Thursday, March 10, 2011

Biting off more than you can chew: How not to, and how to cope when you do

I have been grinding my teeth in my sleep. A bit of an over-share, I know, but it’s relevant to this post. You see, the reason I’m stressed and ruining years of orthodontic work is the eight studies I need to run this semester. I will preface my post by pointing out that this is definitely not the norm in psychology – I don’t want to scare off any potential postgraduates, nor make new ones wonder what they have gotten themselves in for.

Here’s the way things often go during a PhD. You begin a young ingénue determined to run the perfect first study. After realizing that this is an impossible dream you settle for running the best study you can design. Data arrives. You excitedly write your first paper. Meanwhile, you begin running a second study to build on your findings. You remember your Honours research and set about writing it up for publication. You meet a new collaborator and design a study together. Your reviews come back for the first article you submitted – the editor has asked for new data. Your second study gave you completely different results to the ones expected. Now you have two new papers to write (both needing additional data), one to revise, and one currently under review. Wait, don’t you still have most of your proposed project to run? Repeat, ad nauseam.

Certainly there are different conventions in different areas of psychology and with different supervisors, so this may not be representative of everyone’s experience. It has been my experience, however. Hence, my desire to run eight studies in 12 weeks and subsequently poor dental state. If you would prefer to avoid this experience, I would recommend becoming familiar with saying ‘no’. You may need to say ‘no’ to potential collaborators who see an overlap with your work. You may also need to say ‘no’ to your supervisor if they recommend running an unnecessary study. You may even need to say ‘no’ to yourself, to stop exploring that new and interesting topic that has caught your fancy. I would definitely not recommend turning down every opportunity that comes your way during the PhD, but be judicious in the choices you make. Remember also that what might seem like a manageable number of projects at the start of your PhD can balloon out into a teeth-grinding fiasco by the end.

How I plan to cope with my behemoth study load this semester is with lots of forward planning and lots of external support. Firstly, I am making sure that I am only running studies that are absolutely crucial to finishing developed projects–no new topics, no matter how interesting. I am prioritizing those associated with my PhD and those that will be packaged into papers that need to be resubmitted to journals by a certain date. Secondly, I have made sure that my supervisor is on board. She is assisting me by hiring RAs to help with data collection and data entry. Without her support I couldn’t hope to accomplish all that I aim to this semester. With it I am hoping that data collection will be completely finalized for my PhD by June, leaving me a breezy six months to write my thesis and get the contents published.

For people just starting the PhD process I’ll give you this advice: don’t bite of more than you can chew. For those who already have, I recommend getting a good dentist.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to go ahead and ignore this excellent advice.