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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