Just starting a PhD? Here are my Top Tips for Breezing through 1st Year

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Are you just starting a PhD in the UK? Here are my top tips for kicking your studies into high gear right off the bat. Note that some of these tips I didn’t necessarily do my self. Looking back on year 1 however, I sure as heck wish I did.

  1. Start reading ASAP & enjoy the time you have now to read in depth – The first few months of your PhD should predominantly be spent reading. Don’t worry about starting to write too early in the game. To make yourself feel better, perhaps tell yourself that you will start writing XXX date, but until then its all about hitting the stacks. Enjoy this time, for once you start writing and collecting data, it seems like there is not enough time to read everything on your list, and you will dream of the days when you had what seemed all the time in the world to read.
  2. Read critically and take notes – everything you read you should be reading critically. This means that you should be asking questions as you read, making interesting links between your readings and existing knowledge, and disagreeing with / challenging the author from time to time. As these critical experiences happen, make sure you make note. I started off by writing my questions, thoughts, or disagreements in the margins of my book or article. Retrospectively, I wish I would have done this more cleverly from the get go. Now I keep a diary of readings where I jot down my notes as I go. This way everything I ever thought while reading the text is in one place and easily accessible for the future. Trust me, it’s annoying having to flip through an entire book at a later date to try to find your notes.
  3. Catalogue and save your readings systematically – It is essential to keep good track of all your readings. To do this you might want to use a reference management software. My school encouraged the use of Zotero (it’s free). From my experiences of trial and error, it is good for creating a catalogue of your readings, but pretty crap with in-text citation (it crashed loads and corrupted my word doc). I ended up using it to keep track of my readings, and for creating my final bibliography for my upgrade paper. You can make folders so I just added every reference cited in my paper to a folder, manually did my in-text citations (I discovered this to be a good way of working, it wasn’t time intensive as I cited as I wrote and it made me learn my authors and double check my references), and had the software create a bibliography from the folder once I was done writing. One more tip on this, if you are saving article pdfs to your computer, name them by the author last name and publication date (i.e. Waite, 2016). At first I saved by title of the paper, which proved very unhelpful in finding papers once I got to know my authors. You will likely go back to the same paper over and over again and will recall author, not title.
  4. Talk to people (especially your supervisor) – Don’t be shy about talking to people about your research. Reach out to academics that might have an interest in your topic and suggest a chat over coffee. The more people you talk about your research the better, and people are usually receptive to having interesting informal chats with motivated young researchers. Also, make sure you get to know your supervisor ASAP. You will want to have a sense of their working style, expectations, and interests sooner than later (talking to some of their current students might be helpful here). This way you can manage your work and communication with them accordingly and limit experiences of conflict.
  5. Stay cool, calm, and collected – You will likely feel lost and confused most of the year. This is normal and to be expected. If you aren’t lost and confused, you likely aren’t reading widely enough. Find peace in knowing that this is part of the process and an indicator of being on the right track. Don’t panic.

Hope these little tips prove helpful. I wish someone would have told me some of these things last year this time.

Robyn Waite (October 13, 2016)

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