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Advice for New PhD Students
30 Sep, 2010
8 minutes read

Clare kindly asked me to contribute any advice I had for new PhD students. Unfortunately, as I’m up to my eyes in thesis-writing, I won’t be able to make the induction meeting. What you have here is everything I could think of in a 50-minute train journey from Liverpool to Manchester. If you’d like me to elucidate any of the points made here, feel free to get in touch. Just don’t expect a response any time before November.

I’m not going to pretend to tell you how to do your research. I wouldn’t have the first notion. Seriously. There are plenty of people with more experience of that than me–our department is full of them–who’ll happily help you in that regard. I will, however, offer some of my tips on how to handle PhD study in general–a few tools, habits and a couple of strategies that I’ve found helpful.


First of all, well done. You’re on your way to holding the highest academic qualification our system offers. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to wear a red cloak and have some extra-wide business cards printed with lots of letters after your name. Not bad. In the intervening years, you can expect to be inspired, excited, challenged, frustrated, upset and exhausted. I’m working on exhausted right now.

Over the next few years, you’re going to ingest, process, synthesise and produce a metric buttload of information. You have no chance of keeping track of it in your head. Even the most important information will slip your mind when you need it. That’s why you must…

Write Everything Down

Get into the habit of making notes on everything–minutes of meetings with your supervisor, summaries of papers you’ve read, plans, random thoughts you’ve had. Everything. Your writing needn’t be formal, or polished. Just do it. Despite having a folder full of notes, I wish I had kept even more.

There’s probably a whiteboard in your room. Use it. Wipe off whatever two-month-old scribble someone else left there and think big. Make a glorious mess of inter-related scribbles and, when you’re done, take a photo. I’ve found it immensely useful to solve any problems that have (even conceptually) moving parts.

From time to time, you should also write for an audience. Write little reports for your supervisor, write papers, write emails, write Write WRITE! Do it early and often. You’ll have to write a fair bit of nonsense before you produce anything of consequence, so it’s best to get started now. I’ve recently discovered a couple of half-written chapters that I made a year ago, which have saved me a load of time when writing up. Think of it as an investment.

Amidst all of the descriptions and details will be loads of little sparks; things you hoped you’d get round to at some point, or things you promised to someone. To avoid letting that stuff slip away you’ll need to…

Keep a To-Do List

Your life as a PhD student may lack the structure you’ve enjoyed in undergraduate study or work. I’ve found a to-do list to be really useful in regaining some of that structure. Make your tasks as granular as you bear and make them real, physical actions. If a task doesn’t start with a verb like “write”, “code” or “read”, then it’s not real. Half the battle with PhD work is turning vague notions into busy work you can do. A to-do list will help with that.

Don’t Worry About Your Workflow

If you’re anything like me, you’ll already have some ideas about how you can implement what I’ve described above. You’ll have a shortlist of To-Do apps to trial; you’ll have figured out how you’ll store and organise your notes, how you’ll name them. What about a web interface to search them…

After hours lost doing crap like that, I’ve come to the conclusion that we live in the 21st Century, and search is our friend. The majority of my stuff lives in a big folder called Archive. Email, too. Archive. Lost something? find. To aid search and to prevent further time loss, it’s also worth keeping your files in the most basic format you can. That’s plain text for most things. Markdown if necessary. LaTeX for maths and presentational work. Microsoft Word for when you lose the will to live.

Really, 90% of the fiddling I’ve done to “prepare” for work is just stalling. It’s the computerised equivalent of arranging all your coloured pencils in order of wavelength. It’s extremely easy to fritter time away doing this kind of thing and convincing yourself that it’s work. Try to be aware of what you’re doing and learn to…

Know When You’re Procrastinating

I had no idea that “procrastinate” was a transitive verb until I looked it up one day when I should have been working. Seriously, I see a lot of computer screens around the office showing BBC News and YouTube. A lot of people, myself included, could be mistaken for someone researching social networking.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a mental break from what you’re doing from time to time. Very often, though, I find that when I fire up Twitter, it’s because I’m avoiding doing something. Sometimes, letting your mind wander will help an answer to form. Other times, it’s better to…

Talk to Your Supervisor

Don’t ‘go dark’ for weeks on end. Get in touch with your supervisor and explain what’s bothering you. Don’t be afraid to present half-finished work or to ask embarrassingly basic questions (but do ask The Wikipedia first). Your supervisor should be your most useful resource. Keeping them in the loop will help them help you.

Most of the time, your supervisor will be happy to help you if you’re stuck with something and haven’t achieved much. If, however, you’ve just been skiving, here are a few tips for dodging the bullet at your next meeting (Supervisors: skip the next paragraph.):

  • Arrive a few minutes early–catch them off-guard.
  • Have an agenda, and drive the conversation–prevent your supervisor from asking questions.
  • Ask difficult, big-picture questions; something that will give your supervisor scope to waffle for a while.
  • Obfuscate with data–numbers, hand-drawn diagrams, badly labelled charts. Volume is key.

I can say that this technique has successfully covered my ass on several occasions. If it works for you, great. Just don’t try to use it more than once in any 6 month period.

Your relationship with your supervisor is by far the most important personal relationship you’ll have during your PhD study. It may be the only personal relationship you’ll have during your PhD study. They’ll expect you to work hard, and tackle problems independently, but they’ll also expect you to be rubbish for a time, so embrace that and make the most of their advice. You should be able to expect that your supervisor will give you the freedom to do independent work, but also make time for you and look at what you’re doing. If necessary, there’s nothing wrong with politely reminding them of that.

Your dependence on your supervisor can become a source of frustration. Indeed, it’s one of the many ways in which…

Shit Happens

Boredom, fear, anger, loss of confidence… It’s not uncommon to have a bit of a blow-up after a year or so. It can come from all sorts of places. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your supervisor, maybe it’s the cold hand of fate. Whatever the situation, focus on what you can do to get things working again. Keep it professional. Seek the advice of others you trust. If necessary, take up drumming or Tae Kwon Do.

Whenever you hit the wall of academia, remind yourself of why you’re here in the first place, and try to imagine shaking the VC’s hand, or hearing your bank manager call you ‘Doctor’. Also, it may help you to achieve a sense of balance if you…

Get a Life

So far I’ve focused on getting your research done, but you will have some free time and should make the most of it. Take the time to pursue a hobby and hang out with some people outside academia. By hobby, I don’t mean playing dungeons and dragons or learning the oboe. Join a gym, throw shapes in the KrazyHouse on a Friday night, drive down to Tuebrook and get in fights…whatever. Just do something that doesn’t require thinking, with some people who don’t think for a living. It will help to broaden your outlook, and give you a better chance of overcoming the kind of stereotypes people outside academia (we call them ‘muggles’) have of PhD students.

If you get the chance, talk to some muggles about your research. Yes, you’ll have to dumb it down, no they won’t be interested, but verbalising your work is a really useful way of getting your head around it.

Finally, in all aspects of life, be sure to…

Have Fun

Don’t be afraid to play from time to time, even with your work. Who says you can’t put PacMan in your presentation slides? The more you enjoy what you’re doing, the better you’re likely to be at it. So smile at that blank screen and start typing.

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