What I Wish Someone Had Told Me in My First Year – Part 1

In anticipation of the Research Hive’s Welcome Event & Social next Thursday, the Hive Scholars have taken a moment to reflect on a few of the things they wish they had known as first-year researchers.  Our three-part series begins with Frank Verano, now in his second year:

I’ll be honest — my first year was not necessarily ideal.  Still, it was probably something I had to go through to get to the point I’m at now.  After all, the PhD isn’t just about an outcome, but a process, as well.  This is what I’ve learned so far:     

1.  Treat the PhD as a job.

Maybe you’ve heard this one.  It’s very important to structure your time in a way that gives you regular working hours as well as proper down time.  Although I know not everyone has this option, I’ve found it extremely useful to come into campus every day.  Separating “work space” and “home space” has made me more efficient (though some nights I do bring work home with me), and I feel more fully integrated into my school’s research community (see #5).  

2.  Be selective with your time.

There’s going to be numerous demands for your time, and you can’t possibly commit to everything.  There will be seminars, symposia, workshops, groups seeking your involvement . . . some of them will be valuable and worth your time; others, less so.  Think about how a particular researcher development workshop or seminar is relevant to you at that particular moment in time.  If your afternoon is better spent with your nose in a book, skip it.  While networking is essential (see #5), there’s loads of noise out there competing for your attention, and sometimes you have to shut it all out and just get work done.  

3.  Be honest with your supervisor and meet frequently.

I didn’t realise the importance of this one until the end of my first year.  Give yourself deadlines (see below) so that you have a reason to meet with your supervisors regularly.  If you’re having doubts about the project or are battling with self-confidence, tell them!  They won’t judge you.  It’s much better to nip the problem in the bud than to wait until you’ve dug yourself to deeply into a ditch or find yourself in a situation where you haven’t dome anything of any substance in months and are feeling utterly hopeless.     

4.  Create deadlines for yourself. 

If your supervisors happen to be more hands-off, and deadlines for turning material into them are a bit . . . nebulous, it’s a good idea to create them for yourself to keep yourself on-task.  It’s easy, especially in your first year, to lose direction, or even find yourself directionless from the very outset.  Keep yourself task-oriented.  The first task my supervisors asked of me was to draft a chapter outline.  An overwhelming idea in week one, sure, but it was extremely useful in structuring the way I could think about, break down, and attack my project.  Suddenly, I no longer had a monolithic “thesis” with no easy entry point, but a series of starting points (even if my current chapter outline resembles that first draft at all, even a year later!). 

5.  Interact with your research community.

You are not alone!  Chances are, you won’t make it through your PhD without some kind of existential crisis, but there are other researchers in your school or department who have been through it themselves and have come out of it stronger.  Talk to other first years — chances are, they’re going through something similar.  Talk to second or third years — they’ve been there!  If you can, work on campus, in the same space as people from your school or department.  You’ll lose the isolationist feeling that can develop while working on such a solitary project, and, before you know it, you’ll have collaborators for reading groups, seminars, and conferences you’ll want to be organising.          

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