How to be a PhD student

by Luis P. Prieto, - 4 minutes read - 737 words

Not a few of the people that read this blog, do so with a very clear outcome in mind: to finish their PhD, to get that damned piece of paper saying that they’re doctors. In this struggle, we (yes, I did that too) often forget that the PhD is more of a process (a learning, a practice) than it is an outcome. In this adaptation of a poem by Wendell Berry, I take a stab at what it took for me to become a researcher. I write this as much for you as for myself – to remind myself that, in a sense, we never cease to be students, we remain always beginners in the new knowledge that we (and others) create with our research.

It is with a lot of hesitation that I write this post, in a time when many of us are facing challenges far greater than a PhD. Thousands of people are dying or risking their lives every day, some of them quite close to us. This reminder of mortality does strange things to one’s motivation. My own morale to continue doing research (which has never been rock-solid) falters sometimes. However, the other day I happened to come across a poem by Wendell Berry: How to be a poet – go read it, it almost applies to researchers as-is! Then, someone proposed an exercise: do your own version of the poem, about what it means to be a researcher.

This is what came out, maybe you find it useful:

How to be a PhD student

(to remind myself)


Find a place, no distractions.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

curiosity, courage,

critical sense – more of each

than you have – purpose,

thirst for truth, exhaustiveness,

for consistent method

is key to new knowledge. Reviewers

that accept your papers unchanged,

doubt their judgement.


Think uninterrupted thoughts.

Progress, slowly.

Convey your ideas clearly,

shun your ego, this is not about you.

Look through many lenses, be complex,

then build models, compress,

until only those useful remain.

There are no uninteresting phenomena,

no path not worth a look.

There is only the scope of this paper

and future work.


Accept what comes from data. Reflect.

Get feedback, climb upon giants,

even dwarfs can hoist you higher.

Accept failures. You are normal.

Have a rich life outside research.

Yet, write papers that disturb

the theories from whence they came.

Of course, this is not half as good as the original. And you don’t need to agree with me – if you have some spare time, try to write down your own version of the poem, of what it means to be a PhD student, how to be it. Maybe the result is worth keeping visible somewhere in your work space.

The poem tries to answer the question of how to be a PhD student, but it says nothing about a different question that many people are facing these days: whether (with all that is going on) you should be a PhD student at all. To that question, for you particularly, I don’t have an answer – just some process advice: take, if you can, a few minutes of quiet time, turn off your phone, TV or any other distractions; look at your current life, right now (in whatever lockdown or “shelter in place” conditions you face), and calculate how much time you require to take care of your needs (physical and mental) and those of the people close to you; then, define for yourself how much time is realistically left, and what you want to do with that time: watch the news endlessly, or be a PhD student full-time, or something in between? is it a 50% load what you are willing and able to dedicate? 70% load? 20%? If what the poem above describes appeals in any way to you, if it is aligned with your values, see what portion of your life you want to dedicate to be it, title or no title.

I’ll be right here, writing for those that answered yes.

Take care. Stay safe and keep others safe.

Did you find this more poetic, less research-y post useful? should I keep to the hard science stuff? what else would you find useful in these challenging times? what are you struggling with? Let us know in the comments below!

Header photo by UCL Mathematical & Physical Science

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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