Lots of the specific stuff you learn as a PhD student, as well as general approaches to your work, begins with informal advice rather than formal training. I’ve received lots of advice from others during my PhD, since the very early stages of my project. This has helped me both build a PhD project that I’m happy with, and actually enjoy my life while I do my PhD (the two, of course, being closely but not entirely linked!). As it’s the start of the academic year I want to share a few of my own tips along those lines, to help get your PhD off to a good start, and keep it on a trajectory you’re happy with:
1. Keep notes on everything you read
My PhD, like many, kicked off with lots of reading of textbooks and academic papers. My reading has ebbed and flowed, but not really stopped, since then. Reading is a big thing during your PhD. It’s useful to keep track of what you’ve been reading because you won’t remember all of it, but you will want to come back to a lot of it.
My system for keeping notes on my reading is highly unsophisticated, but it works: I have (currently) three Word Documents, called Reading_[insert year here] stored on Dropbox so I can access them anywhere. I’ve got a separate one for each year of my PhD because 1) each document is a bit more manageable than one scary enormous one, and 2) I find it surprisingly easy to remember when-ish I was reading different stuff because my reading has gone through some quite distinct phases (e.g. more stuff relevant to study design early on, more stuff about analysis later) so it seemed like a reasonable and simple way to organise my notes.
The notes I make on what I read vary a lot: at my laziest, I just copy and paste the paper title, first author and abstract into the doc, and I’m done. If I’m feeling enthusiastic, I make more extensive notes on the paper and my thoughts on it, or copy specific sections that are especially interesting or relevant to my work. I make sure that each paper title or reference is formatted as a heading so that I can scan through the document easily, and create a contents page for each document. Now, if I want to find a specific paper or read publications on a particular theme, I can Ctrl+F to find key words in my Reading documents.
2. Read a couple of theses
I’m going to disagree with tip #2 in Five Tips for Starting Your PhD Out Right and say you don’t need to read them cover to cover – I don’t think this is necessary in the early stages in your project, unless you really want to do so, or if you feel that every chapter is highly relevant to your own PhD. But I do think it’s helpful to flick through and see different thesis structures (trends in how to structure a thesis evolve over time, and also vary by subject area, so look at recent graduates in your field for ideas of what’s likely to be appropriate for you).
Theses might also contain some specific content that you didn’t realise you’ll need to add to your own thesis (such as more detailed methodology than you usually see in a published paper) or useful references if the PhD is closely related to your own work. I think it works well to look through the theses of recent graduates in your research group, your supervisor, or others working on similar stuff to you. But you can also search for theses online, for example by using EThOS.
3. Start a Word document called “Thesis”
You can use other people’s theses (see previous tip) as a guide to add appropriate headings and subheadings to this document which will act as your own thesis structure / outline. Okay, I did this in third year, not first year, but I reckon it would have been helpful to start this earlier. Since I started this document, I’ve made good progress on actually organising my thoughts and even writing a few things down. And if you’ve got this document ready from early on in your project, you can populate it with notes and ideas whenever they occur to you at any point during your PhD.
Recently, I’ve been going through my Reading documents (remember tip #1) page by page and copying across notes from papers that I have read (and often forgotten about) into the appropriate sections of my Thesis document. It’s surprising how quickly my rough structure has been populated with ideas and material for literature review and synthesis, and how this has helped me link different ideas together i.e. stuff I read in first year and forgot about, with stuff I’ve been reading recently, with stuff that’s coming out of my own analysis. Actually, now that it’s getting quite full, I’ve split my Thesis doc up so that I’m just working with one document per empirical chapter. In first year, a simple thesis structure in a single document is a good place to start.
4. Think about how to make the flexibility of your PhD (and your control over it) work best for you
This one’s quite big-picture, and I’m kind of cheating the list-of-five by squeezing several tips into one. But I think that the general principle of this tip is important, and can be interpreted in different ways to suit different people: PhDs are often inherently flexible, in how you set your daily, weekly and monthly schedule, and I think that you should make the most of that.
The nature of your PhD flexibility and your control over it depend on the details of your project, how you’re going to be working with your supervisors and institution. But there are usually opportunities for flexibility, even if you have to be in the lab most days. PhD-life-flexibility can be exploited for your professional or personal development, to maximise your productivity, to create opportunities that are fun or useful now, or allow you to flex creative muscles you haven’t had the opportunity to flex before.
Below I list the kinds of things you can think about to best use the flexibility of your PhD. These are all things that can work alongside the core research / write / defend thesis requirements of your PhD, and while you definitely don’t have to make any firm plans on day one, I think that it’s really valuable to think about ideas like this (and any more you have) early in your project. It’s all about what you want to get out of your time whilst doing your PhD, including but not limited to the PhD itself, and how you want to structure that time:
- How do you want to set your daily schedule, where do you want to work? What’s going to be most pleasant and productive for you, and fit in with your home life?
- What things do you want to do outside of your PhD (sports, reading non-PhD-related books, joining local clubs and groups, always protecting weekends off) to actively maintain a healthy work-life balance (which is better for both your wellbeing, and the state of your thesis)?
- Are there times when you’re going to be working extra hard (like fieldwork)? How do you want to balance that with rest and recuperation afterwards (an extended post-fieldwork holiday…?)?
- Do you want to take an interruption from your PhD for an internship or job?
- Do you want to practise writing by starting a blog or try a bit of science journalism?
- Do you want to get involved with science outreach?
- Do you want to build a professional profile and network by making a website or getting on social media?
- Do you want to teach undergraduates or Masters students?
- What training courses would you like to do (and where do you find out about them)?
- Do you want to try turning one or more of your chapters into academic papers?
5. Talk to people, lots, in both general and specific ways
Starting a PhD can be overwhelming, and knowing where to start, or where to go next, can be really tough. Having conversations with other PhD students about what they are working on, how they are finding their PhD, what kind of training they have received, might point you to interesting new research topics, training opportunities, or just give you a bit of a general feel for what it’s going to be like doing a PhD in your new department. These general conversations are important because they can provide you with nuggets of wisdom you didn’t know you needed and, crucially, help you feel connected to and supported by your colleagues and peers.
Asking your supervisor or others specific questions like are there any academics whose work you recommend I look into? / do you recommend any textbooks on [planning a research project], [planning fieldwork], [fundamentals of landscape ecology], [fundamentals of development research] [insert another topic you’re not sure about yet but want to learn about]? / are there any conferences I should look out for? can give you some useful starting points for directing your own learning in the early stages of your project. So, think specifically about what you need at the start of your PhD, and ask for help with it.
…And one bonus tip: read advice from other (ex-) PhD students
There are similar posts to this one with advice on starting your PhD here, and I particularly like the twenty top tips from Lucy Taylor here. There are actual full guides to PhD life like The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory and The Unwritten Rules of Ph.D. Research which can be very helpful to read through at any stage of your PhD (though I guess you maximise your use of them if you read them early!) and to use as reference books as and when you need them. There are lots of people blogging about their past and present PhD experiences, which can offer great advice and comfort at every stage in your PhD. Personally, I love the Thesis Whisperer and like to check in with it semi-regularly. Reading TW feels a bit like my tip #5: it’s about seeking out help and advice, sometimes when you didn’t even know you needed it.