Starting your PhD can feel like a daunting, exciting and special time. They’ll be so much to think about – has all the paperwork been completed? Which desk is yours? Where’s the best place to get coffee? You’ll also need to think about how to best get going with your multi-year research commitment. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
1. Start Writing
You’ll no doubt get to writing up your research as papers for peer-review towards the latter half of your PhD but definitely get into the habit of regularly writing up your notes from day one. This could be something like writing a diary of your thoughts every day or a summary of your week on a Sunday – whatever works for you, as long as you can be consistent about it. For lab-based projects, in particular, you’ll need to keep a lab book which keeps a record of your experimental workflow; important for you, your supervisor and your examiners to refer back to.
Writing regularly early in your PhD will help you develop your scientific writing skills and help you think about your work analytically from early on. Along the way, you’ll also have written useful content that could be transferred directly into journal manuscripts and future grant proposals.
2. Know Your Research Field
A key element of your PhD is to develop knowledge that is novel and adds to the body of work by others in your research field. You need to have a good understanding of what others have already done and what new things are being worked on – this single best way to do this is to read papers. Lots of papers!
Staying up to date with current knowledge by reading papers will help you ensure the novelty of your work and avoid unnecessarily duplicating what is already known. You’ll also get a feel of the key journals that your peers publish in and the expectations of writing style, content and format for these papers.
3. Read More than Just Papers
Doing a PhD is an enormous commitment; one that will give you challenges in managing your time, money, motivation and energy. Reading papers related to your research is essential however looking into other material could be useful in helping you manage your life during the 3-5 years of research. Good resources to start at include Google Scholar and ResearchGate.
You’ll find there are A LOT of books published on the topics of productivity and general life skills so choose wisely. Better options may be to follow blogs and even listen to podcasts to pick up tips and advice on getting through your PhD smoothly.
4. Get Feedback
Whether it’s through meetings with your supervisor or discussions over coffee with your colleagues in the lab, getting regular feedback on your ideas and work is essential to keeping you on track with your project. It’s all too easy in this type of independent research to get lost down a rabbit hole which may not lead to the results you’re after. Sense checking with people you trust is always a good idea.
5. Set Mini Milestones
The big milestones will be clear for you: (1) pass the upgrade viva to transfer from being an MPhil student to a PhD student (a common approach in UK universities) and then (2) pass your PhD viva! A lot of things need to happen for you to hit these milestones and so setting smaller short-term goals can help both with focus and motivation – it’s all about the mini-wins! This could be things like your first meeting with your supervisor, your first abstract submission to a conference or collecting your first series of experimental data.