Blog Topics, Tips and tricks

Advice for anyone starting a PhD

Last month we reached out on academic Twitter looking for advice for first year PhD students. We had lots of comments with some wonderful advice that we’ve put together into one constructive, positive blog post. Here are our top picks:

  • EXERCISE. Lots of people stressed the importance of doing exercise and making sure you take care of yourself:

Swim, cycle or go for a quick run a few times a week. Make exercise a regular part of your week.

Exercise regularly, especially in the fresh air.

Learn to “restart” yourself, because you’ll have shitty days where nothing seems to work (and it’s ok, it’s part of the process).

Make sure your personal well-being features as much as possible in [your] plans, nothing’s worth losing your health over, no matter how dedicated, passionate and enthusiastic you are.

  • SUPERVISORS. Talking to your supervisors throughout the PhD is also highly recommended. This can help you stay on track and ensure you are producing work:

Ask for an ideal ‘plan’ of how things might evolve, with outputs, and how this might unfold to structure your activities and expectations.

Solidify a consistent and mutually agreeable understanding with your supervisor of expectations and needs, as well as a set meeting schedule.

  • BE PROACTIVE. There are lots of things you can do from the start that you’ll be very thankful you did in later months/years:

Use your own judgement in evaluating potential thesis labs. Too often intra or inter lab politics may circulate false negative or positive information about a lab. You could lose an opportunity or pick the wrong lab, simply because of the opinion of others.

Start writing immediately. Even if it is just talking to the paper about your ideas and thought process. Aim for about 300 words per day to begin with.

Back up, back up, and back up again. And make notes of full references as you go. Future you will thank you for this.

Set up a really good filing system from the beginning. And make sure you have a hobby unconnected to your research.

Keep a notebook to track your days and meetings.

Spend your first year reading anything and everything! You won’t know what you are doing. But reading – even something that seems irrelevant now – is never wrong. If nothing else you are amping up your reading speed which is a total blessing.

Learn more methods than you think you’ll need.

Do not be afraid to change your topic if you see that your research is not going in the right direction.

  • BE SOCIABLE. Spending time with people, both within your department and outside of the PhD (other people do exist), is hugely beneficial:

Don’t keep to yourself. While you can still work in smaller time increments, go to any event, lecture, conference you can, build your fun, support and career networks so that when you’re writing up your thesis you’ll always have someone, plus future prospects.

Don’t isolate yourself from your department, your research is important but it’s also important to go to seminars, get to know the staff and students. That means socialising after the seminars too. You’ll feel less alone and actually part of something.

Find help outside your department/uni.

  • APPROACH IT WISELY. There are different approaches you can take to the PhD from the beginning that can help it be less daunting:

A PhD is a humbling experience. Although it is important, it most likely won’t be your Nobel prize research. The sooner you lower expectations (but not your ambitions) the easier it will become.

Be confident and open to try every opportunity to develop yourself and your research.

Try as hard as you can not to compare yourself to others. Progress at your own pace and do what is right for you.

Don’t be afraid of pushing your intellectual limitations to the limits. If you do, it is likely that the PhD journey will be half as expected. Good luck.

Seems pretty obvious, but in every aspect of your PhD (from personal and financial to the project itself, as they are all interlinked) prepare for the worst-case scenario. You can have plans A-D covered but there’s always a chance you’ll need E-G etc. as well.

Whatever stage of your PhD journey you’re at, it’s a big thing to do with many varied challenges. But it’s an incredible opportunity to grow and develop intellectually and personally. I’d like to finish this blog post with my two personal favourites from all the advice we received:

Do not despair!

There are so many things in your life more important than your PhD.

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