The author of this week’s post, Dr Jess Drake, is no stranger to the ups and downs of the PhD. Jess first wrote this post for me a couple of years ago… but it got lost in the not very well managed publication queue. When I discovered it lurking in my list I asked her to revisit it and I’m happy to say she agreed.
A lot has changed for Jess since she wrote this post. She completed her PhD a year ago, and since then has been doing a lot of reflection on her own and others PhD and research experiences. Mostly she tells me she wished that there were more resources and honest guidance before or during the PhD. Lukcy for us, now she’d like to share some of her thoughts and reflections in the hope that it might help people get through the downs of the PhD and onwards to the Ups! Although she is currently working as a Post Doc, she is looking forward to making new paths in science communication, research student support and education.
Research just isn’t her thing.
The first year of the Thesis is supposed to be about direction; working out your topic, doing literature reading, devising research plans etc. It is also the year you have the most flexibility. The first year is a great time to get your head around lots of things. Best of all, you can use it to prepare yourself for the journey ahead (when you may not have as much time to do stuff).
Working out what to focus on in this year is hard. However, after talking to many current and ex-research students, there were some recurring themes on things they did that helped them through or things they wish they did…
That may sound like a no-brainer, but seriously it is important and fun! Get to know the other PhD students in your group, related and different areas, and in things you might just be curious about. These people will be your colleagues and future collaborators, and you are very likely to make life-long friends. You also create an important support-whinge-understanding network. You can start by checking out what your school/students in your department organise, and if there are any University Postgrad student events, or maybe even think about starting your own (Friday beers, film/paper groups etc).
2. Write (I mean it!)
It doesn’t matter if it is dot points, poorly thought out ideas, scribbles from paper notes… Whatever it is, start writing your chapters. Many people only give themselves 6 months to write, and it is so relieving to go back and see stuff already on paper. You will thank yourself for organising your literature, giving yourself some reminders or for thinking! Writing early may save you months of effort when you are strapped for time.
Doesn’t sound like something you really need to worry about, but getting into a good routine for thesis work will help you over the next few years. Play around with times you are most efficient and pick the hours that work best for you and stick to these every day. Treat it like a job. Getting this sorted early will help you in later years when there is so much chaos that you need something normal to fall back on. And don’t forget the power of good food, sleep and exercise — it is the key to a healthy brain and to a good thesis!
4. Take as many courses as you can!
Many students find they don’t have time in later years to learn skills that they know will help them with their research. If you think you might need to know something later on, do the course/online training/research it! This might be as simple as learning how to use Pivot tables in Excel or going on a 1 hour End Note courses (which I can tell you, made my life easier!). You may even think about undertaking effective communication and conflict resolution courses to work effectively with your supervisors.
5. Pick your supervision and make full use of your panel
Your first year can be used to see what your supervisors are like, what other skills you need on your panel and if you want to add or change your panel. I think this is one of the most important things you could do in your first year. Your Supervisor isn’t just someone who helps and shapes the 3+ years of the PhD, but they can also shape your future.
Some important things to consider include: how you and your supervisor work together; if your supervisors have a good background in your topic; are they flexible to learning/teaching styles that suit you; are they well published (important if you are doing PhD by publication); will they understand personal problems should they arise; what is their flexibility and timeliness like; what type of feedback do they give; are they well connected and well known in other research groups (opportunities post PhD). Shop around for supervision through students, papers and academics. Getting it right in Year 1 means helpful advice until you submit, and a bright future post PhD.
Thanks Jess! Since there are a lot of new students starting at this time in Australia I’m wondering – what advice do you have to offer?