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Embarking on a PhD Journey: Navigating Challenges and Maximizing Opportunities

By Nafisa M K Elehamer | Jan. 1, 2024  | Researcher Experience Wellbeing

I would like to to reflect on my own experience as a PhD student. It has been three years, and I can honestly say that pursuing a PhD is not easy, especially when you are doing it in a foreign country. Moving to a new place involves several challenges, which can be seen as steps in your PhD journey. In this post, I share my thoughts on what it is like to be a PhD student and offer some advice on navigating this journey before and during your studies.

Before starting your PhD

If you are planning to pursue a PhD or have already been accepted to a program in a foreign country, you must familiarise yourself with your new host country before you leave. You should check the map and read about the culture, customs, and ways of life to avoid confusion, anxiety, and stress. While you may learn about these aspects after you arrive, it's better to be prepared and informed well in advance. Most universities provide helpful information that can assist you in preparing for and adjusting to the new culture. Paying attention to this information and not ignoring it is essential, since not doing so may lead to culture shock. You might wonder what culture shock is; read more about it here: https://www.wisconsin.edu/student-behavioral-health/download/Culture-shock-(2)-(1 ).pdf.

In addition, always remember to read the terms and conditions of your PhD program carefully and be familiar with the rules and requirements. If you need clarifications about any of the materials you have been provided with, email the coordinator or the designated contact person. University services are always there to help you. Connect with your seniors already studying in the same department to understand your program better, and set your expectations high before embarking on this journey.

Knowing what you want is key

Knowing what you want is key, including the skills (research, writing, analysis, technical skills, etc.) that you must work on to improve. Write down the key skills you need and start working on them. Learning all the skills you have listed before starting your PhD may be challenging, but knowing what you want will help you a lot at later stages.

During your PhD

1. The Start

The first year is the most stressful period. Most PhD students want to engage with everything and manage their schedule successfully (finish their courses, start their project, and publish their first paper if the PhD is done by coursework and research). However, take a breath; after two weeks or one month, you may feel lost and might even start burning out. It is expected that you feel lost; start by being aware of your limitations and seek guidance from your supervisor. Supervisors are key at this stage. They look at you as an addirional brain; you need to set a regular schedule to ask for support, check your progress and seek guidance. Do not hesitate to ask, particularly if you do not understand something that may be important; be transparent and talk; do not feel shy; if you do not know the answer, say it; if you want to know something, also speak up. Manage your calendar, be consistent, and deal with your PhD as a job requiring you to visit the office, lab, or library on a daily basis. Collaborate with your community, engage with researchers in the field, and express yourself to build confidence—work or read for at least an hour daily for a green track.

Supervisors are key

2. The Middle

In the second and third years, you might start panicking, and you will realise that time is flying while you have yet to publish. A PhD trajectory is not only about publishing. You also need to build professional and personal skills such as leadership and management, communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills, as well as life skills. You may feel overwhelmed by the comprehensive exam that is usually taken at the end of the second year (at most universities). At this stage, you need to remember that you passed the first year; if you passed the first year successfully, subsequent years will follow similarly. At this stage, do not compare your situation or yourself with your classmates; even if you have the same supervisor, everyone is on a unique and different journey. You are digging deep, trying to discover something and improve your skills. It might not work well (experiment, analysis, even your manuscript), and you may need to return and start from scratch—that is expected. Remember to be patient and keep focused. You will not know everything; instead, tackle one thing at a time.

In addition, taking care of your physical, mental, and social well-being is crucial. You can exercise, go to the gym, meditate, do yoga, and engage in other activities to maintain your physical health. For your mental health, keep in mind that everything proceeds in its own time. Remember the things you have achieved and the things you told yourself you would not do but ended up doing anyway. Reading can also help improve your mental health. For your social well-being, it's essential to have a good friend to talk to, someone to discuss your PhD study and your life with, communicate regularly, talk to your family, and have fun.

The Finish

Your supervisor is a key resource.

In the final year of your PhD studies, feeling pressured to complete your requirements and graduate on time is expected. But remember, if you have made it this far, you have already overcome many challenges and obstacles. Take a moment to reflect on your accomplishments and let those thoughts inspire you to keep pushing forward. The remaining requirements may seem daunting, but they are achievable. Trust in your abilities and keep striving towards your goals. You have the potential to achieve great things, so do not give up now. You are just one step away from becoming a Doctor. Planning for what is next, whether continuing your studies or seeking a job, is essential. It would help if you explored your options and opportunities. As I mentioned earlier, your supervisor is a key resource. You can discuss your plans with them. They might offer opportunities or recommend you to their colleagues.

Nafisa M. K. Elehamer is a lecturer with 5 years of experience at the University of Khartoum (Sudan). She is also a PhD candidate in Public Health and Epidemiology at the University of Debrecen (Hungary), a director at ReachSci-University of the Cambridge Society and a member of the Global Researcher Club. She is passionate about research, health education, environmental health, epidemiology, and data sciences.

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