Saying goodbye to first year + some advice

Scarily it came to my attention this month that I am now officially into my second year of ‘the PhD’. That means that one whole year has gone by, and to be honest, I’m not really sure where it went. I can no longer use the excuse of ‘I’m only in my first year’ to try to avoid probing questions into my lack of real results yet, and I now find myself in a near-constant state of mild panic worrying that a) I haven’t really got to the stage where I thought I’d be a year in and b) that I have a hell of a lot to do, yet time seems to be going so fast I can barely keep up with it.

I think this year has been a steep learning curve for me, finding out qualities about myself I didn’t think I had (e.g. more determination than I thought, perseverance, an understanding of statistics (something I thought would never happen) and a weird love for all things fish related)). However, I’ve also learnt some really cool stuff, visited some amazing places and met some wonderful people. Although it has probably been the most testing year so far in my life I think it has also been the most rewarding.

So, having now completed a full year as a PhDer, I thought I’d try to reflect on what I’ve learnt and done over this time. I feel like I have managed to do so much, but at the same time also not so much. The stuff I had planned to have had done by now is actually only just getting into full swing, and things I never really expected to happen happened and were great (highlights included a shellfish meeting lasting till 1am, a two week boat trip and a summer school in Norway). I think this is the reality of a PhD – nothing turns out how you expect!

Anyway. The list. I’ve put together some things that I’ve learned. Maybe they are useful bits of advice for others starting out on their PhD journey. They might help, they might not. PhDs are incredibly personal experiences, but I think there are some more general things I’ve learned along the way so far which I thought I’d share. I’d be lying if I said I’ve cracked all these bits of advice – there are still things I’m working on here (e.g.5,6,7,9) and will continue to do so. But, perhaps someone reading this will find it useful, and it’s also good to think of things for myself to work on. So here we are. My advice for setting out on the road to attaining a PhD. It’s not necessarily listed in most importance.

  1. Don’t underestimate the power of planning
  • As soon as I started my PhD I was really keen to get stuck straight into the data analysis and get going. However, this attempt at working actually back fired on me because I didn’t take the time to plan, read and think. Thinking and planning can be underestimated in its importance, and I know that it can feel like time wasted not actually doing anything, but I really think it is time well spent and makes you much more productive in the long run. It would have saved me a month or two at the start stressing about not really knowing what to do with the data or why, all because I hadn’t properly thought it out yet!

2. Take the time to seek opportunities out and go on training

  • If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you may have noticed that I’ve managed to keep myself pretty busy in my first year. It was in part intentional – I wanted to try and develop my key skills and knowledge that I’ll need for the project early on so that I can spend more time later on using those skills in my research. I would really encourage you to get out there and find training courses/workshops/conferences to go on – it develops skills, knowledge, confidence, enthusiasm, networks…

3. Build up your network

  • For many of us doing PhDs, it’s not always going to be the case that you’ll have a big lab group to discuss your ideas with or try to overcome a problem with. And that can be a bit isolating. It is essential that you broaden your horizons outside of the people within your department and even university – you never know when you might need their input/ skills/ advice/ encouragement/ sofa to sleep on. It can also open a lot of doors to other cool opportunities. So, attend conferences and courses, seek out societies and organisations and go make some contacts! Trust me, you need all the help you can get.

4. Get to know your department(s)

  • Whilst it’s tempting to spend a large proportion of your time attending fun events elsewhere all in the name of research or hide yourself in the lab running an experiment, it does help you out in the long run if you take the time out to get to know your department. Not only is this useful for you from a work sense, but it’s also really important from a social, personal sense too! Take the opportunities to attend after work drinks, help bake cakes for the office or join in office sports teams. You need your support networks in day-to-day office life too, not just from the research perspective.

5. Put yourself in situations outside of your comfort zone

  • The earlier you do things that make you feel uncomfortable and make you question your academic ability/integrity the better. I’m fully expecting that the PhD will only get more testing and harder the further into it you are, so you may as well get used to doing things that push you early on. For me, I don’t enjoy public speaking too much (let’s be honest, who really does) so I’ve done a few talks this year, to different crowds (fishermen, scientists and undergrads in case you’re interested). Second thing I’ve done which I wasn’t keen on doing was to lead a journal club for small groups of third year undergrads. I have minimal teaching training so this was hard for me, but I also found it to be rewarding and a useful experience. So, when you’re presented with an opportunity which you’d rather say no to, go for it! It’s good for the whole ego boost, morale thing which can dip a bit throughout PhDing.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and use your contacts

  • Something I’m still grappling with, because those little thoughts of seeming stupid, or did they really mean it when they said they’d help out can prevent me from asking. But. My point. Asking for help when you need it is crucial – not doing so will only prolong the time that you are spent looking at your computer screen getting into a deeper and deeper panic that you don’t know what to do or how to do it. So, ask for help. You’re a student still. You can’t know everything and there isn’t such a thing as a stupid question. You’ll look more stupid going to your supervisor a month later still hung up on something that you’ve been discussing with them for the past month but were too afraid to ask for help on in the initial conversation. So. Go use those contacts you made networking, or go ask someone in your department.

7. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or expect great things

  • Don’t get me wrong, a bit of pressure is no bad thing. But, the thing is is that research is challenging and can be a real test of your perseverance and determination to your subject. Putting too much pressure on yourself or setting unrealistic goals right from the word go will soon start to drain you and could end up being detrimental to your progress. Setting small attainable goals for each week and each month is good practice to get into early on, and is much better than setting some big unattainable, overarching aim. Be realistic in the timeframes you come up with or the plans that you make and try not to take it too much to heart when things go wrong. Nothing really ever fully goes to plan in research so when stuff does go wrong or differently from what you expected try not to entirely blame yourself and get hung up on it – the best thing is to do is what you’re going to take from those moments and learn from.

8. Try not to put your supervisor on a pedestal

  • So one of my supervisors also happened to be one of my science idols (don’t look at me weird, we all have them). For a while, I found this very intimidating to think about – how could little old me talk about the things I don’t know about and don’t know how to do with this super scientist person? But the thing I soon realised is that they are people too, they were in your position once and you just have to try to not let their superiority put you off. The sooner you take them off the imaginary pedestal you have them on, the quicker you can get to work having real discussions with them where you don’t have to worry about seeming stupid or thinking that everything you say has to be super intelligent.

9. Don’t compare yourself to others

  • This is very difficult as by human nature we like to compare ourselves to others, a sort of way to assess our progress and see how we’re doing. Repeat after me: ‘Do not compare yourself.’ I really mean it. Every PhD is so unique and different and there are so many different problems and solutions that are so individual to that person and their project that you really can’t compare your progress to anyone else’s. So and so may appear to be doing great, but a) they probably aren’t letting on about all the crap they’re having to deal with and b) they aren’t dealing with the data and research problems that you are, so they are having a totally different experience. Academia is already super competitive, so do yourself a favour and cut yourself some slack.

10. Prepare yourself for some hard times

  • Not really ideal to end on this note, but I’ve got to be honest here. PhDs are really bloody hard. Not just in terms of the work, but also in terms of the challenges that it will present to you and your ability to cope with these problems and overcome them. Prepare yourself for the fact that stuff won’t always go to plan or your supervisor won’t have all the answers. Make sure you have a hobby or sport to help relieve stress, surround yourself with a good group of friends and keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it. The good times are totally worth the crappy ones – just keep plugging on!

So, there we go. Some advice and thoughts to get your head round. PhDs are tough, but the quicker you figure out how you’re going to approach your work the better. There have been many moments this year where I’ve wondered if this is really for me, but then I’ve remembered all the moments where I’ve thought how lucky I am to be getting paid to be researching something I love. I think PhDs aren’t a test of how clever you are, but how determined you are and how much you love your subject!

So, my only departing words now are to have fun and go for it!

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