Reflections on a PhD

by Dorian Minors

May 23, 2024

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

Many aspects of my PhD were surprising to me, but in hindsight, they didn’t have to be. Here’s my reflections on how I’d go about it if I’d known.

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Article Status: Complete (for now).

In May of 2024, I passed my PhD defence with no corrections. It came as something of a shock to me, because usually, you get corrections. In cognitive neuroscience, this is slightly less true than it is in, say, psychology. There’s much more defending that needs to be done for a social science than there is when the science is somewhat harder. It’s just politics. But nonetheless, it was unusual, and I was surprised.

It wasn’t the first shock either. That I got in to Cambridge. That was a shock. That I got the Cambridge Trust scholarship. That was a shock. That I was able to decline that, because I also got Cambridge’s most prestigious scholarship, the Gates Cambridge. That was a shock. That the PhD wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. That the University asked me to teach. That businesses asked me to consult. That psychology and cognitive science celebrities wanted to work with me and learn about my work. That the people around me were so brilliant, and were going on to do such amazing things.

All of these things were a bit shocking to me, an ex-army fella coming from a good, but not top whatever number good University, who’d been spending his spare time doing a bit of clinical work, and some teaching and just generally soaking up the various stuff doing a psychology degree lets you do as he figured out what he should do next.

But, to be honest, little of it should have been a shock. Things are only shocking when you don’t understand why they happened. I was lucky. I had good mentors, and happened to have done the right extra-curriculars. But it occurs to me that you don’t need to be lucky. You could gear yourself for it. And indeed, many smarter people than me have had the same idea—asking me how I did it via email and on LinkedIn and whatnot. So, for those people, here’s my reflections on getting and doing a PhD. Hopefully you won’t have to be lucky.

Getting into Cambridge (or whatever highly selective school)

It’s largely who you know. Getting into Cambridge as an Undergraduate is tough. It’s basically a checkbox exercise between you and however many other candidates with all the same checkboxes as you, in the hope that you interview better or whatever. Getting into a PhD here is not quite the same thing. People who hire from elite schools know this. They will be much more impressed by an Undergrad from one of these places than a Postgrad.

Getting into a PhD, and many of the Postgraduate degrees relies much less on what you’ve done, and much more on whether the person you’ll be working with wants you.

My luck was to have a Master’s supervisor who told me to talk to my PhD supervisor, a week before she left my University back home to take up a position at Cambridge. Now, of course, I had to have something to say to her, and my Master’s thesis was interesting enough for her to want to work with me. But from that point, it was knowing her that was the real key. She invited me to work with her. She guided me with my research proposal. The fact that she wanted me as a student almost certainly influenced the decision by the department to select me, because what’s more important to the PhD than a good relationship between student and supervisor? Next thing I knew, I was at Cambridge.

If I were going to do it differently, I would have planned this out. A year or so before I wanted to apply, I’d start reaching out to supervisors at the Universities I wanted to go to. I’d try to make a connection, or at least learn what they might find interesting. Then I’d gear myself for that, so when it came time, they’d be behind my PhD application. A much greater chance at success. I mean, even without any time, you could do this. Find a supervisor who aligns with whatever you just did, and approach them with your best smile. I think I approached my supervisor a week before the application deadline, and I managed it after all.1

There are probably other ways you could maximise your chances to get into a PhD at a highly selective school, but this seems like the most critical. Find a supervisor. Impress them. Any other stuff is marginal. And indeed, the supervisor selection is crucial for another reason, that I’ll talk about when I talk about having a nice time during the PhD.

This, obviously, assumes you meet whatever minimum requirements the school asks of you. Grade point averages and whatnot. But, regarding grade point averages, it’s almost always possible to take one or two more courses to bump yourself up. I did this twice. Once, when I wanted to do the Psychology Honours course, back when I thought clinical psychology was going to be my future, I took one more online course while I worked full time and got the average grade I needed to get in to the program.2 Then, to be honest, I annihilated that Honours year, which brought my total average grade up to what it needed to be for Cambridge. Shows what some enthusiasm will do for your work. It’s an expensive option, especially if you don’t have a flexible scholarship or a good loan body, but it works.

Getting a scholarship for a highly selective university

This one isn’t quite as much of a catch-all. Scholarships are usually bestowed for very specific reasons. Academic merit. Sporting achievement. Community service. Etc. In one kind of way, it makes things easier. You can pick scholarships to gear yourself for, and go for them. In another kind of way, it makes things harder, because you don’t necessarily know which scholarships give you the best chance.

In my case, I got the Gates Cambridge, and I assume the Cambridge Trust, scholarships because my background was interesting. Again, this was mostly luck borne out of my curiosity for random stuff. I had a pretty long military career. I’d done a bunch of volunteering. I was a crisis counsellor and a social worker. I had an established website with a bunch of illustrations of what kinds of things I was interested in intellectually.

Gates gives scholarships for academic excellence, leadership potential, community service, and ‘a good fit for Cambridge’. Regarding academic excellence, see the last section on scraping through. Leadership potential came from my military background. Community service was something I had always done, because frankly volunteering is the easiest way to do interesting stuff. And the ‘good fit for Cambridge’ came from the fact that my Cambridge supervisor wanted me (and possibly the fact that my old supervisor was also ex-Cambridge, I should point out).

One way of going about things, then, is my way, but more intentionally. Spend some time making yourself interesting. If you do a broad enough range of stuff, it’s fairly easy to tailor a narrative for the specifics of one of these scholarships. It’s also much easier to find people to write you recommendation letters. Doing interesting things for interesting people will be interesting to the people reviewing your application too.

The other way would be to pick a specific type of scholarship, and gear yourself for those. Most Universities will have a sports scholarship, or an academic merit scholarship for example. Find out what those are about, and the kinds of people who have gotten them in the past, then gear yourself to be that kind of person.

That’s really all I can say there.

Having a nice time doing the PhD

I have a few pieces of advice here.

Pick your supervisor, not your project

First, and most importantly, pick your supervisor, not your project. I don’t think I can emphasise this enough. On average, PhD supervisors are bad at supervising. It’s not really their fault. It’s just a general problem across the academy. These people have to do research, do a tonne of random administrative work, apply for all kinds of funding, sit on random boards and committees, and then also teach and supervise. The immensity of the work can often be the equivalent of two or even three normal jobs. It’s frankly absurd. And importantly, they only need to be good at writing papers and securing funding to advance in their careers. They don’t have to be good at all the other stuff, they just have to be able to say that they’ve done it.

So, as a consequence, the average supervisor not only is not good at supervising, but also probably doesn’t have much time for you, and in the worst case, only wants you to do some of the work they’re expected to do.

Now, it’s all very exciting in theory to do a PhD on the subject you’re most interested in, but it’s not at all likely you’ll find a supervisor who wants to do it with you who is also good at supervising. If you want to have a nice time while you’re grinding away at your PhD, you want to optimise not for the project, but for the person you’ll be working with.

Find out who they’ve supervised before and talk to them. Try to get candid impressions about how they are to work with, and what kind of support and guidance you can expect. Look at how busy they are—how many responsibilities do they have on their school profile page or LinkedIn? Ask them what their supervision philosophy is.

You want someone who is going to have time for you, who likes supervising, who has a track record of mostly happy supervisees, and who seems like they have a mindset around your development, not the extent to which they can use you to further their own aims. If you find someone like this that’s roughly in your area of expertise, then you’re going to have a much better time with the PhD, even if the work isn’t your true passion.

I really can’t emphasise this enough. The number one cause of my PhD peers’ distress was the fact that their supervisor was shit. And really, this is always good advice. Working with shit people is shit, no matter what the work is. Working with good people makes even shit work tolerable.

Adopt an employer mentality (or something like this)

The supervisor-supervisee relationship is a bit funny. You typically have an immense amount of respect for this person, who is supervising you, because they’re some big-shot in some thing you like. Also, you feel like you’re working for them, because they’re telling you what to do. This means that you go about your PhD quite deferentially.

This is appropriate, I think. Your supervisor is doing you a favour by taking you on, and agreeing to train you to be a researcher (see above on how absurd their job is). More, they typically know what research entails, and they are making you do the things that will help you become a good researcher.

But at the same time, this causes a lot of issues in the average PhD. You see, they are not your boss. In a certain kind of way, they are your employee. You have spent, from your own pocket or from the pocket of a scholarship body that is funding you, a tremendous amount of money for a service: to be trained to be a researcher.

There will be times when you don’t agree with, or don’t like, what your supervisor is having you do. At these times, it’s easy to sink into despair or frustration. But it’s important to realise that you have a say in what’s happening too, because you’re paying them for this. It is absolutely a valid thing to wonder whether what you’re being asked to do is a valuable part of learning to be a researcher. It’s absolutely a valid thing to ask whether you’re getting the value for your money, without mentioning all the free labour you invariably end up providing, and all the effort you’ve been expending.

Not every valid part of a PhD is fun. There are many times where learning to be a researcher means doing shit work. But there are also many things you’ll be asked to do that have no place in your research training pathway. It’s not your job to meet other people’s arbitrary requirements, because it’s literally not your job. It’s their job to train you; that’s what you paid for. And if it’s not clear to you whether what’s going on is in an effort to make you into the researcher you paid them to make you, then you have every right to find out more, and then push back if it’s not. Indeed, if you’re on a scholarship, you have an obligation to. They aren’t paying you so your supervisor can spend that money making you do things for them.

Work in the ‘real world’ first

Every part of the PhD is easier if you do some non-academic work first. The PhD, save for the last five months, was the second easiest job I ever had. With a good supervisor, the work will be interesting and you’ll learn a bunch of cool shit. The people around you are interesting, because they’re also doing a bunch of cool shit. The work is usually not that hard, save for bursts of real effort to get past the problems that invariably arise. And it’s eminently flexible—you can take days off, sleep in, work late to make up for time you missed, and everyone is young and excited and want to celebrate how young and excited they are by partying irresponsibly at all hours of the day.3

The reason I feel this way is not so much that it’s entirely accurate, but because I’m comparing this to other work. Corporate settings, at least pre-work-from-home days, had absolutely none of this freedom, even though it usually shared the ‘not that hard’ quality. The military is probably not the most relatable reference point for most people, but as an Infantry soldier, very little work is truly difficult in comparison, though depending on your duties it could be pretty flexible. More reasonably, I’ve had a handful of jobs where the work was harder than PhD work, and the hours less flexible. In general, a PhD is a very satisfying work environment to be in. The toughest thing I had to manage was the drop in how much I was getting paid, and honestly, that wasn’t so big of a deal.

In contrast, many of my peers had raced through their studies to get there. Their only experience was their studies. As a consequence, they wept tears of blood during the hard times, and failed to recognise the value of the easy times. There are many aspects of academic life that are unpalatable (prospects, pay, all the unpaid labour). But the job of a PhD student is sweet as.

There’s two kind of inter-related caveats to this, though. First, the PhD is highly determined by you—over the course of three or four years, or whatever, you have to put together a huge project of work and deliver it. Very few other jobs are like this (even in academia), and this places a lot of pressure on you to make sure you’re working enough. Secondly, the PhD is the first step on the academic ladder. As such, many people want to do whatever they can to position themselves for success post-PhD.

The primary difficulty of both of these things is there’s no obvious point at which you’re finished. You certainly aren’t the right person to determine how much work needs to go into your PhD or how long it’s liable to take, that’s what you’re paying the University to teach you. Then, academia has such abysmally flimsy career pipelines that it’s near impossible to tell if you’re competitive at any given point. The upshot is that there’s this kind of uncapped potential to work. You could work all day and all night and still never know exactly whether you’ve done enough.

I think this is more easily triaged if you’ve been in the workforce before. You understand a little more about timelining a project, and you understand a little more what goes into hiring decisions. As such, you’re a little less likely to engage in this kind of crazed behaviour. But a better way of going about this is to simply ask. Find out from your supervisor or their colleagues what a reasonable PhD includes. Spend a bit of time asking postdocs what got them hired. This kind of thing. Like anything else, knowing what’s expected of you is about experience, even though I’ll admit it’s bizarrely emphasised during the PhD.

Impostor syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough

You know, I never suffered as much from this as my peers seemed to. It feels a bit uncomfortable to say, because I think this is not usual, but it’s important to say, to position my advice properly. I actually suspect this has little to do with me personally, but is actually largely because I’d worked outside of academia before. It’s hard to feel like an impostor when the work is usually straightforward, and the lifestyle is so relaxed, and yet everyone is still always at panic stations.

But there are times when impostor syndrome certainly was present. When things do get hard, for example. Or when I was struggling with something that no one else seemed to be. This latter aspect was a particular pain point for me. I don’t know how I ended up doing such a mathsy degree, given that I dropped maths in high school. Terrible idea.

I don’t have a huge amount of advice around this, mostly because very little of what people say on the subject seems to help when you’re sitting there feeling like an impostor.

One thing, though, that I will point out, is that impostor syndrome can actually be a useful signal. The general feeling that you’re not as good as others probably stems from the true fact that you’re paying a tremendous amount of money to learn how to be as good as these people. It would be very strange indeed to do a PhD when you already knew how to do all the shit it entails. I think, much of the problem with impostor syndrome is that we let it bleed across all areas of our lives. But if we can tighten the feeling of not being good enough to a real source—like my shitty math skills—then it’s entirely appropriate to feel that way: it’s telling you to go get the help you’ve been paying for.

So I guess that’s my advice. Don’t let the impostor syndrome bleed. You probably aren’t as good at some stuff as others. That’s the whole reason you’re doing it. You probably are as good, or better at some other stuff. Don’t let your feelings in one situation bleed into the others. Then, go to the people you’re paying all this money to, and make them fix it.

On afterwards

This, I won’t bother with too much, because everyone’s journey is different. But I’ll say two things.

First, start setting up for the next thing at least a year, preferably two years prior. Unless you’re an incredible person, you simply won’t have time in the last 6-12 months. Whatever thing you think you might want to do next, get as much of the preliminaries done before you head into the last sprint.

Second, just like getting into the PhD is all about who you know, so is everything else, really. Throughout your entire journey, you want to keep your eyes and ears open for interesting people doing interesting things. Then you want to talk to them. This, frankly, is how you find out what kinds of preliminaries will be required of you as you approach the end, outside of painfully googling stuff. But more, it’ll give you the personal connections that will ease your transitions into future opportunities. It’s not so much networking, I’d say. It’s more like collecting interesting people.

Outro

I thought about putting this last point in the last section, but really it applies to them all. At any stage of life, find mentors. Formal, or informal mentor relationships are very common, and there’s nothing better than having someone with more experience to go to with the problems you’re having now. Find a pre-PhD mentor. Find a during-PhD mentor. Find a getting-ready-for-after-the-PhD mentor. Find more than one of any of these. And don’t be shy about it—reach out and ask explicity: “you’re great, will you please mentor me?” It’s an unusual person who isn’t flattered by this at a minimum, and it’s very common for people who have already done a thing to want to help others do it too.

So, that’s my advice. You could either be lucky, like me, or you could try and make my luck your own with a bit of foresight. Hopefully it helps.


  1. Honestly, I still shudder when I think about this. A week later, and I would have missed the chance. 

  2. As an aside, this probably works for getting into the course that you want. At least in Australian Universities, it doesn’t matter so much what you come in doing, but what you did while you were doing it. Come in doing a Bachelor of Arts, but take the subjects required for a Bachelor of Science and you get a Bachelor of Science. I think I started with a Bachelor of Arts with a Diploma of Education. Halfway through I dropped the DipEd and took on what I needed for a Bachelor of Psychology. 

  3. This is absolutely untrue if you’re going to end up doing lab work. Lab work is absolutely absurd. The hours are long, the work is demanding, and the whole thing is a grind. If you’re going to do lab work, my advice to you is different: don’t. No one should ever do lab work. 


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