Monday, 10 June 2013

Surviving the politics of a PhD: think The Hunger Games looked tough?


Diplomacy is a key skill for PhD students. Help others and you never know when they will help you back.  At a critical time, you will need them more than they will probably ever need you.

Imagine the following pitch for a reality show -

Contestants are plunged into a high-level and complex environment with which they may or may not be familiar, but are expected to hit the ground running in either way.  They have one goal, the biggest they have ever been set, and probably the biggest they will ever tackle.  They have one, or maybe more, (semi-)wise advisors, who help them start on their quest and are available to them to varying degrees throughout the quest, but expect them to navigate the game largely on their own independence, and indeed expect to see this develop as time goes on. 

So far so straightforward and controlled?

The main complication arises from the fact that the environment in which the challenge has to be tackled is full of others, some of whom are contestants tackling their own challenges, some of whom have completely different agendas, and some of whom may even actively oppose our hero on his or her quest, for a myriad of reasons.  Some of these will have no bearing on the likelihood of our hero’s success, but some will prove critical, and there is no way at the start to tell which is which.  For these critical individuals, our hero will need their help or advice at a time when they likely will have the potential to lose everything, or move several steps backwards, while having nothing to offer in return. 

Does this make the Hunger Games sound like an easy challenge yet?

In the many international analyses of skills required by PhD students, I have yet to see the word ‘diplomacy’ appear directly (although it is captured within areas like inter-personal skills and teamwork), but it is absolutely a key skill, indeed a survival skills, for these students.

While all PhD students will recognize (or certainly should) the importance of maintaining a professional and positive relationship with their supervisor or supervisors, they rarely realise how many other individuals (other students, staff, technical staff, researchers, administrators and many others) they will be dependent upon before they finish.  Unexpected situations will inevitably arise where a student needs someone to help them, for example through taking a sample, answering a question, explaining a process, helping with a university form, or a million other tasks which need to be completed.

Thus, every student needs to know that they are surrounded by concentric circles of potential support and dependence, in which their supervisors form the first layer but many many others, mostly yet unseen, are in the outer regions, waiting without even realizing it for the time at which their input will be needed.

This unpredictability in terms of who and when any student will need others means that they must make every effort at building constructive and respectful relationships with everyone they encounter, as they cannot advance to their ultimate direction when it lies across a bridge they burned some time previously.

Key skills:

Be nice!  Help others and you never know when they will help you back.  At a critical time, you will need them more than they will probably ever need you.

Think about your network of contributors to your work, and even make a list of all those who play or are likely to play a role in supporting your work in even a minor way – you will be amazed how long the list will be!



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