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Starting your PhD: Views from the foothills…


Starting your PhD: Views from the foothills…

Congratulations! You’re starting your PhD. Right now you are probably feeling swept away on a wave of excitement and shiny new stationary, but you may also be feeling a bit nervous and wondering, so…what now?

We asked our intrepid team of IHAWKES PhD bloggers, five things they had wondered when they were taking their first tentative steps into PhDhood.

1. Reading: There’s so much to do, how can I keep up with it and how do I know if I’m doing enough?

Olivia: There will always be another new paper to read and it can be really hard to keep up. Why not set up search alerts on Web of Knowledge for key words or important authors in the area. That way, the information comes to you!

David: You will also stay ‘current’ by speaking to colleagues, following key authors on Twitter, and attending relevant conferences.

Matt: Try to do 30 minutes a day or a couple of hours a week on Google Scholar or another relevant digital library. It doesn’t need to be a systematic search but you will gradually accumulate a lot of knowledge.

2. I was always one of those last minute people during my undergraduate/masters degree. Can I still wing it?

Anna: It’s going to be impossible to do that with a PhD – it’s a pretty large piece of work! If you’re someone who tends to leave things until the last minute it might be useful to set up a series of deadlines to make sure you’re keeping on track.

Matt: The difference between PhDs and UG/masters degrees is that there often aren’t clear deadlines. As long as you set these for yourself and stick to them then doing it last minute can work.

David: Hmmm… in a word, no! A PhD is very much your own – you will get out what you put in. If you try to ‘wing it’, you are unlikely to come away with a PhD at the end of the day.

3. How many hours a day should I work?

David: Get into good habits of working on your PhD even if you don’t feel at your most creative – you can also do more administrative or process-based tasks until that creative spark returns

Anna: There are always going to be times when you end up working late into the evening, or over the weekend. However, the more you can treat your PhD like it’s a job, the more chance you’ll have of maintaining a social life and feeling like you’re being productive.

Olivia: The key thing really is sustainability- you may be pulling 10 hour days now and flying through your work, but in 2 weeks time, will you be flat on your face? It’s also about productivity too: do you ‘work’ for 7 hours a day, but only really produce anything for 5 hours? Ditch the extra 2 hours and do something else.

4. Should I come to the office every day? I hear lots of people do this working from home lark.

Rosie: This might need to be negotiated with your supervisor. Generally you should work wherever you will be most productive but don’t forget that an office environment can also provide social support from other students.

David: There are pros and cons (mainly various distractions) to both. Many people find being flexible – perhaps working at home one day a week – is the best approach.

Matt: At first, it might help to go into the office to give yourself a routine. After a while though you should have the drive to complete the tasks you’ve set – you’ll be able to sit at your laptop for hours at home, leaving The Wire boxset untouched!

5. Should I ‘manage’ my supervisor?

Rosie: Yes. Set out your expectations of them from day one, and ask them directly for their expectations of you. Write these down and make a formal agreement but revisit this if things change.

David: It’s good if you can write an agenda for your meetings and email it to your supervisors beforehand. Similarly, it’s a good habit to circulate minutes of your meetings afterwards, for your records but also to check you’re all on the same page.

Olivia: I would say learn your supervisors, rather than manage them. Do you get a faster response if you email them first thing in the morning? Is the decision making process smoother if you give your supervisor a list of possible options?

Whilst we really hope some of these pointers are helpful to you as you set out on your PhD journey, we know that the internet is awash with advice about the best way to keep up with reading or the best way to organise your writing. The true secret? There is no one PhD ring to rule them all; it’s about what works for you and finding your own best way of doing things. Oh, and asking the final year buried under a mound of paper in the corner, they’re a goldmine of information! Good luck!

Anna, David, Matt, Olivia and Rosie are all PhD students within the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow. They blog at IHAWKES about research and methodology, health-related current affairs and the PhD experience.

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