The First Year of My PhD: Advice For New Starts

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a short talk at one of the University of Aberdeen’s Postgraduate Research Student Induction sessions entitled ‘The First Year of My PhD’. It’s a short session for new postgraduate researcher students across all disciplines within the university, with the aim of demonstrating how varied PhD experiences are, as well as sharing a few helpful hints and tips on what new starts should expect over the course of their first year of study. It takes  place next Tuesday so I figured this was a good time to get my thoughts in order. Hopefully some of you will find this useful – if you have any burning questions please let me know so that I can add answers in to my talk too!

So, a few things I learned during my first year of the PhD:

Getting your head around the project takes time
PhD advertisements usually include a basic outline of what your Supervisors see you doing, but the project should be yours. You’ll be the one ranting to your best friend at 10pm because your approvals haven’t come back and you need to get started with data collection – so it’s useful if you feel a sense of ownership over the project. Spend the first few weeks, if not months, getting to grips with what the project looks like; where it fits in with the current literature, and what you need to do to get it going. At the beginning I wrote a PhD protocol. It wasn’t anything formal, but it forced me to look at the big picture.

Building brownie points is really important
A PhD is a big coordinated effort with you at the core doing the majority of the work. For example, for my systematic review (protocol here) I wanted to do abstract screening, full text assessment, data extraction and risk of bias assessment all in duplicate. That’s a huge amount of work for one person, so finding someone to be my second was sometimes tricky. Of course Supervisors always offer to help, but they’ve got enough going on and it’s a good idea to get other researchers involved too. In come the banked brownie points! Offer to help out on other projects, do some abstract screening for another student, or write up minutes of meetings – integrate yourself into your team and you’ll find it much easier to ask for help when you need it later down the line.

Don’t be intimidated by the phrase ‘you’re doing a PhD’
Just after I started the PhD I was in the pub with some friends, someone asked what I did and I told them I had just started a PhD. They acted like I’d just told them I’d won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry – ‘Woah, you must be so clever!’ – this was coming from a qualified paramedic, i.e. someone who regularly saves lives. In comparison to my office-based daily activities of reading, writing and interviewing that seems a bit crazy to me. I thought about it for too long and started to doubt whether I was good enough to do a PhD – maybe I wasn’t clever enough? A word of advice, a PhD is more about resilience than intelligence, so just keep going and don’t fall into the trap of being intimidated by the process. More about so-called Imposter Syndrome here.

Little victories will keep you motivated
Some parts of the PhD take a really long time – I’ve currently been working on my systematic review for 15 months and I’ve only just got to the interpretation bit (i.e. the fun bit). It’s important to set yourself realistic goals over the course of the PhD so that you stay motivated throughout. I’m someone who write lists for everything, so each morning I write a list of things I want to do that day, and as a rule I don’t leave the office until that list is complete. These daily lists keep me on track and feeling like I have a purpose, even when the projects are long and can sometimes feel never-ending.


Manage the expectations of the people around you
I have a few friends who are also doing PhDs, but the majority of the people around me have no idea what I do each day – sometimes my Mum genuinely asks me if I’m going to school that day (Yes, really. I’m 25 and she still calls it school.). Anyway, there will be times throughout your PhD where you have a bit of a meltdown – this undergraduate dissertation hand-in day multiplied by at least a hundred. Explain to your friends/family/partner/dog etc that you’ll probably be a bit of a nightmare to be around every now and again for the next 3 years or so – do this at the beginning of the process and they’re much less likely to want to smother you when you wake them up at 3am because you’ve lost your USB stick. (Disclaimer: They might still want to smother you, but at least you’ve warned them early on in the process and you can use the phrase ‘I told you I’d be a nightmare’).

What advice would you pass on to new PhD students? Leave a comment and share your experiences!


2 responses to “The First Year of My PhD: Advice For New Starts”

  1. Hi Heidi – great blog! About 6 months ago, I was invited to go back to University of California at Davis to give a talk about my own PhD experience and to offer advice to some graduates students in the biotechnology program about what their options are upon finishing. So while my comments here aren’t limited to starting off, here’s a few thoughts for new PhD students:

    – Don’t quit. No matter how dire things may seem or get in your personal life, with your research or with your PI – fight through it. At the end, you’ll be so glad you did. Only a small percentage of the population earn a PhD, and it will feel fantastic to become part of that group. It’s a hell of an accomplishment. If you never finish, you will always regret it and carry that chip on your shoulder. So, put on your big girl/boy trousers and roll those sleeves up!

    – Virtually nobody has a perfect relationship with their PI, and that’s totally OK. It’s like any relationship: it takes work and there will be highs and lows. Remain respectful, and when disagreeing with your PI bring a logical argument, not an overly emotional one.

    – Finish writing your thesis before you leave. I didn’t, and I can tell you it made my first year of working a nightmare!

    – You don’t need to do a postdoc. At all. If you want to go into industry, you can. Falling into the 2-3 consecutive postdoc trap can be inescapable!

    – Get a business card. Because you need to network. You have to network. At conferences, at lectures, at social events. You could one day meet your future employer. So get yourself a professional looking card, that is simple but memorable. And use LinkedIn. Cards may seem old school, but it’s so much easier than adding someone on LinkedIn every 5 minutes.

    – Take a class or two as an elective that isn’t directly related to your research. It may seem like a distraction or a waste of time but it’s a mental health investment. Pick something that you find really interesting. It will inspire you and remind you how much you love to learn – that’s why you’re doing a PhD right?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One last thing – maintain a sense of humor. And remember that others feel your pain! So have a pint with your fellow graduate students, read PhD Comics, and follow Lego Grad Student:

    Liked by 1 person

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