How To Survive Your First Year as a Doctoral Researcher

At the beginning of the academic year 2012-13, existing doctoral students were invited to take part in writing their wisdom on the wall of the Research Hive while new doctoral researchers were invited to consider their first moves.  The results were interesting . . . 

What do you wish someone had told you in your first year of doctoral study?

  • That not knowing will be part of knowing in the end
  • Ask questions all the time
  • Organise your time more effectively
  • Put the date on all of your notes and ideas — otherwise you’ll forget what you did when
  • Pre-requisites of fieldwork (abroad)
  • To participate in the research workshops and to check the IT tools available
  • Not panic!
  • Find out what my thesis is actually about
  • Trust your ideas
  • You can’t read everything

Write a to-do list for the first term of your PhD:

  1. Read subject area(s)
  2. Start writing up what [I] have read
  3. Pass Research Methods
  4. Try & keep a social life!
  1. Read!
  2. Pass Research Methods course
  3. Write literature reviews
  4. Get a good grip on new terminology and concepts through Masters courses
  1. Talk to people.  Just keep talking
  2. Read A LOT!
  3. Exercise at some point on your daily agenda
  4. Find a good place to work.  Preferably with a computer.
  5. Find a completely silent area
  6. Consider joining Excursions 
  1. Collect ants (avoid bees!)
  2. Construct Lego drawbridge
  3. Analyse ant decisons
  4. Dissect ants (feel sad)
  5. Gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy for ant-trail pheromones
  6. Synthesise pheromones
  7. Build lab — stop it flooding.
  8. Don’t have a breakdown.
  9. Grow a sunflower.  Buy a kettle.  Set up a groundbreaking journal club.
  10. Work out what I’m researching (stop changing answer to ‘what are you studying?’ each time I answer ) and write a plan
  11. Get on with my reading
  12. Know that my disparate areas of research will come together in the end . . . won’t they?

One of the key messages for new doctoral researchers is to keep things in perspective and manage expectations.  Doctoral research is different from any form of study you will ever have undertaken before and it does take time to get used to it.  You are starting a new project completely from scratch so you are not expected to know everything — keep asking questions and don’t worry if your topic / research questions / methodology keep changing.  It is entirely normal and all part of the creative learning process!  Pace yourself with reading and writing; it is a good idea to make a start as soon as possible and get learning but there is no point in risking burnout — this is a marathon, not a sprint!  So do look after yourself and stay balanced — you are still allowed a social life and you will need to put time into doing things such as exercise that help you study at your optimal level and stay sane.  

It is important to get involved as far as possible in university life — we have a great community of researchers and excellent workshops and other developmental activities run from the Doctoral School, Teaching and Learning Development Unit, Library, and Careers and Employability Centre.  Also, especially if you are a part-time or distance learner, make the most of the online resources and communities available and get involved in contributing and sharing your experiences.

We’re especially keen to hear from the first years who attended our welcome event.  Did you have a successful first term?  Did you apply any of the advice shared on our wall to your lifestyle?   Did you find it useful?  Would there be any tips you’d now add?  Do get in touch at with your thoughts or even ideas for a guest blog post!


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