A half way through your PhD checklist

New PhD students start all the time in Australia, but September/October is what we call the ‘shoulder peak’ for enrolments. This is because of technicalities in the way that universities report to the Australian Government, which I wont bore you with. However it is a good time to publish a bit of advice for the newbies.

This post is by Jakob Rosenkrantz de Lasson, a Danish Ph.D. student at DTU Fotonik, the Department of Photonics Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). Jakob has a Master’s degree in engineering in physics and nanotechnology and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in computational nanophotonics. In addition, Jakob blogs for the Danish science newspaper Ingeniøren

In Denmark the Ph.D. project is at the same time a job and an education towards being a researcher.

The first part, the job, is covered by working for and with senior researchers and thus contribute to their research. The second part, the education, is covered via guidance and supervision from senior researchers, by doing your own small research projects, by communicating your research, both orally and in written, by collaborating with other researchers, by attending conferences and a lot more.

All the points forming the educational part of a Ph.D. are important to get exposed to during the Ph.D. project, to get experience with different aspects of research.

When I was half way through my PhD I thought about about the progress I have made on the various points listed above. It inspired me to consider the steps I have taken to conduct my research, organize my work and push my Ph.D. project forward.

So this is my ‘Ph.D. halfway checklist’ that outlines some of the central aspects of a Ph.D. project – which are important to get an overview of to be able to plan the rest of the project, and so that changes can be made if needed.
Structure your literature digitally
Previously I wrote about my Digital Workflow, and I still urge any Ph.D. student to set up a similar system for collecting, annotating and structuring literature systematically – and digitally!
Sooner or later you will start writing conference contributions, journal articles and eventually the Ph.D. dissertation, and these writing processes become easier if the pertinent literature is easily accessible and clearly organized.
Much of the writing will take place in the second half of the Ph.D. project, so if at this point you still don’t have your own digital workflow, now is the perfect time to get started.
Tag and index your reference material
On top of organizing all my literature in a database, I tag it with keywords that attach each reference to specific parts of my project.
As described in an earlier post, it’s difficult to implement this tagging or indexing system right from the beginning of the Ph.D. project since at that point you don’t have an overview of the project. But halfway through the project you should have an overview of the different parts of your project, and organizing literature at this point should be straightforward – and help you in advancing your work and in writing documents.
Conduct and write small literature reviews
Having tagged the literature in my literature database, I have groups of literature representing specific parts of my research. The grouping of references inspired me to start writing small literature reviews that help me get an overview of the topics. This is useful both for my understanding and when writing.
The above picture shows an example of part of one of these literature reviews. For the most important references, I in some detail describe the main points. This allows me to easily return to any of the references at a later point – whether it is to recall my understanding of the topic or for referencing in a document I’m writing.
And, needless to say, I write and store the reviews in my elephant memory, Evernote.
Participate in summer schools or workshops
Last year, I participated in a summer school on quantum optics and nanophotonics in France, which was an inspirational and fun experience. It gave me the chance to meet fellow Ph.D. students as well as senior researchers in my field, and it provided plenty of perspective for my Ph.D. project.
For the school I brought a poster to present some of my work, and I obtained ECTS credits for the participation. Also, I received a small external grant to cover the travel expenses, and I encourage fellow Ph.D. students to consider their options for attending similar summer schools or workshops.
Find conferences and submit your work
In the Fall of last year, I was encouraged to start looking for potential conferences to which I could submit some of my work. I searched and assembled a list of interesting conferences, and in November and December I submitted contributions to two of these conferences – which were later both accepted for oral presentations.
It is generally easier to have work accepted at conferences than in journals, and submitting work to one or more conferences can thus be a good starting point for publishing some work. Additionally, preparing and presenting a poster or a talk with your work is an educational experience, and you are very likely to learn and be inspired when attending talks at a conference.
So make a list of potential conferences and discuss with your supervisor which might be interesting and what work you can submit.
Plan, write and submit a journal article
Writing journal articles is one of the most difficult and challenging parts of a Ph.D. project; they take a long time to write and finish, you need to have done “real work” to get them accepted, and critical peer-review feedback might be hard to grasp.
It is, however, also one of the most important and formative parts of the project, where you learn how to present, sell, market and detail your research.
Halfway through the Ph.D. project aim to publish a journal article, or have a plan for what your first article will contain, where to submit it to and an expected submission date. If none of this is planned, talk to your supervisor and make a plan.
Plan an external research stay (if possible)
Where I’m doing my Ph.D. it is recommended that part of the project is performed externally, preferably abroad. This is to gain experience with other research environments, and while I don’t have any details planned yet, I hope and expect to be going abroad for an extended period during my project.

Early in my project, I told my supervisors that I’m eager to be going, and if you are interested in going on an external stay as well, I recommend that you talk to your supervisors about it as early as possible. Probably they have contacts that you could visit and work with, and making them aware of your wish will make it more likely to happen.

I hope the newbies out there find this advice useful – what do you think? What would your ‘half way through’ check list look like?

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7 thoughts on “A half way through your PhD checklist

  1. Pingback: Link Round-Up: PhD Advice - How To Do A Literature Review

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