My Mentor’s PhD Advice

Having the right mentor to turn to can make all the difference when you’re writing a PhD. The person I turned to most, even if only in my mind, was without a doubt Gordon Smith. I met Gordon when I was studying for a MSc. in European Politics and Policy at the LSE – he was my tutor, and what a terrifying tutor he was! He enjoyed causing a bit of a stir, and he liked to ‘keep me on my toes’ as he called it. But even though I was petrified every time I stepped into his tiny office, as I knew I would probably be told off for something or be otherwise insulted, shocked or startled, I came to enjoy our encounters immensely.

Gordon is now roaming the Elysian Fields, so I couldn’t ask him for his PhD advice firsthand. Instead, I compiled some of the advice he gave me when he was my tutor at the LSE, as it could be applied to writing a PhD.

His top 4 tips (according to me):

Write for the right reason

Gordon had an unlikely academic career, and only took up a lectureship at the LSE at the age of 45, after mostly working outside of academia. He told me how he started writing his first book, I believe it was a text on West German politics, on the train on his commute to work. “One day,” he told me, “I just started. I knew I had to write the book. So I took out pen and paper and I started writing. I remember it like it was yesterday.” That conversation always stuck with me, as I struggled finding my own PhD topic (something I naturally got yelled at for when he visited Florence: “Amber, you have to do something. I have to shake you up. You have got to stop faffing about!”)  I was also reminded of it whenever I was stressing for a deadline, instead of writing because I felt compelled to write. The lesson Gordon taught me is to write what you need to write. Because the work needs to be written. Nobody is forcing you to write a PhD. Write the right thesis for the right reasons.

Don’t let your canoe sink

It’s easy to get lost in the sea of scholarship, and I see some PhD students close to drown in the piles of papers they think they need to read. When I was finishing my PhD my energy levels were so low that I could not add many new papers to my repertoire. At the time, I was worried about it, as I thought my work might not be as current as it should be. The opposite turned out to be the case – I was forced to focus on the most important arguments already out there, and it markedly clarified my thinking. In the end, the couple of important new papers weren’t difficult to incorporate. It reminded me of a meeting with Gordon in which he warned against over studying, during exam time at the LSE. “Some people need the books,” he said, “but I think you don’t. You know enough. You’re smart enough. All you need to do is think. In your mind, that’s where it’s all happening. Think!” He continued: “Imagine you’re on a deserted island. No, even better, you’re in a canoe. And you’re only allowed to take one article for each topic with you. If you take more on board, your canoe will sink. Now read these articles and think about what the author is telling you. Reflect on it. Get inside the article you’ve chosen.” How many articles have you got in your canoe? Don’t let it sink.

Remember not to spend all your time in the library

One of the things Gordon had no patience for was procrastination. He used to tell me again and again, when I was confronted with yet another essay to write: “You have to get these things done! Get it over with!” And more than once he told me: “Remember not to spend all your time in the library.” At the LSE, the dominant paradigm was one of study till you drop. It’s a misguided paradigm of more is more, and one I see dominates many PhD student’s lives. According to this paradigm your productivity is measured by the hours spent on your PhD, not by the actual outcome of your efforts. I understand – it is notoriously difficult to measure your output in many phases of PhD research, and it’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking that you are doing a good job, if you at least put maximum hours in. But at best it’s a paradigm that makes you spend too much time in the library, at worst it’s a paradigm that is destructive for your productivity, alongside your sanity. Resist temptation. Instead, focus and get your work done. (If you are interested in learning how to do this: it’s what my online course is all about).

Don’t bore us too much

In my 2003 diary I jotted down:

‘Gordon and I agree on writing.  He tells me: “Be inspired. You have to be on a whirl. Make it crisp. Make it sharp. Put your pen on paper, get excited and write like you’ve never written before. Just let it happen.”

Though perhaps not on all of it: “If all else fails, don’t worry. Have a drink. A straight shot of vodka should loosen you up.”’

Gordon never quite approved of my choice of topics. He could not comprehend why anyone in his right mind would want to write on the EU in general, and on its policy processes in particular. (By now, I see his point. I have switched to studying ‘real politics’ Gordon. Not to worry.) At one particular meeting he told me I was “such an EU maniac”, and dismissed my proposed dissertation titles as “EU mumbo jumbo”. At the end of the meeting, on my way out, he grumbled: “Oh, well, write whatever you want to write.” Then, as I was about to close the door behind me he added: “Just don’t bore me too much!” I tried very hard not to. And I still do.

Do you have a mentor who inspires and encourages you? Tell me in the comments!

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