Beginnings – Advice for starting a PhD

@spongebob, giphy

This is the first post of this blog, and whilst it might be the start of something, it certainly isn’t the start of my PhD. I’m in my third (and final) year, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way, so I had a think about what might have been useful to know when I was just starting out. That’s where the idea for this post came about.

I wrote down the things I wish I’d known when I started, and I asked fellow PhD students and academics what advice they would give to themselves on the first day of their PhD, knowing what they do now. I asked around the Psychology PhD office at Royal Holloway, University of London (which is where I’m based when I’m not working from home) and took to Twitter to gather some advice from a bit further afield.

I do wish I had begun blogging sooner (there’s one piece of advice I should have given to myself at the start of my PhD..!), but there’s no time like the present. Whatever stage of your PhD you might be at (planning on applying, just starting out, or perhaps a bit further along), hopefully some of these tips can be useful for you.

I had so many wonderful tips, that I’ve split them into sections.

Planning and writing

It might seem terrifying to be thinking about starting to write on your first day but it does really help to get your thoughts down early, and you never know what the notes you make now might be useful for in the future (papers, your thesis, proposals, applications, conference abstracts… anything!)

Write. Even if you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “what’s the point of writing if I change it all later?” But writing is important. Start writing as soon as you start your PhD. Just pick up a pen or open a word document and go at it. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it will be an honest log of your thinking and planning at each stage of your PhD. Bonus: you’ll see how much better you got over the three years, promise!

Aysha Bellamy @aysha_bellamy, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

It’s never too early to start writing, even if you end up re-writing everything in your last year, it’s so helpful to already have that base.

Tiffany Bell @TiffanyBell0, Postdoc, University of Calgary

Do your references as you go along (Mendeley completely failed on me the day before I was going to submit and I had to do them manually. I ended up staying up all night, thankfully I had lots of friends helping me).

Rachel Nesbit @rachelnesbit, Postdoc, Reading

Use Hemingway Editor (free online tool) to check writing is clear.

Clare Lally @Clare_Lally, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Accept that your literature review is never going to be complete.

Sahira van de Wouw @sahiravdw, second year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Coding and developing your experiments

Most of us will run some sort of experiment during our PhDs, and even if you’re not coding (lucky you!), planning and recording the process is super important (which also ties in with the above tips about writing everything down!). It keeps you on track, helps to finalise your ideas, and makes writing up in the future much much easier. Future you will be thankful!

@memecandy, giphy

Keep a record of all your thinking at the time. Why did you choose certain analyses, why did you utilise one scale and not another. It will be tricky to remember these further down the line!

Alex Lloyd @Alex_Lloyd93, second year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Decide on your analysis strategy prior to running an experiment.

Rachel Nesbit @rachelnesbit, Postdoc, Reading

If you get stuck when you’re formulating your ideas, sit down and make a brainstorm. Chuck everything you know about your experiment planning so far (or your topic) onto the page without looking at your notes, and see how much you really do understand, or have finished. You can fill in the blanks by reading up a bit more, or planning out the bits you’re unsure of. Don’t be afraid to ask for help here! (More on that later!)

Really thoroughly comment all of your scripts as you write them (so you know what they mean when you look later, and so you evaluate each part as you write it, and hopefully make fewer mistakes!).

Take whatever free opportunities you can to learn to code (even if you don’t need the software right now, or you’re not using it for your PhD), you never know when it might be useful, and it’s a brilliant skill for your CV.

Louisa Thomas (me!) @ljthomas1991, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Comment your code.

Clare Lally @Clare_Lally, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Comment everything! EVERYTHING.

Aysha Bellamy @aysha_bellamy, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

If you find yourself copying/pasting chunks of code from one of your scripts to another more than twice, consider writing a function! I know it’s boring, but it will save you time in the long run – also, Celtic music seems to help throughout the process (totally anecdotal evidence!).

Valerio Villani, first year, Royal Holloway, University of London


Are you organised?

Well, you should try to be…

Staying organised is another thing that future you will be thankful for!

Organise your resources, and your time, in a way that suits you. Your PhD is a time to really take control of when, where, and how you work. There will also be a lot to keep track of, and keeping yourself organised makes staying on top of your PhD so much easier.

Set up systems that will be helpful long term. Try to think about future you when you organise your files.

Clare Lally @Clare_Lally, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Decide on a file structure that you’ll use for all your experimental chapters, and stick to it. You’ll never spend ages looking for the files you need again…

Invest in notebooks, you’ll be writing notes every step of the way, and you’ll need somewhere to write them all! I didn’t know it was possible to get through so many notebooks in a year until I started my PhD! These are my favourite, because they sit so perfectly in front of my keyboard, and the grid paper is super useful for planning what I want my experimental screens to look like.

Louisa Thomas (me!) @ljthomas1991, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Try taking it one day at a time. Personally my brain doesn’t work in Gaant charts, or seeing what will be done by next year or in three year’s time. It’s just too much. Instead, think “what can I do now?” And then break that down into small achievable goals.

Aysha Bellamy @aysha_bellamy, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Networking and getting your research out there

You don’t need to do this alone. Make friends during your PhD if you can. I’ve made some of the most wonderful friends during my time at Royal Holloway, both here, and further afield. Making friends in academia that understand what you’re going through is important (we all need support when things get tough!). Some of the contacts you make now could also be super helpful during your PhD (and beyond!) if you need to reach out for some help (we’ve all been there!).

Stock up on tea and make good friends.

Becky Lawrence, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Make friends. Get your face known in the department (for good reasons!). Go to social events, writing days, group meetings etc. This isn’t time wasted. If you start struggling with certain issues down the line, then having a solid support group who understands your circumstances will be invaluable both practically and mentally!

Aysha Bellamy @aysha_bellamy, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

I would definitely recommend getting involved with the PsyPAG community, the conference was a great way to meet new people, and joining the committee was something I found really valuable, not only in terms of the skills but the networks and friendships I built from it.

Rachel Nesbit @rachelnesbit, Postdoc, Reading

Whatever field you are studying in, look out for other opportunities (like PsyPAG) to get into contact with other PhD students, and make friends outside of your own university!

Or… Start your own club! I started a journal club (Social, Affective and Decision Neuroscience, or SAD Neuroscience) in my first year, and this was a great way to get to know other people in the department, to share ideas, and to get a bit of help with getting my head around some new concepts.

Louisa Thomas (me!) @ljthomas1991, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Make the most of public engagement opportunities to make your research have an impact outside of academia.

Take as many opportunities as you can to present your work, it gets less daunting as you go.

Clare Lally @Clare_Lally, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Don’t be afraid to ask

This really ties in with networking. Don’t be afraid to ask your support network of friends, and academic contacts (as well as your supervisor!) if you’re struggling, or need help getting your head around some methods! Learn from others!

Question things. Sometimes we don’t want to be first to admit that we don’t understand for fear of looking stupid. A lot of the time we may just agree with supervisors or seniors because we trust their thinking more than ours, or just to save a debate. But questioning things is good: Even if you’re clarifying your understanding, it shows that you’re thinking and engaging. And having the debates now will prepare you for that v word…

Aysha Bellamy @aysha_bellamy, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

If you’re using experimental scripts, equations, or data from other researchers, and you’re not sure what some parts mean, ask! You won’t look silly, and it will save you a lot of time!

Louisa Thomas (me!) @ljthomas1991, third year PhD, Psychology, Royal Holloway

Don’t be afraid to ask. You’re not supposed to know everything.

Silvia Fraga Domínguez @silfrado, PhD student, Law, Royal Holloway

You don’t have to know everything right away, not about your PhD program or your thesis.

@jos_cee_, PhD candidate

And, finally… Be kind to yourself

The subheading here was a tip from Rachel Nesbit, and it’s such an important one, that it became the heading for this final section. Doing a PhD is difficult, it is an enormous learning curve, and you will come so far during these years.

Don’t be hard on yourself.

Acknowledge setbacks, and learn from them.

Most importantly, have fun!

You will get things wrong. That’s part of the process! Sometimes when you’re offered a PhD it sounds like a big scary thing, and so you assume you have to be perfect all of the time or someone will ‘snatch’ it away: Not true! This is training, like any other training process – mistakes help you to learn.

Make the most of a flexible working schedule whilst it lasts. Take your birthday off if you want. Go on holiday and let off steam. There will be days where you feel overwhelmed and writing a sentence seems amazing. There will also be days when you have a lot of energy and want to just work and work and work. Whether it’s ten minutes or ten hours, now is the time to work with your energy, and not against it!

Measure days by what you get done not by how long you sat in the office. This may seem like a silly thing to say, but the issue is that you may only find time to work for three solid hours, but get a lot done in that time. Conversely, you may sit in the office for 12 hours straight but only progress as far as an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping. Write down one thing you did today for every (working) day. Doesn’t have to be large, but no more zero days! (Of course it’s fine to have a day where the thing you accomplished was going on an adventure, working out or doing a hobby).

Aysha Bellamy @aysha_bellamy, third year, Psychology, Royal Holloway

It’s a personal journey, don’t look at others!

Jessica Mangione @MangioneJessica, PhD student, Sport Pedagogy, University of Limerick

Enjoy the journey. If you worry too much about whether you’re on track and/or what comes next, you’ll miss out on a lot of great things.

Silvia Fraga Domínguez @silfrado, PhD student, Law, Royal Holloway

This is going to be hard, and that’s OK, some days it will feel like it will never happen, but it will!

Listen to your peers, as much as you don’t want to believe them when they say you’ll be fine, they are not your worst critics, YOU ARE!

Rachel Nesbit @rachelnesbit, Postdoc, Reading

I hope you enjoy these tips, and find them helpful, and that they might put your mind at rest a little if you’re about to start.

Also, if we’ve missed anything out, feel free to share your own tips in the comments!!!

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