Wanted: The Ideal Qualities for a PhD Student

I’ve recently had my first few experiences of examining continuation vivas for PhDs. In these examinations, we look for perhaps the obvious features of ‘what makes a good PhD student’ – do they understand the methodologies? Can they write and structure a report appropriately? Can they defend the need for their research, or the specific design decisions they’ve made? Can they tell us what the end ‘product’ of their three years will be, and who it’s for?

Thinking about this though, I wondered if these are features of a good PhD report or viva, but the qualities that I think a PhD student needs are perhaps different and probably less easy to pin down. So, below is my attempt at it – based on my own experience of a PhD and my experience now as a supervisor/examiner. In no particular order, I think a good PhD student should have:

1. Doggedness

I thought about ‘patience’ or ‘persistence’ but I felt both made it seem rather more elegant or glamorous than it can feel in reality. I know it’s a cliché, but a PhD is absolutely a marathon rather than a sprint. I remember when I first started my own PhD and my supervisors warned there would be blood, sweat and tears before it was over. I secretly thought “Oh come on. It’s basically a lot of reading and writing isn’t it…”. Turns out there wasn’t any blood, but there was definitely sweat, and quite a few tears as well.

This is great preparation for the endless marathon of research. Trying (and failing) to obtain funding, sticking with projects that seem like they’ll never work, carrying on despite every one and their dog telling you what you’re doing is rubbish (see below). Meanwhile all your friends think you work in an ivory tower and you get really long holidays over Summer. Essentially, you’re running a marathon and everyone else thinks you’re carried round in a sedan chair 😉

The chances of me including a picture of a dog here were really quite slim.

The chances of me including a picture of a dog here were really quite slim.

2. Tolerance of Being Wrong. A Lot. And Being Told So. A Lot.

I think that the real driver of progress in research is people Being Wrong. You put forward an idea, other people look at it and work out its wrong. You do a study, and other people look at it and focus on the bits that are wrong. This is how you do the work of narrowing down which bits are right. It’s similar to the Edison thing about finding out 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb. You’re going to be wrong at least 1,000 times in your career, so best start ticking them off now…

You also need to get used to not being sure if you’re wrong or not. Doubt plays a huge role in science, and it’s very easy for this to turn personal, and for you to start questioning whether anything you’ve ever done is even slightly right (This happens a great deal around 3am while you’re writing up your thesis and suddenly become aware that everything you’ve written is nonsense. However, you need to submit it next week, so suck it up. See ‘Doggedness’.) I think getting to grips with doubt, and learning where to let it creep in and when to put up your defences and keep it out, is essential for a research career, so take the opportunity in your PhD of learning how to do this early.

3.  Itchy Brain-ness

It’s a thing.

I got the title from an episode of The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon describes how incomplete tasks are like “an itch in my brain that I cannot scratch”. If you’re going to survive a PhD, and if you’re actually going to enjoy bits of it, rather than see it as an endless drudge of boredom and pain, then you need an itchy brain. You need to read something, and think – hang on. I’m not sure that’s right. Or maybe – ooh, that’s intriguing. I don’t know enough about that – I wonder what else I can find out. The devil is in the details in research, and having that itch there to provoke you to dig deeper or think harder, and fundamentally to not accept things on face value, is a really useful, perhaps invaluable quality.

This does have implications for the issue of doubt above, and the importance of learning the difference being genuine itchy-brain, which is an internal switch being flicked to direct you to something interesting, versus external brain itch caused by people harassing you or making you doubt yourself in a way that is distracting rather than helping you make progress. The former is valuable; the latter is nits.



4. Hubris/Humility

I could write a whole post about this. Despite seeming opposite, I think both are hugely important to research and I think being able to carry both of these with you, without one ever entirely nudging out the other, is a key thing to master.

You need hubris, I think, because we need to make progress. And that means thinking that the way that you would do something is better than the way it’s currently done. This relates to the point above about not taking things at face value (itchy brain says “hang on surely you should look at this way instead) and also because you need hubris to be willing to put forward your brand new ideas and… get completely shot down by your peers (see ‘Being Wrong’).

I think this is an important component of what we tend to call “ownership” of a PhD. You’ve been given 3 years to try to make a difference about something. If you seem to still want to defer to other people, or if you seem unsure of what difference you could make, then this sets of alarm bells. It’s no use to anyone if you spend 3 years playing it safe and don’t try to make a significant contribution, and this contribution needs to be yours – not your supervisors or your project teams. They don’t have 3 years – you do. You need to show that you’ll make the most of it.  Taking up that challenge definitely needs a bit of a hubris.

But you also need a significant amount of humility. This is because the way we make progress out of being wrong is through being willing to adapt, willing to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations, and wanting to do better.  I also personally think humility makes you far more realistic – and so far more careful and critical – about what your work can achieve. I do still come across people in research who seem to think that eg. Depression = Bad. I study depression. Therefore I = Good. I was chatting to Mark Brown a while ago and he described how mental health services can similarly assume they’re automatically good because they’re doing “something” – he described it as “thinking they’re on the side of the angels.” I think researchers can fall into this trap as well. I think being humble about the limits of what you do means you work much harder at finding out what you can do, and you are always questioning the value of your work, rather than assuming that you’re automatically doing good.

I’ve found two things that help give you a great dose of humility – twitter and PPI. In both cases, if you go in thinking you already know the ‘right’ answer, and worse if you expect people to be grateful that you’ve decided to share this with them, then prepare for the verbal flaying of your life. We don’t know it all in research (again, see ‘Being Wrong’) and often the bit of the puzzle we’re focused on is only a tiny part of the overall picture. I think accepting this makes us more likely to work really hard on making that tiny part matter. You think more carefully about what you can do, and work even harder at making sure it does that. You are also more open to expanding that part in ways you might not otherwise consider. Finally, you learn to accept criticism not just from your peers or your professors, but from the ‘end users’ of your research – the patients and the clinicians on the front line.

A PhD means you know a lot - but only about a little.  Via PhD Comics

A PhD means you know a lot – but only about a little.
Via PhD Comics

Of course, if you only ever listened to criticism then you’d probably just be frozen by crippling doubt. This again does not contribute to progress. Hubris needs to pop up, and say “Yeah, ok, that thing you said was wrong in like every way possible and maybe even a few more ways it invented itself, but I’m sure that I still have a pretty good idea what to do next…”.


So  – they’re my suggestions for the qualities you need to survive, and ideally enjoy, a PhD. Obviously this is just my view, and I’d love to hear if you disagree, or if you have any of your own that you would add, so please do comment below or catch me on twitter @dr_know.

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2 Responses to Wanted: The Ideal Qualities for a PhD Student

  1. simonstones says:

    Thanks for this great post Sarah, really interesting! Fingers crossed for my journey in research!

  2. Pingback: Post Doc Or Not? 4 questions to help you decide. | saraheknowles

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