PhD Life

Tips for your PhD first year.

Rather than figuring out how to make the best start to your PhD first year on your own, we’ve condensed down our top tips to help you hit the ground running and set yourself up for success in the long-term.

Your PhD is a transient, dynamic journey, you’re going to hit periods that aren’t fun and are stressful, burnout is almost inevitable (although it shouldn’t be) – but equally you’ll find moments of intense pride, achievement, and other weird profound feelings you don’t really get in other careers. In your PhD first year, you’re likely to be filled with excitement, positivity, maybe some apprehension – but don’t worry that’s normal, and a few other feelings that create an overall sense of optimism.

In the very beginning during your PhD first year, the first initial months is mainly about settling in. Depending on your professional background (or lack thereof if you’ve spent your career in education up to now), working autonomously and independently can feel disorientating. The first tip for your PhD first year then is to really get your routine or a weekly structure in place. For most, if not all PhD students, managing time and having a healthy work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges that can lead to a significant drain on your well-being. In your PhD first year, you’re likely to have more time at your disposal – so now is the opportunity to start setting firm boundaries. Start as you mean to go on.

The general rule of thumb is to stick to a work schedule that mirrors a typical working week, 8am – 4pm, 8am – 5pm, 9am – 5pm, that kind of thing. This will not only give you a framework and make the adjustment to a typical 9-5 easier, but it will also create space in your week to be social as your friends and family won’t be busy when you’re free and vice versa. Obviously, there will always be exceptions to the rule, if you have cells to feed at 5am, you need to submit some peer review comments back over the weekend, or you simply decided to take a Tuesday off because you felt overwhelmed. However, generally speaking aim to create a disciplined and structured routine. This will improve your time management, but also have a positive impact on your well-being.

As part of this, you need to enforce this routine. In the beginning when imposter syndrome is at its highest and you’re just settling in it can be difficult to say no to things. You may not want to necessarily do this straight away, but by month 10 or 11 you should start to figure out what you should and shouldn’t say no to. If this is difficult for you, start small. Saying no to commitments beyond 6pm or saying no to certain deliverables as you know you’ll have to do overtime to achieve them. The sooner you figure out how to set boundaries and manage expectations the better. Again, this will be a game changer when it comes to the latter years of your PhD, in other careers, and even in your personal life.

The next core tip for your PhD first year is all about your supervisor. Fostering a positive relationship and dynamic is key for the long-term duration of the PhD. In this previous post we’ve already discussed the persona ‘type’ of your supervisor (or the persona type of you, as the student), so being able to manage this and ensure you don’t fire them off in the wrong way is key. Obviously, this will vary from one supervisor to another, but whilst you’re still learning how they work and operate, they’re also learning about you and how you conduct yourself within an academic setting. More often than not, PhD students don’t always complete, decide to quit, or experience other challenges along the way. Your supervisor needs reassurance – to some degree, that you can function autonomously and can be trusted to hit the ground running. Finding opportunities to demonstrate this will provide you with more independence and freedom in the long-run – which is one of the key benefits of being a PhD student.

In the beginning, during your PhD first year, you’re also met with a significant amount of optimism and enthusiasm. Over time, this undoubtedly fades, and it can be a lot more challenging to find the motivation and build some momentum – this is quite natural and a feeling most PhDs who make it to the latter years resonate with. During this time, whilst you have the motivation and optimism be sure to leverage it as much as possible. One way to do this is to write whenever you can. Start putting a dent into your thesis. This will save you a significant amount of time at the end and make things more manageable. It is also likely to help improve the chances of you being published by the end of your PhD.

Another way to take advantage of this drive is to seek out as many skills as possible. One of the best ways to set yourself up for PhD success is to make yourself as employable as possible. This isn’t just in the context of academia, it’s in the context of all industries and jobs. When it comes to the end of your PhD and if you are met with the idea to career change, your transferable skills will be the best way to do that. If you’ve intentionally sought out additional skills during your PhD, then this will only put you at an advantage at the end. Similarly, even if you want to stay in academia, having a broad set of skills will help keep you competitive and improve the chances of you finding a post-doc or other academic positions. Remember, skills are also important, not just your PhD output. Afterall, a PhD is a training programme.

Finally, the only other thing you should focus on in your PhD first year is the upgrade. Generally speaking, at least in the UK, PhD students must sit what’s known as an ‘upgrade’ at roughly the 6-8month mark. This is where you must provide a proposal and sit a ‘mini viva’ to a panel just to ensure you have thought out the rest of your research. This is designed to help give you feedback, consider ideas that you might not have thought of, and most importantly, make sure you’re actually producing work.

Almost every PhD student passes their upgrade so it’s really nothing to worry about. But it is your first key deliverable and deadline to meet, so keeping this in your focus in the beginning is advised. Having said that however, if you focus on the points above, such as writing and skills development you’ll have tangible things to present in your upgrade – helping to improve the chances of you passing/upgrading to a full time PhD student. If you happen to start writing a paper in the first few months – even if it’s just a literature review or an introduction to a paper, this can be included or adapted for your upgrade.

To recap, there’s a lot to take in during your PhD first year and it can be an adjustment period. Here we recommend that you set yourself good working habits particularly around work-life balance, working through imposter syndrome as quickly as possible, trying to build a rapport and understand your supervisor, taking advantage of your motivation and enthusiasm by writing, acquire skills, and to focus on your upgrade or other key deadlines. If you stick to these, you’re bound to make a great start!  

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