The only way out is through (part 1)

Sara Corpino is a distance learning PGR in the Department of Modern Languages and in this first part of a two-part post, she gives her tips on how to overcome difficulties and get through the PhD.

If I only had listened…

I have thought about applying for a PhD in Modern Languages for years before being brave enough to send my first proposal. I remember my academic colleagues telling me how difficult it would have been doing a PhD, but I was really motivated. Plus, I was not scared, as I thought that obtaining the PGCE in Modern Languages – which I had just finished – would have been the toughest experience in my life, until…I started my PhD first year. If I only had listened to those people preparing me, would I have changed my mind? Not at all! And would I have been more psychologically prepared? Possibly yes, but I could have been even too scared to take my first step into what has been the most rewarding – and of course challenging – experience of my life so far.

Initial difficulties

Once back to my country, Italy, after having spent one residential week at the University of Birmingham, I started working on my PhD straight away. When students enrol for a PhD, they had probably been dreaming of writing a wonderful and exciting thesis, but the truth does not delay showing up: a first year PhD student will spend an eternal time reading. Indeed, the first thing to be done is reading all that has been said about your topic and writing a literature review. Writing a literature review may be extremely difficult for two main reasons: your writing quality may not meet the required standard for a PhD thesis, and you may not be used to reference everything you write. After a couple of months, I ended up having written some pages with only a few references so I had to go back to read everything again to find the correct reference. For some lines, I could not find it and I had to delete them. This was quite frustrating and discouraging, but what I have learnt is that, when you write a PhD thesis you must avoid getting too attached to what you write as it is not rare to find yourself obliged to cut portions of texts to be pasted somewhere else or be forgotten forever. Writing a PhD thesis is a continuous work-in-progress operation and the sooner you get used to it, the easier it gets.

Your relationship with your supervisor can make the difference

The relationship with the supervisor(s) can really make the difference during your PhD. Having a supportive and well-organized supervisor is a big help. It is important to keep your supervisor informed of any doubts, perplexities, difficulties you may encounter as they are the person who can help you most. Also, setting goals and planning your work with them will help you to give you a timeframe, which could be difficult to set by yourself.

The focus will (should) save you

Keeping focused is not easy during a PhD. You may have the impression that time does not pass, you may feel stuck, and you may feel like you do not know how to proceed. From what I have heard from others, this is a quite recurrent feeling. It is important not to panic and to keep focused. One of the biggest teachings I have learnt from my supervisor is that when you feel lost you should prioritise your things to do and start with small daily goals. This will help you not to feel overwhelmed and to remain focused.

Look out for part two – coming soon!

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