Wisdom from experience: advice for new PhD students

The new academic year is now underway, and a new bunch of eager first year PhD students are dipping their toes into a three-to-four year journey to their doctorate. So, we’ve collated some advice from the more experienced among us! The idea behind the following tidbits of advice is that they are things we would tell our younger selves if we could go back to day 1…

Work

“Make sure you and your supervisor set out expectations and at least a vague timeline at the start, that way you will know you’re on track.”

“Write code as if you’re giving it to someone else – one day you might have to.”

Even if you don’t give your code to another use, in a year’s time you’ll have forgotten what it does! Related to this, it’s useful to keep good “readme” documents to note where all your code is, how to run things, etcetera. Also, if you think you’re going to present a plot at some point – in a talk, paper, or even your thesis, make a final version at the time (using appropriately accessible colour maps and big enough labels), plus note down where you’ve stored the code you used to make it.

“Learn and use git/github (or at least get familiar with the 3 basic commands of: git add, commit, push) ASAP! This means that if you take a wrong turn in your code (you will), you can painlessly ‘revert’ to a stage before you made a mess.”

“Read papers with your literature review in mind. If you can’t see where the paper will fit in your literature review, either reconsider your literature review… or find a more relevant paper.”

“Write down everything you learn, or facts you are told – you never know when you’ll need a piece of information again.”

But also be prepared to have not really followed any of this advice properly until you regurgitate it to new students in your fourth year and wonder why you haven’t been doing any of it up until now.

“Try to keep up a good routine – it’s much easier to get out of bed when you’re having a slow work week if that’s what your body is used to.”

“You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn and master without even realising.”

“Don’t compare yourself to others.”

Every PhD project is unique, as is every student. During a PhD, you’re looking into the unknown. Maybe you’ll get lucky (with some hard work) and have some really interesting results, or it might be a bit of a battle. Some projects are more suited to regular publications, others less so – this doesn’t necessarily reflect your individual abilities. In addition, everyone has different background knowledge and motivation for doing a PhD.

“Not every day has to be maximum productivity, that’s okay!”

“Some days are great, others are rubbish. Like life, really.”

Life

“Make friends with other PhD students. It’s nice to have someone who might make you cake when you feel sad, or happy.”

This is so true. A PhD is quite a unique experience and lots of people don’t really get it, thinking it’s just like another undergrad. Sometimes it’s really useful to have someone who understands the stress of some code just not working, or the dread of a blank page where your monitoring committee report should be. It’s also helpful to get to know people in the years above, or even post-docs, since they’ve probably already gone through what you’re experiencing.

“Make friends and join clubs and societies with people that aren’t doing PhDs.”

Sometimes it’s important to get out of the PhD “bubble” and put things in perspective. Keeping in touch with friends that have “real” jobs (for want of a better word) can be a nice reminder of some of the benefits of PhD life – such as flexible hours (you don’t have to be in before 9 every day) or not having to wear formal business attire.

Wellbeing

“Try to keep your weekends free – it’s great for your sanity!”

“Take holiday! You are expected to.”

“Don’t feel guilty for not cheering up when people tell you everything’s okay. It almost invariably is, but sometimes it all gets a bit much and you’ll feel bad for a while, that’s totally normal!”

Yes, it’s totally okay to have a couple of bad days. Remember, this can often be true of people with ‘real’ jobs, it isn’t just unique to the PhD experience! However, if you’re feeling bad for a long period of time, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t okay and you don’t have to feel like that. It might be helpful to let your supervisor know that you’re having a bit of a hard time, for whatever reason, and work might be slow for a while. There are also lots of support systems available. For students at Reading, you can find out more about the Counselling and Wellbeing Service here (http://www.reading.ac.uk/cou/counselling-services-landing.aspx). A PhD is hard work, but it should be a fundamentally enjoyable experience!

Finally:

“No poking your supervisor with a stick. They don’t appreciate it.”

(…no, we don’t get it either)


Co-written by Simon Lee and Sally Woodhouse, with anonymous pieces of advice collected from various PhD students in the Department of Meteorology.

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