Help! My Child/ Partner/ Friend is doing a PhD… Or ‘5 things never to say to a PhD student’

With Christmas fast approaching many PhD students will be feeling some trepidation about returning home and facing questions about their PhD, ‘when will you be done?’ and such. I wrote this blog as a result of looking for something to send my family to explain why some questions are just a bad idea and I couldn’t find it- there’s lots of advice for people who are parents doing PhDs but not so much for parents of PhDs.

Chances are you want to ask these questions because you are genuinely concerned for someone’s progress and wellbeing and then are justifiably upset when they may snap/ cry/ run away in response. In academia an unusually high proportion of peoples’ social circles will have or be doing a PhD and it’s very easy for us to forget that most people who are clever enough to steer well clear of academia will have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re doing it or what it involves. There are plenty of stats out there that start to suggest just how hard a PhD and academic life can be: 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, 10% have contemplated suicide, 53% of UK academics have mental health issues etc. and most family and friends will want to help ease those pressures where they can. So here I hope to go some way to explaining why some unexpected questions or comments are quite so unhelpful. Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas or improvements.

At the suggestion of a colleague I’ve also made this entirely serious cut out and keep mini-version to aid any PhD who’s feeling the pressure of the season. Feel free to distribute as required 🙂



1.When will you be done?

A PhD is a new piece of research. No-one has ever done it before. Sometimes it goes smoothly, more often that not it doesn’t. If we knew how it would go it wouldn’t be new. No-one wants it done more than us. Reminding us that it’s not finished yet adds to the irrational guilt we all have that we’re somehow failing by not being done yet with the thing that justifies our entire existence for the last few years. We’re already under time pressure to do it before our deadline/ the money runs out. There are also factors out of our control (how long it takes our supervisors to read our drafts, how long we have to wait for lab/ computer time) so it’s often not even something we can make happen any quicker, much as we’d really really really like to.

2.Have you got a job yet?

This also comes in the form of ‘what are you doing next’ or worse ‘when are you getting a real job?’. PhDs are pretty full on, and the final stages when they’re most full on is the time this question crops up the most. It’s likely fine to ask what we’d like to do next, or if we’d like to stay in research if you want to know our plans. But reminding us that we don’t yet have ‘real’ employment following submission is just adding to the guilt of someone who would very likely love to be able to send in a bunch of job applications but doesn’t really have the time given that they’re doing some crazy amount of hours a day writing the thesis. Or rerunning all their work and rewriting the thesis. Definitely don’t ask then.

3. Any kind of ‘jokes’ about being a student/ staying in bed/ extra long holidays

I wish. Actually I’m working way harder than I would have done in my nicely paid graduate job for less than half the money. This is probably because I once thought I loved what I do and it was worth it. Now I no longer have the ability to love anything… (I joke, but seriously…). 99% of PhDs I know work incredibly ****ing hard. We don’t come in at 9 and go home at 5 and switch off. We check our simulations at midnight on a Sunday and end up going back to the office after having allowed ourself an hour or two off to go to the pub.* We might have the flexibility to have the odd midweek morning off but this only means we just end up staying a whole lot later when we do. There may be the odd person who can derp around for 3 years and then write it all at the end but they are definitely the minority. And we don’t get massive holidays in the summer or break up for Christmas.

*Yes I’ve done it and some of my best work has come out of this. Also some of my very worst where I made some ice melt by making it colder or the time I worked so late I forgot I owned a bike and walked all the way home. Current PhD students maybe don’t follow in my footsteps.

4. What is the point of what you do? Are my taxes paying for this? What use will this have in the real world?

If our research is funded then it goes without saying the someone important (or more likely several people) thought it was worth funding. We constantly have to justify our research in transfer reports, papers, thesis, every talk ever. Sometimes we just don’t want to do that any more. If you’re genuinely interested then that’s great and we probably will happily talk about it and why it matters, communication science is great and important, but if I’m not aggressively asking you to justify your job then I think it’s only fair to ask you to do the same.

5.Unhelpful comparisons

‘Your cousin started his PhD at the same time as you, why aren’t you finished too?’ ‘Did you know this person you went to school with just bought a house/ got married/ has two kids/ sold her business?’
How quickly you get to the end of your research is often pot luck and vastly unrelated to how hard you work. As I said above, it’s new. Some people get lucky and get it done quickly, the rest of us just try not to hate them too much.



Even in academia people get it wrong all the time.

What is a conference? Part 1- a small meeting- International Glaciological Society Iceland Symposium

This June I had the chance to attend my first international conference. It was a little daunting being as I’d only been to UK conferences before and had never spoken outside of my home Universities but the chance to visit somewhere so stunning definitely helped to mitigate that.

The journey there was an adventure itself- fill a tiny plane with glaciologists and fly them over an ice cap and you are bound to get some pretty excited people.

The conference itself was a really good size- there were 120 delegates which means that it is very easy to get talking to people. The day consisted of talks and poster session. Talks are as you would expect, a speak has about 12 minutes to give a presentation on their work and then the audience can ask questions. Poster sessions are usually in another room where people can wander and chat more informally with those presenting their work as a poster. These are often at the end of the day and over drinks.

Being a small meeting the talks were quite specifically in the area of ice shelves, ice sheets and glaciers which was good as I felt I understood a lot and also picked up things from people that are lucky enough to actually go to these places or use satellite data to learn about them.

My talk thankfully seemed to be really well received which was a big relief and has definitely helped with the thesis writing motivation. This was slightly bad timing being as I was about to start 3 months away from Reading on my Government Office of Science internship but it’s definitely made me keen to get back to the science and given me extra confindence that this a career that I can do.

A highlight of the week was the mid week excursion to the Hoffellsjokull glacier. Finally, after 2 and a bit years of PhD, some actual ice! I was clearly not the only theoretician that was overly excited by this as one was heard to exclaim, seeing the chaotic crevassing  in the ice “and we’re supposed to model this?!” We were greeted at the end of the hike with Brennevin (an Exeter Uni musician staple, no-one could understand why I was quite so averse to it), horse meat and pineapple. When in Iceland…

The conference was great for making contacts, I got to see some old Karthaus friends, and make new early career buddies as well as meet a lot of interesting and important people from withing glaciology. I have hopefully got a chance to collaborate with others outside of Reading and have since been invited to give a talk by one of the other attendees. Sadly it was all over too quickly, but even the journey home from the conference was picturesque with the bus stopping at least every half an hour to view lakes and waterfalls. Iceland, I’ll be back.


PhD Interviews- Attempting to clear up some of the mystery

The PhD interview seems to be an area of great variety, mystery and something that I personally was quite afraid of. Since they are all so different and you can never really know what to expect I’ve tried to collate a variety of experiences from different subjects and funding routes. However, the variety of responses made it hard to even really categorise them so I’ve just put them all into a post in no particular order. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed and I hope that this will help reassure or at least inform any future applicants that whatever happens, there is no normal…

**If you replied to me and can’t see your response here please let me know asap- the servers went down during my initial attempt at writing this!**

Being interviewed by people I already knew was the hardest thing for me I think – it’s hard to be professional but also keep those friendly relationships up at the same time. The main thing my interviewers wanted was justification – for my choice of topic, for my choice of texts, for my choice of focus in the proposal, everything. Plus the absolute guarantee that I could finish in 3 years, of course. My main advice for arts/humanities candidates would be that you need to *really* know your topic and why you want to do it. You’re not expected to be an expert already, but you are expected to know exactly why the topic is a) original and b) valuable. Also not to be too downhearted if you don’t get it first time round. I know quite a few people who took a year to fine tune things and then reapplied and were successful, plus also a few self-funded people who are doing just fine.
(Gemma, Film Studies, Exeter- an interview for funding)

I had 3 supervisors in mine (for 2 projects) and a chair, which was quite difficult at times as one project was on phytoplankton, another was on the genomics of invasive species, so it was difficult to make sure I was ticking both boxes! They asked about my previous work to ease me in. The chair asked questions relating to my motivation for doing a PhD, including why I didn’t pursue my bachelors dissertation as a PhD as I was very enthusiastic about it! Then the supervisors asked questions specifically relating to their projects. I was asked to described one of the PhDs as if I was talking to the general public rather than scientists. At the National Oceanography Centre they also present you with a piece of data you wouldn’t have seen before and get you to describe what you see. They essentially want to see how you think and analyse information. It was fairly relaxed but mentally draining so I felt exhausted afterwards!
(National Oceanography Centre, 2014)

I didn’t go through an interview process, but my supervisor always has a “mock” interview with him + his current PhD students interviewing the applicant a couple days before the real interview, and the applicants have all been successful–not sure if you want to work that in but it’s always worth asking your supervisor if you could have a mock interview before the real one!
(Scott Polar Research Institute)

My interview actually took place on my birthday, which immediately made it a more jovial affair. The panel consisted of four senior academics from the research cluster, who interviewed all potential candidates. I seem to have come out on top so I was offered the post. The interview itself was very friendly and a combination of questions about me, such as my motivation behind pursuing a Ph.D. or my future career aspirations, and ones regarding the project (e.g. why it was important to find out about mid-Holocene climate change). The panel largely wanted to know about me though, why I was interested in this specific topic (I made sure to read all the relevant papers before the interview), how I was going to deal with things not working out as planned, and what kind of avenues I’d like to pursue as sidelines to the main project. Overall, they wanted to know that I would be able to stick it, have a genuine interest in the topic, and that I could get along with other people 🙂
(Southampton, Geography, 2007)

My interview took place at a research institute rather than a university, but all three of my supervisors were present in the interview. They each asked a couple of questions about my previous research experience- through my undergraduate dissertation, and my masters. They also asked me to explain some of my knowledge on computer programming and languages- as this was stated on my CV but they wanted more details. Finally they asked about my knowledge of the project I was applying for. The questions included asking what I thought the project would entail and what I already knew about the specific area- it’s good to have read a few papers on it before the interview! They also asked what my opinion was on fieldwork, and whether I was still willing to accept the PhD with no fieldwork. I think it is always good to have a question or two for the interviewers also, as it shows that you have read up on the project, and are interested in finding out more. I’m not sure how long the interview actually took, as time flew by, but I think it was around 45mins to 1hr.
(Jenny, Atmospheric Sciences, BAS)

My interview was in Zürich so since I was travelling there from Edinburgh they made a full day of it. In the morning I had to give a presentation based on my Masters thesis in front of the group and everyone could ask questions, but that wasn’t so bad since I had had to give that presentation in Edinburgh too. There was then some time just with the PhDs and post-docs in the group and later I had a lab tour (the PhD was split between two departments so that took a while) and an interview with two professors which was very informal – just asking why I wanted that PhD and why I wanted to do it in Switzerland, what my other interests were etc. I think the main thing is to show your enthusiasm rather than technical knowledge (as that is what you’re going there to learn). They said they had others to interview and I didn’t hear for ages so assumed I hadn’t got it but I emailed to ask and I had got it – so well worth chasing up if you don’t hear for a while!
(Ruth, geochemistry, Zürich)

My interview at Manchester was a very casual meeting with my potential supervisor, whom I’d contacted in advance before officially applying to the course. I applied to her specifically with a two-page proposal and before meeting she encouraged me to turn it into a fuller ten-page outline of my research plans. We then met to discuss the proposal, and both felt it was a good fit for the university and for her as a supervisor, so from there we turned it into a course application and then a funding application (neither of which required official interviews at Manchester, though the funding application was tough and I was unsuccessful first time round – I was funded from my second year onwards). Before successfully applying to Manchester I had several interviews for funding at other universities (typically, in the humanities in the UK getting a place on the course isn’t as tough as getting the funding). One at Cambridge was a phone interview, and two at Exeter were more formal interviews in which I sat in front of a panel of three people who grilled me on my research proposal. I think when you meet a potential supervisor for a meeting she or he is trying to get the best out of you and find out what the heart of your research interest is. When you meet with a funding panel, they are trying to distribute a very small pot of funding to a very large number of applicants so they are rather tougher.

(Phd, humanities, Manchester)

My PhD interview is now 8 years ago. I received the invitation from Exeter and stopped there for the interview on my way to join a research cruise. At the time, I had all the confidence of a Masters degree with a year in research, and while brutally honest about my abilities or lack thereof, none of the restraining self-doubt of a PhD. I don’t remember much of the detailed questions, I do remember the friendly atmosphere. As I entered the room I met with two men and a woman, who would later be identified as the lab manager and the two supervisors. Charles, who would become my main supervisor, immediately put me at ease with his unassuming, intelligent manner and friendly smile. The researchers had a genuine interest in me and my previous work and education, and it was more of a scientific conversation than a drilling. The lab manager asked a few more detailed questions regarding research ethics, laboratory experience and general squeamishness. A tour around the labs concluded the interview, before I got back on the train for my flight to join ship. Looking back now, I think that they were mostly interested in my potential; my potential to develop as a researcher, my potential to move knowledge forward, my determination to achieve goals and my general application to work and challenges. I was by far not an ideal candidate in terms of background – I had studied marine biology and worked in deep sea ecosystems, applying now for a PhD in freshwater fish, hormone disruption and population genetics. And yet, when I returned from the cruise an offer was made. There are two caveats to this story. Firstly, I did not apply for a Research Council funded PhD. And secondly, I was interviewed under the old system. Then, PhD funding was generally secured by the University and an appropriate candidate then sought. This changed a few years ago, and I am not too clear on the details as I have not had much dealings with it, but I think now Universities first choose a candidate, and the candidate then has to compete with all other PhD candidates for RC project funding. Not everyone is, of course, successful, which I imagine makes this a much more stressful experience. However, I am convinced that the potential slumbering in an applicant is, nonetheless, still of decisive importance.
(Marta, Exeter, biological sciences)

And finally me:

I had two interviews at Reading for two different PhDs and they were very different experiences and both different again from the standard Reading meteorology experience.

My interview with my current supervisor was quite informal, he seemed quite concerned that my degree title contained ‘proficiency in Spanish’ until I explained that it was only through optional modules and I could still do maths. He then decided to test this by writing an integration problem on his whiteboard. I couldn’t solve this off of the top of my head- I generally need to sit and scribble away at maths on my own- but then he asked “do you think you could solve this on your own?”. He obviously believed my response as I got the job!

My other interview was with a panel. As much as they were friendly it was more intimidating to have three people. I’d tried to prepare for this one by reading some papers but that seemed more detail than they needed, they were more worried about the way I thought. One thing I could have been better prepared for was that even though the PhD description described some skills as unnecessary, I needed to be able to show that I could learn them.

The most common Reading experience is thorough their annual PhD visit day where all the supervisors describe the projects they have on offer and then applicants book short interview slots for the projects that they’re interested in. Then students are matched up to supervisors depending on their and the supervisors’ preference.

Note: One thing I hadn’t really thought about when starting this was self funded PhDs as it doesn’t happen so often in the sciences. If that’s a route you’re looking at then I’d recommend hearing from Gemma here.

What makes a PhD?



One of the reasons I started this blog was to try and show friends and family what it is I do, and why I was crazy enough to give up a good, well paid job with nice stable prospects to return to be a poor student who will potentially be unemployed in just over a year and a half, if I’m lucky. So what is it I actually do? Well the first key question has to be:

What is a PhD?

The dictionary definition of a PhD (or Doctor of Philosophy) is “The highest degree awarded by a graduate school, usually to a person who has completed at least three years of graduate study and a dissertation approved by a board of professors.”

So how does it work?

In practice I do what is judged to be 3 years worth or original research, write a huge long report about it (“the thesis”) about it and then sit in a room with two experts in my field and try to stop them tearing it to pieces (otherwise known as “the viva”). Along with this there are other deadlines such as the monitoring committees every 6 months (essentially a report and mini viva) and various talks/ posters etc.

It can get pretty stressful around these key times but I think it’s fair to stay a large amount of the stress is self inflicted: at the end of the day you’re producing you’re own original piece of research so it needs to be your best.

A nicer side is that we also get to  snazzy locations for summer schools (mine was in Italy) to try and learn about our field and conferences (although so far these have been less snazzy- Loughborough and Leeds).

Some alternative interpretations of what I do.

Some alternative interpretations of what I do.

So what do I actually do all day?

A PhD can work pretty much like a normal job if you want it to. I have a desk in an office, a computer, a wheely chair and a contract. You’re expected to do a certain amount of work in a week and although there can be some flexibility in when you do this (some people can end up doing some very odd hours, especially come writing up time) most people tend to stick to roughly 9-5 plus or minus a few hours (naming no names!). I tend to work more than this as do a lot of my colleagues. Often come writing up time people will be in most weekends- even before then it can be quite hard to switch off. It’s not an easy option but it’s not completely unmanageable.

Generally it’s better to be in when other people are around and there are certain things during normal working hours such as seminars you need to go to. So other than sitting at my desk cursing Matlab my day can also consist of:

  • Seminars: An opportunity to hear speakers from outside or inside the department. Attendance is expected, as is remaining awake although this is achieved less. At Reading Met we also have an informal weekly seminar given by 1 or 2 PhDs which is a good relaxed opportunity to practice speaking in front of a friendly audience.
  • Research group meetings: As with seminars but smaller and more specific- so I’m part of Arctic group (which despite the name does Antarctica too). It’s less formal and we also have socials so are a good way to meet people from different levels of the department.
  • Demonstrating/ teaching: Nice way to earn some bonus cash and get some teaching experience, less nice if you get lots of marking.
  • The dreaded weekly supervisor meetings: Mine actually aren’t that bad but you can tell when people have theirs as there is a sudden panic to produce some kind of plot to demonstrate what you’ve been doing all week. They’re an opportunity to discuss results (or lack of results) and plan future work. I always worry about mine but then come out excited about progress and what I’m going to do for the next week… and then I get a cup of tea and check facebook and suddenly it’s all gone…
  • Procrastination: Reading is excellent for this. At any one time we could be covered in PVA glue making props for the panto, honing our croquet skills for the golden mallet, predicting which ever sporting event is happening/ the next week’s weather, sharing the gossip from the latest department pub crawl (hearing senior staff stayed out longer than the undergrads is always enjoyable); it’s a wonder we get anything done really…

    Me as Professor Scrooge in last year's Met Department Panto. Photo Stolen from Carly Wright.

    Me as Professor Scrooge in last year’s Met Department Panto. Photo stolen from Carly Wright.

So are you actually a student?

Yes and no. We are technically students (yes NUS discount!!) but without the massive long holidays and lie ins, and we mostly do get paid even if it’s not a huge amount. Some brave people fund themselves (most of them I’ve met will be part time in order to do this), the rest of us will be funded by research councils or industry.

So what happens after? Do you become a lecturer?

I wish it was that easy! The way academia works is that a lot of PhDs will become Postdocs if they wish to stay in research, this is where you have a fixed term research contract. This can put a lot of people off: once you get a job you’re potentially having to then look for another one after a year or two and this can involve a lot of moving around- in fact it has been argued that you’re more employable if you can show you’ve worked at more than one institution. Those who do want to stay in academia will eventually need to find a more permanent position but these are much rarer and competitive meaning that the future is somewhat risky.

In fact a lot of PhDs will end up in careers outside of academia for this reason, or becuase after 3+ years they find that they just don’t want to do any more research.

Is it worth it?

At the moment, yes, absolutely. I get to do something I (most of the time) love every day and it’s great. Although I may come back to you and update this when it comes to writing up…

I’ve definitely not had the experience that a PhD can be isolating, my department is a really supportive, fun place to be and within the University the graduate school does a lot to encourage PhDs from different departments to interact, ranging from free breakfasts to 3 Minute Thesis competitions. It can be quite frustrating and stressful at times and you need a lot of self motivation but I guess that is just the nature of research- if it was easy or obvious then someone would probably have done it already! But  I don’t want to make light of the fact that it can be incredibly demanding in terms of keeping yourself going and the pressure of knowing that you need to get this work done or you’re wasting 3+ years of your life but if you think about that too much you’d probably never get anywhere. And hopefully I’m getting somewhere… as long as my next model run is successful…