The biggest difference between a PhD programme and, say, an MA, is the lack of constant feedback and the daily obligation to be accountable to your whereabouts and your work. You might go weeks (or months as a part-time student) without talking to another PhD student or your supervisor. It means the onus is on you to do the work. This can be difficult, but what is especially difficult is a lack of regular feedback. There’s no papers or exams with a mark telling you you need to work harder. There is only you.
If you are lucky, your supervisor will expect some sort of regular contact and an update on how your work is going. If you aren’t lucky, you may have to go find this yourself.
But it’s not just your supervisor you can go to. Other PhD students in your department are a fantastic resource. It can be difficult to approach someone you don’t know (particularly if you’re a part-time person), but it shouldn’t be hard to find contacts for other students, at least those you share a supervisor with. If you can find even one person that is your Person, this can make a big difference to getting you through your PhD. If you can’t find one in your own department, look further afield. I found one on Twitter!
When you have someone, or more than one, make use of them as a resource, but also offer to act in the same capacity for them. This may be as simple as setting a deadline and asking the other person to hold you accountable to it. It may be as complex and involved as asking for feedback on a paper or on research you’ve done. If your Person doesn’t have time for such things, find a new person (or another person). It’s good to have more than one, and often it’s very useful to have different people for different sorts of help.
But once you have tracked down someone who can be a good resource for you, exploit them (I mean this in the nicest way possible – and remember they will likely do the same to you). Ask them to read the paper you are writing. Ask them if they will be a sounding board for an hour while you work through a difficult theory or thought you are trying to get straight in your head. Ask them to read over a paragraph you are struggling with. Just ask them. It’s so hard to ask for things when you are PhD student, because you forever feel guilty for needing help and for bothering others. Get over that right now. You can’t finish a PhD completely on your own. You need help and you need support and that means bothering other people. The system works because those other people bother you (or other people). It’s the circle of PhD life.
If you aren’t sure, start by asking for help that won’t take up too much time. Struggling with the wording of a sentence? Can’t quite put into words the theory you’re using? Not sure how something will sound to someone outside your field? You can always build up the relationship to full on feedback.
But other students can be the best source for this, because they want it themselves, and because they will inevitably be coming at your field of study from an outside perspective. It’s why it’s best to get someone who is not your supervisor to read your finished thesis before you submit, because they will find things that you and your supervisor never noticed. Persons can be good for this sort of thing, if they have the time, but often non-PhD student Persons are best for reading whole theses.
But you need to ask for feedback. Everything you’ve done thus far in life has had some sort of feedback, even if that was just a verbal ‘good job’ at the last place you worked. As human beings, we crave this, even if it’s a critique, because it makes us feel good about ourselves and challenges us to do better. You need someone to give you feedback and evaluation of how you write, what you are writing, your research question, your analysis, etc. If your supervisor cannot always be available to do this, you need someone else to help. And even if your supervisor is, it’s best to have a second opinion. Other people will not catch the same mistakes, but they will catch new ones.
So find a Person or Persons. Make friends with them. Offer to support them. Ask for help. Ask them to be honest with you. You don’t want someone who just says ‘great job, sounds fantastic!’ because it probably doesn’t sound fantastic. You want someone who will go ‘well, actually, I think you need to rewrite this, I don’t understand it’. The more constructive criticism your Person can give you, the better.
Near the end of your studies, when you are reaching those final words before editing your thesis as a whole, find a few Persons you haven’t approached before. Ask them to edit, ask them to proof, ask them to comment. Ask people who know absolutely nothing about your topic. Ask people who are not academics, and ones who are. The more feedback you can get and opinions you can hear on what your thesis is like, the better you can make it before submission, and the more prepared you’ll be for your viva too.