My PhD Journey So Far

Deborah McMillan

Category: Centre for Innovation in Higher Education

20 September 2019

In January 2018 I started my PhD journey, and suddenly I find myself in September 2019.

The time has gone so fast. When I found out I’d been accepted on the course, I had every intention of being well prepared. I worked out that if I wrote 75 words every day, the 80,000 word thesis would not feel so overwhelming. It’s safe to say that did not happen. Why? Because life gets in the way, but that’s OK and it’s completely normal to have productive days, and some not so productive days. Despite things not being as I planned at the start of the course, I feel I’ve learnt a lot and developed as an early career researcher over these past 18 months.

I’m also very fortunate to be part of a team throughout this journey. I’m part of both the Centre for Innovation in Higher Education (CIHE) and the Faculty of Health, Education, Medicine & Social Care (HEMS). Being part of a team means I have others to engage with and learn from. Within CIHE there are currently two PhD students, myself and Maddy Redmond. Having another person going through the same process has helped me keep focused and provides moral support. 

As I progress through my second year, the main areas of focus for me will be continuing to develop my time management skills, research skills and writing. Time goes quickly but I’ve learnt that, for me, procrastination will only cause more stress. With this in mind, here are some top tips about time management I’ve learnt so far:

Plan ahead - like a shopping list, write down what you plan to do in advance and tick it off as you go. I find having a visual list of what you have completed gives you a feeling of satisfaction when progress feels slow.

Little and often - if like me, concentration is not your strong point, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can sit at the computer for six hours straight and write productively. Use a timer to set yourself 20 minutes of writing and then a 10 minute distraction task or walk away from the screen.

Something is better than nothing - writing, like any new skill, takes time to develop. The more and more you practice, the easier it will become. Do not put off writing because you are worried it will not be good enough, you can always go back and change it, and you will, in many cases, countless times before the final submission. Get the ideas from your head on to paper so that you can start visualising where your work will go.

Target set - Set yourself a daily target and stick to it (250 words is mine). You will need to learn to discipline yourself and hopefully hitting your target will give you a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day.

Use your supervisors for their knowledge and be honest with them about your progress. They are there to support and guide you. They have been through this process before and will know exactly how you are feeling.

Finally, I’ve found that my PhD programme has been a journey like no other. Remember that it’s still a learning process and you’re not meant to have all the answers at the start. There’ll be tears and there’ll be moments when you’re overwhelmed with feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’. Keep focused and remain passionate about your topic. My topic is focused on the use of team-based learning (TBL) in classroom teaching, and the role it can play in developing transferable skills. I trained as a nurse and feel a lot of my skills were learnt during my placements. I’ve been interested in this area for a few years as I worked alongside many individuals who have degrees but are not employed in ‘graduate’ job roles. My experience has shown me that a lot of individuals have these transferable skills, but either don’t know it, or struggle to demonstrate them. I’m passionate about skills awareness and exploring the skills gap and it’s this passion that helps keep me focused.


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