How does a PhD differ from an undergraduate degree? Some may think that there is little difference between writing an undergraduate thesis and writing a PhD thesis, but they would be wrong. Beginning a PhD journey is embarking on a journey of self-discovery as much as of the creation of new knowledge, and nothing can truly prepare you for what you will experience. However, here are some points to bear in mind.
1. Firstly, you don’t really know what you think you know. This realization hits a new researcher within the first year or so in any discipline, as you recognize just how ignorant you really are, but it is nowhere more profound than in the faculty of Arts. Your entire notion of being, belonging and knowledge will be turned upside down and inside out and your understanding will be reformed through a difficult process of destruction and reconstruction. Some would argue that this happens during the undergraduate years, but it is nothing compared to the whirlwind of change of perspective that happens when you are creating new knowledge.
2. Secondly, you will be more alone than you have probably ever felt. Most college graduates are used to working in classroom and team environments, alternating with periods of solitary work. In many fields of PhD research this will turn into vast swathes of time spent in your own head. Until you’ve experienced intellectual isolation of this kind you cannot know what it is like.
3. Thirdly, procrastination is now your number one enemy. Those last-minute undergraduate essay-writing binges, armed with caffeine and adrenalin, will simply no longer work. You cannot write with the sophistication required of a PhD level in a really short space of time, no matter how ‘in the zone’ you are.
However, you will write much better and faster when you have spent a good deal of time getting in the PhD zone (this can take days in itself). Accept and embrace the vast swathes of time: it is an experience unlikely to ever be repeated. Treat the PhD like a 9-5 job and your supervisor like your manager! You will be a productive researcher with one very happy supervisor. If you’re really lucky, you might even finish your PhD on time….!