Thirteen top tips for new PhDers (from sixteen old PhDers)

Hello new PhDers!

So you’ve just begun a PhD. How are you feeling? Excited and energized? Or perhaps nervous and overwhelmed?

Doing a PhD is an amazing experience. But it’s also pretty challenging.

Two weeks ago I put a call out to the Twitter PhD community asking PhDers to share what they wish they had known at the beginning of their PhD. 15 people got in touch wanting to help give you a head start. Keeping their words, I have woven their wisdom together into two blogposts. In this first one, you’ll find our thirteen top tips.

Thirteen top tips for new PhDers (from sixteen old PhDers)

  1.  Know this: no one really knows what they’re doing at the beginning

It does become clear and you get the hang of it, but at the beginning everyone is clueless. Everyone feels unsure of themselves: you’re not alone.

  1. Use space well

Have a workspace (desk or whatever you like) separate from your sofa/bed/etc. How about this: find three different spaces: space to unwind, space to enjoy writing, and a space to enjoy thinking/reading (not necessarily the department!)?

  1. Get a routine set up

Get a routine from early on and treat the PhD like a job. Have small achievable goals set up throughout the starting months. Then, you know what? After a while the huge mountain you want to carve into a beautiful statue won’t seem quite so daunting (and you might even realise that tackling the whole mountain isn’t what you want to do anyway).

  1. Organisation is vital

Do what works for you, but here’s a detailed piece of insight from one of us:

I kept a database of references from the outset and I’m extremely glad I did so. In addition to notes on specific topics, I also made a collection of notes that didn’t fit in any category – I had a document called ‘observations’ that was just a collection of random notes – insights, ideas for research, questions, etc. In paper notebooks I would date such notes and label them ‘observations’. It was useful having seemingly random notes together in chronological order. I still do this and every few months I read through the notes, which a) reminds me of things I would have otherwise forgotten, b) reveals a coherence to my thinking that I would not otherwise be aware of.

  1. Write from the beginning

Write early and often. In fact, write something every day. Seriously, start thinking of how to write the document you’re working on – be it your thesis or a paper – right from the start, even if it’s just the structure. It’ll help to have a picture of the whole, which will also help you understand the context of the problems you’re working on. It will also help your motivation in the difficult times when you feel you’re stuck.

  1. Be wise about your supervisor

You will need to nurture a relationship with your supervisor. The importance of picking the right one shouldn’t be underestimated. Having such a one-on-one relationship with your boss can be hard and can feel isolating when things are not going as you hoped. Know to expect this and prepare yourself to handle bumps in the PhD supervisory road. Also: a friendly relationship with a supervisor isn’t the same as a good working relationship. Being brutally honest, two of us have shared:

I would not necessarily change my supervisor, but I wish I knew to look for someone with supervisory experience, perhaps attended a conference they spoke at to gain a sense of their style and personality.

I wish someone had told me that your supervisors cover up their own shortcomings because they are arrogant and vain; you can learn a lot from them, but it won’t be easy to work out what you are missing. Specifically, I regret not publishing more (at all) as a PhD student and I wish I’d worked out sooner that my supervisors weren’t publishing themselves and were not good mentors from a professional point of view.

  1. Pick an external examiner who will get what you’re doing

One of the most important things is picking an external who gets what you’re trying to do. And, whilst we’re on the subject, find out about your institution’s procedures regarding submission – for example when the deadline is, whether you can submit early etc.

  1. Prepare yourself for fieldwork

If you are including field research in your PhD then you have to be really strict in setting out deadlines of when certain aspects have to be completed: ethical consent, target groups, sample groups etc. Do this as soon as possible upon starting and have a realistic conversation with your supervisor, admin and other members of staff about what help you will need in order to be successful.

Being truthful, fieldwork can be really challenging – particularly if you’re alone out there. But it will be made easier by knowing this and preparing psychologically for it. Find others in your university or network who have done it and talk to them; they will get you in a way that those who’ve never done it just can’t. This is comforting and strengthening.

  1. Be curious and talk to people

Take a note of things that catch your attention and work out why they stand out. And tell people you meet what you are researching. Other people are incredibly useful as sounding boards and for ideas for avenues you may not have thought of and more books to read! Oh, and work on your elevator pitch from day one. (Elevator pitch = the short summary you’d use to ‘sell’ your PhD to someone in the time it takes to take a lift!) 

  1. Make friends

An honest truth? PhD work is often a lonely business. So talk to people, go along to things, make some friends; make friends with people who are in different departments, or not PhD students at all. You’ll need these people around you over the next 3 years.

  1. Look up and out from your books

Go to workshops on a variety of subjects (even if they don’t appear directly relevant), take part in committees, start a blog and Twitter account. Do all the things that you will wish you had done by the third year, but have no time to do at that point. And take risks! Honestly, use any excuse to get out and meet people because it’s surprising how many will share your enthusiasm and peculiarities. And because later on, when analysing and writing up, you might wish you had. Doing public engagement might help you realise why you started this whole thing in the first place! Oh, and if you teach, be nice to your undergrads.

And yet…

  1. Be protective of your time

Your time is finite: realise that you probably won’t have time for your other research interests. Say no to stuff in your own university that seems tangential and search out the networks that you are interested in and more linked to your topic. This will help with a job because it is unlikely you will be employed at the same institution as your PhD. In fact, you should know: academic jobs are few and far between and having a PhD is not going to guarantee you getting one. However, if you grab every opportunity that comes your way, the PhD will set you up with a lot of desirable skills.

  1. Be your own type of academic

Finally: be your own type of academic. One of the main things you will learn in your PhD programme is how to accept critical feedback. You have to develop your own style of doing this, and you have to remember that your professors are not gods, and don’t always know what’s best for you every single step of the way. Listen to their feedback, and that of your peers, but don’t let it drown out your own instincts. And don’t compare yourself to other academics or PhDers either; it is a one horse race. This is your work, it’s what you want to do, you don’t have to please anyone else, as long as you meet the basic criteria of making a unique contribution to new knowledge. Please yourself, stimulate yourself, thrill yourself!

 

In the next post I’ll share our advice on PhD struggles and how to overcome them, but for now I’ll leave you with a summary of our top tips:

top-tips

pdf here