What I learnt in the first year of my PhD

Exciting news! It’s one year since I commenced my PhD research: Queering Australian Screens, exploring how LGBTIQ+ characters end up in Australian scripted television programs. There have been ups-and-downs; great moments of realisation, and moments of self-pitying despair.

But, I made it to my one year anniversary and have achieved a lot! Here’s just a few wins:

  • I landed the best supervisors I could have hoped for, who get my project and click with the way I work
  • I have identified a clear gap in the knowledge where I can begin to add something new
  • I’m building a new community and network with others who are keen to learn more about how LGBTIQ+ representation works practically, at an industry level
  • after just eight months (of very hard work) I was confirmed as a PhD Candidate
  • my ethics application has been approved
  • I have started data collection, interviewing amazing Aussie television professionals about their experience in getting LGBTIQ+ characters on our screens!

I feel like I learnt a lot in the past 12 months about doing a PhD, about how I work, and about what I want to do with my career. Here are five key lessons I think you should consider if starting your own PhD journey!

1. Reading matters

The best piece of advice I received (from more than a few people) was to read at least one paper every day. It might be a book chapter, a journal article, an industry report, or something else relevant to your research. But I can’t stress this enough, reading matters!

Reading was almost always the solution to problems I ran into along the way. When something didn’t make sense, or when I felt like my topic was stupid and I would never make it work, reading was the answer. Reading helped me understand where my work fits.

My approach was to make reading a journal article or a book chapter as my first task every morning. I’d read it, write an initial summary in my notes and then revisit the reading again after making some breakfast to make some more detailed notes, including any particular points I might need.

There will be days where you read five journal articles and make notes on all of them. There will be other days where reading one paper is a struggle. But, if you read one paper, then you’ve achieved something for that day.

2. Be prepared to feel completely out of your depth

The first few months, where I was trying to narrow my topic to something manageable, I had a daily moment of despair. There are countless scholars taking varying positions all on the same topic. I felt like a fraud most days for that first three months.

When I said reading was almost always a solution to a problem, I’m not kidding. Feeling overwhelmed is part of the process of becoming familiar with the literature. You have to get through a lot of reading to gain that familiarity. Getting comfortable with feeling overwhelmed is going to become a requirement of completing your PhD. There will always be new ideas, new positions, new perspectives, and as you become more familiar and knowledgable, you will engage with those differently.

3. Talk to your supervisors

Supervisors are the incredible people who take time to understand what you’re doing and provide ideas, approaches and advice to keep you moving forward. While reading might be a solution to many problems, often it is a reading that your supervisor recommends that is the missing link you need.

Have regular contact with your supervisors (within reason) and prepare a structured agenda to update them on what you’re doing and what they need to know.

If you’re struggling with a concept or feeling overwhelmed, raise it in your supervision meeting and see what they have to say.

4. Project manage your PhD

I came to a PhD with an advantage, I have a decade of project management behind me. Turns out, project management is where a lot of PhDs fall down. As students, we’re thinking about a massive goal of hitting submit in three years. But there are hundreds of little milestones, both those set by the university and those we set for ourselves.

No one is going to drive your project, but you. You need to plan out your milestones and work to deliver them. Your supervisors are there to advise you, but you need to present them with how you want to go about things, so that they can advise on that approach.

5. Manage your relationship with your supervisors

Along with project managing your PhD, you also need to be the one that manages your relationship with your supervisors. Your supervisors are there to advise you through the process of completing a PhD. However, supervisors are not there to manage you.

The person who is responsible for remembering your milestones and deadlines is you. The person responsible for setting meetings to talk through approaches, questions and challenges is you. A supervisor will have teaching, research and supervision responsibilities and it would be impossible to be across your work and timeline.

Again, coming from a decade in industry was an advantage. Just like when dealing with an executive in a big organisation, it is up to the people leading the project to provide context and background so others are able to engage with what’s in front of them.

One of the first things you should do is set a meeting with your supervisors and have a chat about what a reasonable meeting schedule will be. Once set, you send the calendar invitation and set up the meeting location (in my case, Zoom). You send an agenda and any reading ahead of the meeting (and be reasonable, if they need to read a draft chapter then send it with enough time for them to read). And importantly, you need to remind supervisors when milestones are approaching and if you need something from them to make it happen. You are leading the project, so never put it on your supervisors to have to manage your time.

Looking to the future

These are just five of many lessons I’ve learnt in the first year of my PhD research. If you are considering a PhD, I hope these lessons help you with thinking about your own approach.

This experience – and I can’t stress this enough – has been the best decision I ever made. While it has never been easy, it has been challenging and rewarding, and I can’t wait to see what my second year brings.

Of course, if you’re working in Australia’s television industry and you’re thinking you might have something to add to my research project, get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.

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