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Top ten things you need to know before starting your PhD

All the advice detailed below comes from the ARIES 2 and 4 cohorts based on what they wish they had known before starting their PhDs, in the hopes of helping new PhD students find their way and feel reassured that everyone struggles when first embarking on this journey.


1. You deserve to be here


A lot of people applied for your project, but you got the position so remember that! This is something you will need to be reminded of throughout your PhD, not just in your first year. There will be moments when you will question “Am I the right person for the job?”, “Did they make a mistake in accepting me?” or “I don’t know what I’m doing, should I even be here?” These doubts are normal. Everyone struggles with imposter syndrome; even your supervisors and esteemed academics still struggle with it from time to time. The best thing you can do is talk to other people about it because everyone will have experienced it or will be experiencing it at the same time as you, and there is great comfort in knowing you are not going through something alone.


2. A PhD is not worth getting behind on life


Doing a PhD is a great adventure, but don’t lose sight of your other interests just because the PhD takes up a lot of your time. There’s more to life than your PhD, it does not define who you are. Make sure to keep up hobbies outside it or discover new ones! It’s important to still enjoy life beyond the project in whatever way works for you, and it’s crucial to set time aside for this – it’ll keep you sane!


3. Every project is different


It’s very easy to fall into the trap of endless comparison with your peers in terms of where you are at with your PhD. It’s important to remember that every PhD journey and timescale is different. For example, some people’s projects sprint first and then burn out, while for others it might be more back-ended. It is normal to spend the first year learning the subject area and the key skills that you will need to pursue the rest of the project. For some, they will be given data by their supervisors to analyse at the start of their project, whereas for others they will focus on gathering literature and exploring the different theories and ideas behind the subject first. It’s impossible to compare between projects as they all have different foci and therefore the pace and direction will vary.


4. It is not a linear process


When you start your PhD, the project seems well defined and structured based off what’s written in the proposal you applied for. However, in reality the project is much less planned than the proposal suggests, and it is not uncommon for much of the original plan to be unworkable or to fall through. The proposal is a set of ideas and perhaps some mechanics for how to explore those ideas based on what your supervisors came up with, but a large part of doing a PhD is about taking ownership over the direction and scope of the project. Especially at the beginning, it can be very difficult to stand up for your ideas and lead the way in shaping your project as you feel that your supervisors are the experts. But this does change, and as you familiarise yourself with your research area you will be in a better position to understand where you want the project to go. At the end of the day, it is your PhD that you are committing several years to, so it needs to be something you are both interested in and passionate about.

It’s okay for the project to change as it develops, even in the latter stages. You can’t always predict the direction that the focus will take as the data will drive this for you to some extent. It’s also okay to not know your research area when you start as some people may have prior knowledge when applying and some don’t because they’re moving into a new area that differs from their previous experience. Again, try not to compare your progress to someone else’s as there are a multitude of factors at play.


5. Timing is everything


Whether you’ve come from industry or straight from another degree, adjusting to the structure (or lack of) in a PhD can be difficult. Take time to figure out how you want to structure your day and what works best for you as there is no set way of doing this. Again, try not to compare your daily routine to that of others as people work differently. Also, it is normal for some periods of time to be less productive, or completely unproductive, compared to others, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Taking breaks throughout your day are important but also make sure to book time off – it is there for a reason! You will need time to completely unwind and not think about your PhD from time to time and taking these breaks is strongly encouraged. Dealing with the guilt of taking time off can be difficult, but remember that allowing yourself space to relax is important for your mental health and it will positively impact your PhD and reduce the risk of a burn out.


As part of your PhD, you will also need to engage in some admin. This will vary given your particular situation as international students will need to complete extra documentation in line with visa requirements. You will have to complete regular reviews of the formal meetings held with your supervisory team and to reflect on the work you have completed since the last one. Every time you use the funds associated with your project (and others such as ARIES), you will need to complete reimbursement requests. Similarly, you will need to complete a Training Needs Assessment (TNA) form several times throughout your PhD. All of these admin jobs take time, and it is therefore crucial to ensure that you factor these into your time management plan.


Regardless of what kind of data you are handling, give yourself time to organise it into folders so you know where to find it, and back it up! Another task that you will need to consider (although probably not in your first year) is that writing and submitting papers takes more time and mental capacity than you realise, so give yourself plenty of time to do this. As you progress on your PhD journey you will be presented with several opportunities that will complement your personal and professional development. It’s very easy to want to say “yes” to everything that comes your way for fear of missing out – and definitely do make the most of these opportunities – but also know when to say “no” because you simply do not have the time or mental capacity to juggle everything.


6. Getting to grips with your supervisory team


The student-supervisor relationship is a unique one and can be difficult to navigate at first. Supervisors should be mentors more than supervisors in that you are viewed more as colleagues rather than there being a strict student/teacher dynamic. This is because you will be learning from each other. Especially as you make the project your own, you will increasingly become the expert and there will be a shift compared to how the relationship started out.


Every student-supervisory relationship is different, and it is important to set expectations for what you want to get out of the relationship, how you want to be supported, what help you might need, how often you want to meet etc., early on in your PhD. It is necessary to set boundaries through discussions of expectations and this can be uncomfortable at first but will facilitate a fruitful relationship that benefits you both. Some people will have only two or three supervisors but you can have many more than that so it can feel challenging to try and accommodate so many views on your work. If there are competing views this is something to discuss with your primary supervisor and it should be between the supervisors to come to a consensus rather than to put you in the middle of it.


Having several conversations about what it is that you want to get out of the PhD is also important to ensure that your supervisory team can support you in meeting your needs. A PhD is a training exercise first and foremost and cannot simply be distilled into the process of writing a thesis and becoming a ‘Doctor’. The outcome of a PhD is in large part about your own personal development. This will look different for everyone, so think carefully about what it is you want to get out of the process and remember that publications are not the only measure of success!


7. Build connections


Your supervisory team makes up only a fraction of your network. You will need to invest time and energy into building a community around you both directly related to your PhD and outside it. Networking can seem really daunting, especially if you’ve moved to a new country or city and have to build a network from scratch, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Networking can be as simple as going for a coffee or dropping an email to an author of a paper you really enjoyed so that you can get to know them better. People are very receptive to getting to know each other and building a community, so get involved with your research group, ARIES cohort (if applicable), office mates and everyone beyond that. Making connections will transform your PhD so invest time in making them as they may lead to new opportunities and help shape your project. Attending conferences and joining learned societies are great places to meet people in your field beyond your institution to foster connections more broadly.

But your network should not be solely for professional reasons, and it is important to have people in your life that you can turn to when you need support and being able to ask for that can be difficult, but it is vital. Keeping in contact with friends and family already in your circle is not always easy but try to find the time to maintain these relationships as they matter beyond your PhD. Importantly, have people around you that you can have fun with around your work schedule!


8. Use a toolkit of resources


It can take time to figure out how best you learn, so allow yourself the opportunity to explore different ways of getting to grips with a topic. It can often feel like papers and other academic texts are the only resources you have to hand to help you understand a topic. Don’t be afraid to use multiple different kinds of resources to help you understand something. Some people are visual learners and need to watch a video or have someone demonstrate how a technique is performed before they are able to do it. Sometimes academic texts can be poorly written and convoluted so it can be difficult to understand even the basic premise of what is being discussed. Have a look for TedTalks or podcasts or any other alternative media that can help you understand it better so that you can better approach the text. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to explain something to you and if you don’t get it the first time, then perhaps they can try and explain it in another way?


9. Allow yourself to fail


Academia, like many sectors, can be extremely competitive even if this competition is measured by different metrics. Because you are surrounded by people who are valued for their intellectual ability, it can create an atmosphere where if you don’t understand something, or have not got the accolades that people associate with academics, it somehow makes you feel inadequate. Part of the learning process involves moments where you feel ‘stupid’ or ask ‘dumb’ questions but how else will you learn? No one expects you to know everything when you start, and you certainly won’t know everything when you finish either – no one ever can! It’s okay to make mistakes and get things wrong, it’s part of the learning process and alongside this it is important that you ask for support when you feel you need it. Your supervisory team’s primary role is to provide you with support, so use them! But there are also other people and services you can go to for a range of needs, so explore these options and discuss your needs with your supervisors so that you can get the help you need.


10. Keep going, stay focused, and enjoy the process!


You will have moments where you feel swamped with work, demotivated and emotionally and physically exhausted doing a PhD but the key thing is to not give up in spite of this. As with anything, there are waves of motivation and productivity just as there are lows when you may lack motivation or simply procrastinate. It’s fine and normal, so don’t worry! Focus on the end goal and make sure that this is something you are passionate about. It can be easy to let setbacks hold you back in the long run, but it is worth it in the end. Most importantly, enjoy the process! There’s nothing quite like doing a PhD. Now is your opportunity to deepen and widen your understanding of something you’re really interested in and are passionate about so try not to lose sight of that.

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