside of your field. Be creative!
  • Schedule breaks: use your annual leave wisely. Switch off from your work where you can. Timetable and discipline yourself to work a certain number of hours and then put everything away. There have been many occasions where colleagues spend too long thinking about their work, instead of doing their work. One hour of productivity is better than three hours of negligence! Make up for missed hours. If you took the morning off, work into your evening. Perseverance is key.
  • Self-care: guilt-free breaks and indulgence. Schedule a spa day every three months. Take a weekend away. Decorate your desk space. Spend an evening with friends. Work towards short breaks to remain motivated.
  • Don’t pick a topic which simply interests you, pick one you are deeply passionate about: full time studies are three to four years; part time, six to seven. At times your workload will demotivate you, but this can only be counterbalanced by appreciating your topic. Ask yourself: am I really interested in this field? What will this research contribute towards? Choose something that will keep you engaged.
  • ‘I will write my thesis in three years and then focus on my career’: conferences, publications, research grants – and all that at the same time! Yes, there’s a lot to learn. Keep working on building your CV during your studies to facilitate your career prospects.
  • Build a rapport with your supervisor(s): your supervisor is your teacher, mentor and guide, but also your colleague. Work with them instead of for Learn from them. If your work is criticised, try to see how you can work from the feedback and communicate how you would like to be advised. The supervisory meetings are one of the most key aspects of the doctoral programme. The PhD is the process of ‘becoming’ an expert in your field. Allow yourself to benefit from their subject-knowledge.
  • Find a mentor: contact the author of a book you enjoyed. Ask for informal advice. Find someone who appreciates your work. Communicate with academics from other universities. Your supervisors may not have all the answers so branch out and learn from other people. This will give you greater confidence.

Ayesha Khan is a Jameel PhD scholar with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. Her research concerns contemporary expressions of Sufism among young British Muslims. In addition to her research, Ayesha is a member of the executive committee of the Muslims in Britain Research Network (MBRN).