5 things to do in your first week

Last week Lucinda posted this question on my Facebook wall

“I’m planning on starting my PhD on 5th March. Do you have any tips on what I should be doing before starting and what do I expect when I start?”

It’s a good blog topic. In fact, I was a bit surprised to find I hadn’t written about it yet. That first couple of weeks of study can be confusing. Without the structure of an undergraduate course and other classmates to guide you, simple things like finding the closest bathroom to your office can be challenging. Or you may find you don’t actually have an office at all! Roaming the halls and haunting the library with your book bag and a laptop is hardly conducive to settling in well.

It does help if you start out with a checklist of sorts. In the interest of brevity I have stuck to my top five tips, but I’m hoping some of the helpful and experienced people who I know read the blog will add extra ones in the comments section.

1) Get thee to Facebook (even if you hate it)

In a recent study of research students we did at RMIT we found that students who were more socially connected to others were better at solving problems with their candidature, so there is a clear incentive to get to know people. Of course, people are your best guide to any new place, but the challenge for you in your first couple of weeks is to FIND the people with the knowledge.

The most obvious place to start the search is with your supervisor. Ask them how to find out about the department social functions; you will probably find that there are more than you have the time or wherewithal to attend. As the mother of a young child I was unable to participate in the regular Friday drinks in my department and consequently always felt a little sidelined. If you are a part time student or a parent you will know what I mean.

I found that Facebook came to my rescue here. A lot of people don’t like Facebook for various reasons, but I found following the minutia of  other student’s lives and doing some virtual whinging was enough to make me feel involved. It also helped me to get to know some of the other people well enough to do small talk when we did meet – and, now we have finished, it has been a way to keep touch as we move on with our lives post PhD.

2) Make friends with administrators

Find out the names of the people responsible for taking care of students in your department, in particular the administrators. These are non academic staff who are responsible for looking after the management and data entry for research and researchers. At RMIT we call them “HDR administrators”. These people know EVERYTHING there is to know about the endless paperwork that pervades academia; they can usually point you in the right direction if you encounter a road block or need extra resources.

It’s a thankless job and not that well paid. Like childcare, nursing or the other caring professions you have to really love it to do it well. This might explain why this people are, almost without exception, some of the nicest, most helpful people you will ever find in academia. Engage in a charm offensive – know them by name, buy them coffees and Christmas presents. This effort will be more than repaid believe me.

3) Do a library tour and make an appointment with your Liaison librarian

Librarians are multi-talented people. You may not have had much contact with them during your undergraduate years and therefore might not be aware of the range of things they can help you with. Although Google scholar is brilliant, it is not, by far, the only or best tool for finding references; librarians can introduce you to the full suite of resources.

At RMIT we have a group of people called ‘liaison librarians’ who are specialists in discipline areas; what they don’t know about database searching isn’t worth knowing. As a research student you can make an appointment with them and get some quality one-on-one database nerd time. Use this service to help you search more effectively and set up alerts so information is pushed at you with minimal effort.

4) Crank up that software.

The liaison librarian will be able to advise and train you to use standard bibliographic software. At a minimum you should get to know the software which the library supports (probably Endnote), but there is more that you can do to get yourself organised.

The internet is truly a treasure trove of handy software solutions to the problem of keeping track of your information and making sense of it – and the vast majority of it is entirely free (I am currently writing a book about this topic with Dr Sarah Quinnell of Networked Researcher fame, so I could bore for Australia on this topic). Last week I asked people on Twitter what free software they used and came up with a list of 42 applications and sites. By far the most popular were: Dropbox, Evernote, Google Docs, Mendeley and Slideshare. Set up an account with each one and have a play to see if they will work for you.

5) Don’t panic

This is more of a general comment: it’s easy to psyche yourself out and start thinking you can’t do this thing.  At BBQs and parties you will regularly hear things like “wow! You’re doing a PhD?! I could never do that” or, worse: “So and so started their PhD and never finished; I heard it broke up their marriage”. Don’t buy into the PhD Hype.

It’s likely that few, if any, of your family and friends have done a PhD and therefore think it’s a much bigger deal than it is. It is a big deal, but not impossible. I firmly believe that if you get into a PhD program you can finish – on time with your sanity intact  – if you are organised and persistent.

So that’s my top five – how about you? What advice would you give to all the PhD newbies who are starting this year?

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51 thoughts on “5 things to do in your first week

  1. These are great suggestions. I would also add to #1 that even if you’re just starting out, always have a 2- or 3-sentence answer ready for the inevitable, “What are you working on right now?” Even if you are unsure or might change your mind, be able to say that you’re interested in X or are reading such-and-such book or article. It proves that you take your scholarship seriously and it’s also a way to make connections. Many people have told me “I should introduce you to my friend who writes about a similar thing.” This has led me to connect with several people I would otherwise not have met. (Plus, having some department cocktail party conversation material always comes in handy).

  2. I agree A.L. McMichael – and the added bonus of having such an answer ready it is forces you to crystalise/summarise/focus your thinking right now (on what you are thinking about right now). A bit like the ‘write 250 words everyday’ thing – sometimes it might look stunning (sometimes complete and utter rubbish) and you won’t use all of it, but it helps get it out. Helps sort out some of the mess that invariably occupies your head, and if you are lucky helps you see the way forward a little better.
    I do like the added potential of possible connections…

  3. Here are my 5;

    1. Make friends with fellow PHD students in the department, especially those one year ahead of you. They will hold your hand and guide you.

    2. Chose the ‘meanest’ Supervisor. Every department has that dreaded Professor who goes through your work with a fine toothcomb and ‘butchers’ your draft to shreds. If you are given a choice on who to supervise you, dont think twice, that is the man/woman. You will thank me later.

    3. Be strong (for lack of a better word). A PhD is no child’s play. Emotions will run high especially when you are bending backwards to meet deadlines. If you are faint hearted, chances are high that you will fall through the cracks.

    4. Get to Twitter. Twitter has overtaken Facebook as the #1 preferred social networking site – as I see it. Information is shared realtime using hastags. There are a lot of times the #phdchat hashtag has saved me. I identified few scholars whom I DM’ed and voila, trouble no more!

    5. Start reading widely. When I joined postgrad here in Norway ( I am an International student), I started going to seminars/conferences/workshops with other professionals. During the breaks, when we gathered for tea/lunch we discussed non-related issues from why Somalia is unstable to why Bergen is warmer than St Petersburg yet we are in the same latitude (geographically). These are topics that are beyond Health Promotion (which I am studying) but I had to get some books off the shelves to be at par with my fellow students & supervisors. You dont want to be boring when other people are having fun, do you?

  4. All I can say is, find out what your project is ACTUALLY about. Every single detail. This is going to take time, maybe even a year, but keep pestering your supervisor about the finer details of the project and what they are wanting to see from you in the end. This sounds like it would be really obvious, but for my project, I didn’t realise how many “unknown” components there were. I’m in Biotech and I had zero starting materials which is usually rare. No “hand-me-down” genes/constructs/DNA, no one else doing anything remotely similar to me, and worst of all, it’s a commercial project so I couldn’t even really talk about it. It’s obviously not impossible to do, but it’s important for your mental health as well as for your project, to realise these speed bumps will occur and to at least get organised so that you don’t waste the first 18 months trying to source the organism from the environment before finally just getting the genes synthesised by a company. :D, but really :\

  5. 1. Have a contingency plan – if you get cold feet what are you going to do?
    2. LOVE the admin people – they will save your bacon more than once.
    3. Makes friends with the other academics – especially those who are newish/starting out. They are the ones (along with your cohort) who will pull you out of the black funks.
    4. Play around with note taking and filing systems….find something that works for you that others can understand so that if something happens your work makes sense.
    5. FIND/CLAIM desk space and make it YOURS. This may involve trips to the stationary store.

  6. I would actually recommend to get OFF Facebook, Twitter and cancel your phone contract.

    Other people will just distract you and steal your time. Why should they know the questions to answers that you are planning to spend 3-5 years on exploring?
    A PhD is not a group effort.

    • Andreas, it may not be a group effort, but I think that many people get good support from other people, also feedback and all kinds of help that you mightn’t anticipate. There’s been a PhD thesis done in Aus on how much support students get from people who ere not their supervisors, and what they can learn from them.

      • Eventhough it is difficult to get quick access to certain type of information by not being on Facebook, I would agree that not being on Facebook and twitter has its own advantages. As a PhD student who used facebook very actively in the first 6 months and then having deactivated the account, I can confidently state that I am not going back.

        My network is small now but really tight! I think thats waht you need during a PhD.

        Ofcourse, I do my fair share of networking at conferences and seminars, but seldom online.

    • Other people who will talk to you and ask questions about your thesis are the MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE to find. Conversations will help you articulate and clarify your own questions and ideas. Cross-fertilisation of ideas can be incredibly profitable. Working in isolation is a ridiculously short-sighted approach.

  7. Try to find an office like this: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/office-in-malta/ – where almost nobody will disturb you. You’ll get done in half the time.

    If you need to get an office at university, try to get one at a department where nobody does anything similar to you. When I was at Law School, I studied best when I was at the Maths Library, because nobody there knew me, everybody thought I looked strange (and there were not as many hot girls to distract me). When I studied at the Law Library on the other hand, people saw what I was studying, came to chat me up, ask about the book, the exam, the paper, the latest Supreme Court ruling et cetera.

  8. Three things that helped me…

    1) Think about a back-up activity that you can go to when feeling stuck — I got this advice from my supervisor and it was a great piece of advice which got me through periods of extreme stuckness! It is all about control… it does help to feel you’re able to control something when the rest seems a mess –I mastered the art of cake baking, and also at some point handcrafted (more like mass produced!!) bead earrings.

    2) Plan a routine from the outset. The PhD provides the most tempting excuse to leave things for tomorrow (and the next day, and then the next!) because three years (just in case, I did my PhD in the UK) seems like a long time. In reality, times flies and panic has a way of sinking in precisely when you realise that you’ve spent several weeks procrastinating. Knowing myself, I decided to get into a routine, which even including writing up a weekly schedule (I even included making lunch, doing laundry and things like that!). It sounds a bit OTT but I recall the feeling of wanting to be as effective as possible with my time because I had other stuff to do. I made the effort whenever I could to include events that involved other people in between morning and afternoon PhD work time to force me a bit to make effective use of my time (the whole thing of not wanting to cancel on people).

    3) Find out about reading or discussion groups that you can join which foster your wider academic interests (even better if they are outside of your department!). I found this helpful mainly because it was a good way to maintain my academic curiosity alive, interact with people without feeling guilty that I was not doing “academic stuff”, and it allowed me some time to step outside of my work for an hour or so on some days, which then helped me to get back to my work with fresh eyes. In one of the groups, members would bring stuff they had written and we would talk about it –I brought some of my writing and it was amazing to have a sounding board for my ideas!

  9. 1. Note down everything you read from day 1, Is till fall into the trap of thinking ‘Oh I’ll remember where that quote/fact came from’ but mostly I obsessed over endnote and my image database and thanked myself later.
    2. Take advantage of anything being run to help you out with your PhD by your graduate school, I would often think I didn’t need the help or that the seminars would be too generic but I always got something out of them – you have more time in your first year to do this.
    3. Agree on making connections with other students, whether virtually or IRL.
    4. Set up a routine, treat it like a job even if you don’t stick to traditional job hours.
    5. All work on the PhD is progress, some work will be more productive but as long as you keep working on something you are moving forward (even when it feels like you are going backwards….)

  10. Great ideas even now down teh track! Thanks everyone! Can I reiterate Twitter for both topic specific feeders of information and support through things like #phdchat. I only recently discovered the Pomodor Technique and now swear by it – especially if you are distracted easily by so many other things! ( I recently wrote about it here on my blog lll feel free to see links etc to free resources: http://www.text-to-me.com/2012/02/beat-social-media-distractions-without.html)

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  12. All great ideas and I am a big supporter of the Twitter idea – #phdchat has been a great help for me. I have 3 more suggestions:

    1. Go and buy a new, portable hard drive big enough to store years of articles, but small enough to carry around with you everyday.
    2. Decide on a system for saving articles, eg I save all articles in this format: Year_surname_topic. I don’t think it really matters on what format you use, as long as you stick with one and save all articles in the same way. That way you can find them again.
    3. Start a spreadsheet, file or folder that is titled, ‘Important stuff that I need to follow up before the end’. This is where you can put all of your ideas, suggestions or bits of advice that people tell you that you know will be important later, but it doesn’t really fit in with what you are doing now.

    • Re. 1 – either that or dropbox! We have a miniscule amount of space available on our work computers, so I decided to use dropbox as my article storage (and onenote) space. The advantage to that is that I can access it on any computer, because I can quite easily use 3 on any given day, and I can read an article on the train on a phone or a tablet. I have at least 200 pdfs saved so far and have used less than 1/4 of the space.

      2 & 3 – Agree completely!

      My own point – choose a referencing system and STICK to it if at all possible. I have been forced to switch from Endnote to Refworks because my university stopped funding it, then found that Refworks wouldn’t work on my home computer, and have only now found a system. I’m dreading having to sort that out…

  13. I totally agree with going to the library. I did that when I started, and five (part time!) years on I can still email her and get a quick reply because we have a good rapport. And definitely, definitely take notes on everything.

    If you like to use a pen-and-paper notebook in supervisions/seminars etc, I have kept one for each year. Everything goes into the one notebook, dated. It is generally the easiest way to find what I want because I can remember the year and then start the hunt from there.

    My partner is ‘doing’ this PhD with me but didn’t choose to sign up for it – so look out for your loved ones and make as many cups of tea as are made for you.

    Realise you will change along the way and likely not be the same person who started out.

  14. 1. Make friends with someone else who has the same supervisor as you. It helps to know if ‘satisfactory’ counts as high praise from your supervisor or if it means that you should be rewriting your draft!

    2. Download an app to restrict access to the internet. The Freedom app is a good one.

    3. If you don’t have an office, arrange study days or sessions with other phd students so that you can work quietly but also socially with set tea breaks

    4. Make friends outside of the academic world. It helps keep you grounded.

    5. Do exercise, especially if your project involves spending most of the day in front of the computer.

  15. I’m a list-y sort of person, so I made a list of everything I knew I had to do in order to finish and (roughly) how long I thought each of these things would take me, i.e. read intro/basic stuff (1st three months), collect data (1 week per site), input data (1 week per site), write lit review (3 months – boy was I wrong), perform stats tests (2 weeks – wrong, but in a good way). Then I drew up a plan of the three years and put all of those little actions into a plan with three month deadlines. It helped that I always knew what I needed to be working on, if I couldn’t do something right then (like my data collection) then I could just shift my calendar around.

    I’m in my third year now, EEEP!!, and have a dedicated plan has helped me immensely. One of my office mates, however, said that having a list of everything he would be doing for three years would have paralysed him; he just wouldn’t be able to get to work knowing how much he had to do and have it broken down like that. He just worked straight through, just always constantly doing something.

    I think one of the most important things you need to do when starting a PhD is sit down, by yourself or with someone who knows you really really well, and figure out what kind of worker/researcher you are. Do you like lists? Do you like having a plan? Do you prefer to work a bit more freely? Do you want your supervisor to give you deadlines or not? Work with them to figure out what works best for you both.

    Doing a PhD is such an individual thing that no one else can really tell you exactly how to do it. It is too long of a process to not be personal about it.

    The other bit of advice I always give new PhDers is that they will, at some point (usually multiple times), flip out about how much they have to do. That is normal. That and spend your first three months doing shotgun reading, just read anything and everything that you think could be important (keep track of it in a biblio programme). You will be glad later on that you have a variety of subjects to reference.

  16. Another brilliant post Inger (and BTW, as one of those HDR Admin folk, have little argument with point 2 ;^). Research degrees ARE huge and evolving beasts of things, but you have limited time and money. So my 5 (with apologies for cliches) are:

    1. Make sure it is only one PhD, not several (they’ll tell you at Confirmation, but keep checking)
    2. Audit your skills early in candidature and attend training (esp. with liaison librarians as mentioned above – in the RHD mine, they are a seam of gold)
    3. Collaborate beyond your project to find the value in/contribute to other researchers/colleagues/students – research is a people game: connect and prosper!
    4. When you struggle with motivation to tackle the heaving enormity of it, remember firstly to break it down to its constituent parts, and secondly that “action begets motivation” not the other way around.
    5. 10% Inspiration; 90% Perspiration rule.

    When all else fails, talk to your RHD Admin/Support people. They will give you sound advice.

    Best of luck.

  17. Great list. I love the comments as well, they all add a lot of great info.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing is that everyone will have an individual list of 5 things they should do based on hindsight at the end of a PhD. Interestingly, these are things we probably would not have thought of at the start. With this in mind, I would say it’s important to stay flexible. Change with the tide and do what works for you. Don’t be afraid to chop and change your list. I think 5 is also a great number as well (despite all the additions in the comments), especially at the start you don’t want to take on too much or become too overwhelmed.

    I was actually talking the other day about what I would do differently at the start. The one thing I would change is starting a personal PhD blog. There are so many amazing student blogs these days. They are great for finding people going through the same thing as you and finding information and support. They are also a great platform to hold yourself accountable for your writing and productivity goals.

    I imagine it would also be really cool to finish a PhD and then go back to look over your blog from start to finish to see the evolution.

    • I totally agree Ben – flexibility is key. I wish I had done a blog too. I’m trying to get a comprehensive list together on the Whisperer of PhD student blogs. You can find them on the right side link bar if you scroll all the way down. If you have one, email me and I will add it.

      • Can I ask how much research information we may reveal in the blog? That is one thing keeps holding me back. I am afraid in that process I will jeopardize my own future.

  18. Good question, probably a blog post topic. I do think that it’s better to have ideas in print than in your head. At least that way if they are ‘stolen’ you can point to your prior claim.

  19. The 5 comments are great.
    I would add ‘write early’ ‘write often’, anything, even if you don’t know what you’re writing about. Writing creates your ideas, articulates your thoughts and improves your writing so as you go along it is much less daunting to rewrite.
    Get organised with sources and paperwork – continually. I cannot overestimate the help that the software program Endnote is in organising.

    Penny6

  20. Can I add to check out professional development opportunies/websites for university staff. At the university I am at students are welcome to attend and they are especially good if you need extra skills using research tools like using SPSS or NVivo. Sometimes you have to pay but it’s usually a little cheaper than going privately.

  21. When you are at the beginning your PhD, lots of people will give you (frequently conflicting) advice on what you need to do to get your PhD. Remember that these things may be true for them, but not necessarily for you. If you actually did all of the things people tell you that are essential for your first year, you’d finish your first year without having time to figure out what YOU need to do.

    So listen to people’s advice – but take it on selectively. Lots of people have finished PhD’s; very few had a dream candidature. A PhD is not about whether you’ll pass, but about whether you’ll finish.The secret is that if you just keep at it you’ll get it done.

    Also, you can’t read everything nor do you need to. It’s a PhD, not a seminal work (sorry to disappoint). Before you read your articles/books etc, put your documents into two piles: ‘Definitely relevant’ and ‘Potentially relevant’. Keep the latter pile to make yourself feel warm in a security blanket of having lots of papers but don’t actually read them – there’ll end up being way too many in the ‘definitely relevant’ pile anyway. (btw, many of those in the definitely relevant end up becoming ‘definitely irrelevant’ but you don’t know that until you’ve read them.)

    Most importantly, don’t feel the need to get caught up in stress or be too reverent about things – it’s pretty enjoyable most of the time.

      • I read your comment wondering if the ‘pile method’ had something to do with architecture and was going to write, ‘I can’t write a post on this – I have no idea what the pile method is!’ before I realised what you were talking about! HA! A sharp mind I do not have!

    • Kat a phd friend pointed out to me that if every article I read has ten references that I note down to follow up, that’s 1 to the power of 10, which is, you know, impossible. Talk about down the rabbit hole. Yesterday I found an interesting looking article and had an aha moment – I decided that I had enough references to follow up for that particular part of my research and DIDN’T put it into my ever expanding ‘follow these leads’ document. Hooray.

  22. My big tip is to be assertive and be open with your supervisors from day dot! At first, the idea scared me a little bit. You know, the whole being-completely-honest-about-how-stressed-I-can-get thing… But in practice, I’ve found it to be a really useful way to make sure that any little kinks along the way are addressed quickly. Not many little kinks have become big problems since I started working this way. Figure out what they want from you, what you want from them, and how you can compromise ;)

  23. I attended my uni orientation the other day, and we were actually given a link to your blog as a reference to help us with writing our essays in our Graduate Diploma! I have read through some of your blogs and I think (hope) it will be a great help! So thank you in advance for my passing grade!!

  24. 1 Download and purchase Scrivener (and do the tutorial). Really. Don’t know what it is? Put it into Inger’s search box and see what you find. I’ve also posted about Scrivener. I’m a little bit in love.
    2 Make friends with your faculty librarian and admin person (what she said).
    3 Make your desk cosy – set up your books, papers, and some warm things that remind you about the rest of your life. I have a couple of cards from friends and some coloured rocks that I gaze at when the overwhelm hits.
    4 Remember these hashtags #phdchat, #writing, #amwriting, #writinglife and if you’re in the same boat as me, most importantly #phdparent.
    5 As Leunig says “be brave, life is joyous”. I am incredibly blessed and outrageously privileged. I’m being paid to spend three years thinking, reading and writing about something I’m passionate about. This is the good life people. Enjoy it.

  25. My advice would be learn to live with (and possibly enjoy) the uncertainty. The first few months of a PhD are often murky and unclear. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and lost, try to see it as a time for new ideas and possible interesting avenues for development. Try not to succumb to the temptation to be ‘doing’ things all the time. The most amazing part of my PhD was actually being able to take time to ponder and think. Something we rarely get to do!

  26. I disagree with the joining Facebook tip. It may be good to connect with people, but damn it has made me less productive. I say if you want to get to know people then go to social events, induction days and events where you are likely to meet other phd students. Cafe Scientifique is pretty good for this, then you can observe the research other students are doing, I’m not sure if this event is UK specific though.

  27. Just got round to reading this (I’m in the UK, so the majority of PhDs have their first week in September). However it will live on! I’ve put it in my diary to blog/tweet about this post w/c Sept 17th – plus it will be another good excuse to introduce our new PhDs to the ever-helpful world of the Thesis Whisperer. Thanks Inger.

  28. I’d say the best thing to do in those first couple of weeks is read some stuff. You know, the books you’ve been meaning to get round to. Or just stuff you’re interested in. Get your mind working. Find some questions and ideas, or not. You’ll feel like you’re doing something useful and you’ll have something to talk about at your first meeting with your supervisor.

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