Getting started with your PhD

A sandy track runs through the middle of grassland with a blue sky beyond. It reads 'Getting started with your PhD'.This blog post goes with my webinar for jobs.ac.uk entitled ‘Getting started with your PhD’ presented on 06.12.23.

The webinar was based on my work training PhD supervisors; supervising PhDs; and my experiences as a self-funding part-time and chronically sick PhD candidate. It also drew upon the many questions sent in advance of the webinar by attendees.

You’ve started a PhD? Let your adventure begin!
Congratulations! You’re doing a PhD. That’s a great feeling. You’ve already achieved so much to be here.

At the start of your PhD and throughout your PhD journey it can help to return to this feeling of pride and excitement.

Before you go any further, write yourself a letter or record yourself sharing your reflections about beginning your PhD. This can be a lovely thing to look back on when you complete your PhD. And, pragmatically, can identify core issues you can share with your supervisor.

Some prompts you may want to use to help include your answers to these questions:

  • Why do you want to do a PhD?
  • Why this research question or topic?
  • What’s your goal once you’ve got your PhD?
  • Where might your PhD lead you?

You can also include a description about yourself. Are you….

  • Full or part time?
    Working alongside a PhD in a job that relates to it (or is nothing to do with it)?
  • Funded or self-funding?
  • Coming straight from an undergraduate or master’s degree, or have you had some time off between studying?Note also whether there are any support needs you might have during the course of your studies (particularly in this first year).

For example, you might be a parent or carer; be disabled or chronically sick; or have other things happening in your life that may impact on your ability to focus and study for your PhD.You may not feel able to disclose everything to your supervisor right away, but you may want to alert the doctoral programme/office or someone else within the university who can be aware and advise you.

Are there likely to be any blocks or barriers you could foresee (for example a house move, or knowing you struggle with reading or analysis). These may need making allowances for or ensuring from the outset you’ll get additional training and assistance.

Finally, note your feedback requirements. Some people need information from their supervisor and doctoral office/programme in writing, or as a checklist, others like comments on drafts. You may require clear instructions, a boot-camp style motivation, or a lot of understanding and gentle support. All of these approaches are valid and it can really help you and your supervisor be aware of what helps you best to focus, follow instruction, and feel comfortable with feedback and criticism.

Start a diary now
This may serve several purposes

  • Essential planning (we’ll come back to this)
  • Record keeping, milestones and deadlines
  • Reflections on how you feel
  • Depending on the kind of PhD you’re doing this may be formalised (and electronic) where you need to log daily activities, supervisory meetings, targets and goals achieved.

Alternatively you may prefer to document your progress (and how you feel about it) in your own reflexive journal that can be done online or pen and paper.Some people get creative with video diaries, social media updates, scrapbooking, photography, embroidery, or lego. You can use all these and more to show how you feel, what you’re doing, and any targets and milestones.Some universities have competitions every year to ‘Bake your PhD’, ‘Paint your PhD’ or ‘Dance your PhD’ – finding ways to represent your learning in innovative and sometimes silly ways while also building a sense of community.

A diary not only keeps things in order and tracks progress but also means as your PhD progresses you can look back and have a guide to what you were doing and why. Because you think you’ll remember, but you may well forget!

What should I expect from a PhD?
Every university and doctoral programme and person is different so please ensure you know what your institution is offering and adhere to their requests and deadlines.

Information for PhD candidates should be either on the doctoral programme/office’s web pages or located in a specific learning portal or departmental page.

Often stress happens because people aren’t sure what to expect or have unrealistic expectations about what a PhD involves and the amount of tuition, instruction and assistance they will receive.

It’s also common people assume there is not going to be any help offered, or should they ask for help it’s a sign they’re not suited to doctoral study. Always ask your supervisor and doctoral programme/office as well as peers. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign you’re an efficient researcher.

A PhD is a partially guided formalised study process with some instruction for core skills but you are expected to be an independent learner. The longer the PhD progresses the more confident you should feel (until just before the viva when it’s very normal to be very uncertain – this feeling will pass!).

What will a PhD be like?
Your PhD should be exciting, demanding, confidence building, and enjoyable. It should extend your knowledge and skills and open up future opportunities. And be a time to grow personally and professionally, to find out just what you’re capable of. Alongside making new friends and exploring new ideas and places.

Increasingly PhD students, particularly on social media, compete over who can have the worst time. It is true that unfortunately some people have negative experiences or poor supervision. However, this should not be the norm.

Nor should it be the case that your PhD causes or worsen mental distress. If you’re concerned about your health ensure you get support from the outset, don’t wait for problems to become a crisis or make yourself sick through overwork or stress.

You should not work in environments that are unsafe or bullying, nor where you’re encouraged (or pushed) for the PhD to be all consuming.

Your PhD should not get in the way of hobbies, free time, socialising, friendships and relationships.

Candidates used to be told suffering is a badge of honour or that an authentic PhD experience is to be endlessly overworked, lonely and stressed. This is bad advice – whether it comes from a supervisor or a peer. Ignore it if you hear it, or if you feel it’s part of a more toxic environment seek advice (more sources of support to do this coming up shortly).

Your PhD is a form of training. It’s a job, a step to progress to other careers (that may or may not be academic). It will be part of your life for some time. But it is not your entire life. Other things are more important and come first – particularly your safety and wellbeing.

What can I expect from my supervisor?
Supervisors vary in their style of approach and focus. Some are very nurturing, others concentrate on you getting your research done. Some focus on pastoral care and career development, others guide you while expecting other parts of the doctoral programme to cover off training.

There are now standards of conduct and activity for supervisors in most institutions, alongside better training and accountability. This means you should not have supervisors that are absent for long periods, inconsistent, who bully, or who are overly invested and controlling.

Supervision standards across postgraduate degree programmes within and between institutions globally should be similar to ensure fair treatment for all and appropriate preparation for future careers.

You can expect your supervisor to want to

  • Find out about you (see above for more on how to share information with them)
  • Understand your research question
  • Guide you through your PhD (from the start, to the end, and beyond!)
  • Question, stretch and sometimes challenge or disagree with you
  • Meet regularly (how much may depend on your needs, their availability, where you are in the PhD, and regulations set out by your institution)
  • Formalise interactions via records and logs
  • To become less expert in the topic than you over time

Ideally you should have two supervisors (or possibly three). This would be a primary and secondary supervisor who can share the job of supporting you and also bring different perspectives to supervisory practice.In the UK there are criteria for good supervisory practice and it may interest you to see what is expected from a supervisor.

Your grad school (aka doctoral office or programme) responsibilities
The graduate office oversees and enhances what your supervisor is doing. Their job is to support postgraduate students, which they may do in the following ways:

  • Organising training and career development sessions
  • Running peer/mentoring programmes
  • Hosting resources, toolkits and other essential information for postgraduate study
  • Explaining (and enforcing) rules and regulations
  • Signposting you to support (e.g. the library, welfare etc)
  • Organise meet ups and socials for postgraduates
  • Supervise your supervisor (including training, checking they’re doing their job, and managing complaints if they are not)
  • Explaining and helping you meet targets
  • Managing situations if you need an extension, time off, deferral or any other kind of assistance

Although both your graduate school/office and supervisor(s) can offer guidance on your studies and signpost you to additional sources of training and support, neither are a replacement for therapeutic care or other kind of advice (e.g. medical or legal).If you need this, it is best organised separate from your supervisor (in or outside the uni) but you should let your graduate office know if you are struggling and/or need support.

Remember to share positive things as well as worries or concerns. And, if anything does go wrong (which it very often will, because that’s life) tell someone sooner rather than later. This is particularly important with big worries, major life issues, or serious health or personal problems. The university may not be able to fix them but it can help support in other ways (including time off).

If you are struggling with your workload, research difficulty, if there’s been a mistake or problem, or you feel you can’t cope, again this needs reporting as the quicker someone knows about it the faster they can find ways to help you and find solutions. This isn’t just during your first year, but through the PhD experience (including fieldwork or work placements).

If you feel unable to report issues, or your PI or supervisor IS the source of your distress, this needs reporting elsewhere – the doctoral office, another colleague, professional body, or your funder.

Student’s Union or other unions (if available) and PGR (postgraduate) networks can also be a good source of advice and a sounding board if you are struggling.

How can I manage my time?
Your diary comes into play again here.

Before you do anything else make sure you block holidays and rest periods and note non-negotiable time off (particularly if sick, or are a parent/carer, or need to observe religious festivals).

Next, check what the doctoral programme requires of you in your first year. There will be set events, milestones and tasks which you will be required to attend or achieve. These key dates may include your PhD upgrade, regular supervisory meetings, submitting drafts of work, or completing key tasks (e.g. your draft literature review). Plan backwards from the end of year target (upgrade or similar). What are the skills you need to learn and jobs you need to do to help you get from here to there?

Identify what training and support is available (from your university, funder, or other academic sources online (see the end of this handout for links). Training and reflection time is a core part of starting (and continuing) your PhD and you may need to focus on core skills because you feel you’re out of practice or perhaps they are new to you. If Covid and lockdowns impacted on your ability to do practical work this may also need developing and strengthening now. Ask your doctoral programme/office and library for help if you have additional training needs.

Set aside time in the early weeks and months to revisit core skills (particularly literature reviewing, reading, writing, note taking). You may find these are different at PhD level, or there are new techniques you can try to help navigate the large amount of reading and writing you’ll be doing.

Pick reference management software and get recommendations from other people about which ones they find useful. You may need to try some different types until you find one that suits you best.

Create a study schedule particularly if you are part time, working, a parent or carer. This may be set work at set times or might need to be flexible if you are doing shift work or juggling other responsibilities. Avoid simply putting ‘PhD’ into your calendar or planner. Instead set out over the year, months, weeks and days what jobs need doing and allocate time for them.

You may find using time planners help and your university might provide these, but if not Hugh Kearn’s book Planning your PhD can be invaluable He also has free planning tools to download.

Remember, everything takes longer than you think! So give yourself more time for all activities even if you don’t think you’ll need it. You will get quicker and better with practice.

It is common to get overwhelmed or be distracted. You may find some days (or hours) you’re super confident, others you don’t think you can do it. You may overestimate how much time you have. Again, breaking down specific tasks and noting how long they’ll take (asking others if you’re unsure) can make it easier to prioritise what needs to be done, by when, and with what additional support or training.

All of these things are part of the PhD. You’re not supposed to know how to do this now, you are supposed to learn it during the course of your PhD.

The first year is to explore, reflect, possibly change direction, feel on top of the world and completely stuck. Some of it’s fun, some of it’s frustrating, and a lot of it is a chore.

If you’re disabled, struggle with executive functioning, and/or a parent or carer this may be particularly challenging. You can – and should – request accommodations and understanding. Network with others who’re in similar positions. This may be especially important if you struggle with executive functioning, memory, or focus. If your university has a Disability Officer they may be able to suggest tools, techniques, or practical support and help you request accommodations.

Where else can I get help?

 

o  Supervisor/manager

o  Graduate office (school or programme)

o  Pastoral care, guidance, welfare, or counselling

o  International Student Office

o  Disabled Student Office

o  Student Support Services

o  Campus healthcare (or your doctor)

o  Chaplaincy

o  Library

o  Food bank

o  PGR Networks

 

 

o  Security

o  Mentors and representatives

o  Funders

o  Ombuds

o  Mediators

o  Third party monitors

o  Human Resources

o  Occupational Health

o  Proactive or Environmental Investigations

o  Witnesses, allies and upstanders

o  Societies, Hubs, and Clubs

Depending on your institution you may have many of these places to access, or very few. If you are in a LMIC country remember you can get research advice, support, mentoring and free courses via Author Aid.

Other resources to help on your PhD journey
My book Being Well In Academia: Ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected has lots of practical advice on navigating work and study, getting help, and keeping going.

It’s part of the Insider Guides to Success in Academia series of books which include texts for part-time and International doctorate students and invaluable guides on everything from writing skills to navigating conferences.

I’d also recommend reading the following books (ask your library if they stock them):

The PhD Journey by Gladys Ngetich

Getting your PhD: a practical insider’s guide by Harriet Churchill and Teela Sanders

The PhD Experience: an insider’s guide by Evelyn Barron

PhD by Published Work: a practical guide for success by Susan Smith

There are an increasing number of books to help decide if a PhD is right for you, navigating the PhD, and specific PhD skills. Ask your librarian if you would like more recommendations and use these books to direct questions and conversations with your supervisor.

In addition, you may find the following resources and experts helpful, particularly their blogs, books, and tips on social media.

Viva Survivors 

The Thesis Whisperer

The PhD Liferaft

The Professor Is In

Tara Brabazon

Pat Thompson

Helen Kara

Raul Pacheco Vega

Your university or professional organisations per your subject profession may host postgraduate (PGR) networks and events (on and offline). While academic publishers such as SAGE, Routledge, Palgrave, Bloomsbury and Polity Press have resources for research skills generally and PhDs specifically (search via keywords and sign up for email updates).

Good luck in your adventures!
May your PhD journey be exciting and enjoyable. Remember, you’ve chosen to do this, so make it something to treasure and treat yourself with kindness throughout.

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