Going the extra mile in your PhD: 7 reasons to say yes to extra activities!

A good PhD is a finished PhD – a popular phrase for a very good reason. We can’t spend our lives labouring over our theses. At some point, it needs to be done. For this reason, there are many that would dissuade you from embarking on extra activities and side projects during your PhD.

Additional research projects and employment will certainly eat away some time and headspace that would otherwise be dedicated to your PhD. However, for most PhD students, they are a financial necessity. Financial reasons aside, there are several benefits to a more rounded approach to your PhD journey.

In full disclosure, my ‘extracurriculars’ will probably result in me not completing my PhD during my funded period, which I was completely averse to in the first two years of my PhD. However, the financial security that the extra work has provided means that this isn’t a pressing issue. I have no regrets about the journey I have taken. I feel I have got so much more out of doing a PhD by taking this path (much to my assessor’s likely dismay – don’t worry, Ali, I promise I won’t exceed my max. registration date).

Photo by Peggy Anke from Pexels

Here, I share some of the reasons why taking on extra projects has been helpful for me – professionally and personally. However, I should also say, there are times that I have taken on far too much. So in assessing whether to take on extra responsibilities, make sure that you don’t lose sight of your PhD and consider these benefits in balance with the time cost.

  • Skill development

If you have been to any of Sarah Coleman’s careers events, you will know the infamous approach to making yourself more employable after your PhD by filling out your three pillars: Research, Teaching, and Administration. Of course your research arm is filled nicely with your PhD, however, there is no harm in developing this further. Working on other projects will enhance different research skills and you might have the opportunity to collaborate with other academics. Teaching does appear to differ according to school of study, but if there is the opportunity to do so, take it! I have spoken to PhD graduates recently who are kicking themselves for not gaining teaching experience. While essential in academia, you will also develop a host of transferable skills for other roles.

Finally, the administration pillar is a trickier one to fulfil. Arguably, this can be more important for developing a career outside of academia, but it is just as essential inside. There are many opportunities that will fit the bill here and allow you to develop different and transferable skills. For example, organisational roles within your department, the SSU, or simply starting your own special interest or reading group can all complement your PhD and make you more employable. You can even get funding through the Researcher Led Initiative Fund! Time to get creative!

Extra curriculars aren’t just for college students, they make you stand out from other candidates in a job application.

  • Maintaining your motivation

Am I writing this blog post at a time when I’m supposed to be working on my paper? Absolutely! However, I am distracted and not in the right place to be writing academically today. Working on something different and achievable keeps me engaged at a time when I might otherwise be flitting around unproductively. This also helps in maintaining a working routine, which can be invaluable while working at home.

During my PhD so far, the times that I have only been working on my PhD have resulted in feeling sluggish and struggling to motivate myself. Realistically, how much time can you dedicate to working on one thing before you lose motivation, and your productivity fails? Working alongside provides an external structure. For me, this has meant the time I have to work on my PhD is full and focused.

  • New perspectives

Stretching beyond your discipline, and beyond academia itself, can help you see your work from different perspectives. Developing skills, knowledge, and experience outside of your PhD can often enhance your research, however unrelated it may seem.

We all know the experience of hitting a roadblock too well. Taking some time away from your research to do something different can also help you return with fresh eyes.

If you’re stuck, get stuck into something else.

  • Author contributions

Working on extra research projects can provide some fantastic insight if you wish to stay in academia. This is not to mention the potential for appearing as an author on papers outside of your PhD, papers that may well be published sooner than your own! I have learnt about grant timelines, working with different funders and collaborators across different Universities, and research in non-for-profit organisations. All of which give me potential publications and give me some understanding into what it would be like to research in different institutions.

  • Networking

Networking doesn’t just take place at conferences and within your discipline. The ways that you can hear about potential job roles can be surprising and come from unexpected places. For instance, interviewing clinical practitioners on a research project outside of my PhD led me onto a research position via an interviewees recommendation. Opportunities come in unexpected places, so having more avenues to engage with people can be a huge benefit to your ongoing career.

Working with researchers in other institutions might also open up potential roles in other Universities. Networking does look a little different now that conferences are held in a virtual world. More effort is needed to disseminate your findings and engage in organic and informal conversations. This doesn’t mean academic networking is lost, many research groups have meetings that welcome external attendees. Virtual meetings can work to your advantage if it meets joining a research group in Edinburgh who you might not otherwise meet.

  • Personal development

Over the last few months, while balancing quite a few job roles, I have developed an ability just to get on with it, I work quicker and smarter and have no time to put things off or sweat the small stuff! I wouldn’t recommend stretching yourself to the limits like this, but taking on extra, and different responsibilities can really excel your time management skills.

Picking up new skills and gaining experience in roles outside of your comfort zone can also be a big boost to confidence and self-esteem. This can be invaluable in the times when your PhD can feel like a huge drain.

  • Help you figure out your next step

Many PhD students have no idea what they will do after they submit. It can be quite daunting to think about if you don’t have a clear idea of where you want to go next. The opportunities seem endless but also non-existent. PhD students have skills that can be applied in many areas but findings these roles can be tricky and tiresome, and that’s not to mention academic job prospects.

Some roles might span the end of your PhD, which helps to bridge this seemingly sudden gap. Some might lead onto other positions, further funding opportunities or extensions of research projects.

A PhD isn’t just a thesis, it is an opportunity to develop your skills and experience as a researcher. There can be a lot of opportunities to develop your experience. However, try not to burn yourself out by doing too much. Be selective and don’t lose sight of your PhD. Be careful not to diffuse your efforts and fall into the trap of not doing any one thing well. When considering extra opportunities, remember to weigh up the benefits to you versus the time cost and impact on your PhD. Finally, make sure you are realistic about the time commitment, everything takes longer than you think!

— Devyn Glass

If this blog has sparked your interest, the applications to be one of next year’s Hive Scholars will be opening very soon, watch this space for more information!

If you want to tell us about how a role outside of your PhD has benefitted your research, drop us a line at researchhive@sussex.ac.uk


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