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8 Top Tips and Pieces of Advice for New PhD Students

By Stephanie L

Updated April 1, 2021 Updated April 1, 2021

Sponsored by University of Glasgow

A PhD is an experience that is both rewarding and challenging. If you’re new to the PhD, are about to get started, or you’re simply considering the idea, here are some top tips and words of advice from Áine O’Brien, a third-year Planetary Science PhD student at the University of Glasgow.

‘Ask all the questions, all the time’

No one expects you to know everything!

“Ask all the questions, all the time,” says Áine. “Your supervisor can’t read your mind and know what you do and don’t know already, so don’t be afraid to ask what words mean and how to do things that you aren’t sure of.”

‘Imposter syndrome is real’

PhD imposter syndrome is far more common than you might realize. Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy are completely valid and can make you feel as though you shouldn’t be studying a PhD. Imposter syndrome manifests differently for everyone – and is something Áine has experienced herself.

“Imposter syndrome is real and pretty much everyone experiences it at some point. I find it helps to open up about it to peers as you realize others feel the same way.”

Which leads us to Áine’s next piece of advice…

‘Don’t compare your PhD project to other people’s’

“Don’t compare your PhD project to other people’s. They are all different, so don’t worry if you have more or less data, papers, experience than your peers. You were accepted onto the program because you deserve to be there!”

A PhD is a massively steep learning curve. Whether you’ve got your heart set on a PhD in Accounting & Finance, Biomedical Engineering, Environmental Sustainability, Media & Cultural Policy, or Planetary Science like Áine, looking around and comparing yourself to others never helps – especially when everyone is on their own PhD journey. Managing your expectations, as well as having the right attitude and work ethic to keep yourself moving forward is important.

‘Be super organized!’

Establishing a routine and dedicated workspace free from distractions with access to the right resources and tools is the golden rule, and can really help lay the groundwork for success.

From the get-go, calendars, diaries, planners, and to-do lists will be your BFFs throughout your PhD. You are ultimately responsible for the planning and management of your studies. Although it may seem obvious, it’s not uncommon to find yourself suddenly struggling to keep track of whats-what – something which Áine wish she’d thought about at the start of her PhD.

“I have dozens of notebooks from loads of meetings, experiments and conferences and I am terrible at keeping track of what information is in which notebook. I wish I had made a system for this as it would have saved me so much time now!”

‘Build yourself a research network’

It doesn’t matter what your research area is, or where in the world you’re studying, networking is a huge part of your PhD. Attending and participating in local and international events, such as conferences, seminars, lab meetings, and even graduate school sessions are a great way to build and maintain professional and social relationships.

“Be it online or not, be it in your research group, research department or not, find peers in the same boat with a little more experience than you who you feel comfortable talking to,” explains Áine.

‘Make use of your university’s student counselling service if there is one’

PhDs demand long hours, with massive amounts of reading, researching, and writing which can understandably result in high levels of stress. Checking in with yourself on a regular basis is important. Be open and honest, and don’t feel like you’re on your own, whatever your worries or concerns may be.

“Over half of PhD students experience poor mental health symptoms during their PhD. If this happens to you, make use of your university’s student counselling service if there is one, learn to notice the signs that you’re struggling and give yourself a break.”

The University of Glasgow, offers a wide range of support services, including a dedicated Wellbeing service which students can access as little or as much as they like.

‘Don’t feel pressured to work 24/7’

“Some people in academia work really long days seven days a week and that just isn’t me,” says Áine. “Early on I was really worried I was going to fail because other people around me were working such long hours, and I told my supervisor this was worrying me, and she was really helpful in encouraging me to have a work-life balance.”

Having a good work-life balance is essential. You’re allowed to have a life away from your PhD, so make time to organize fun and exciting plans with friends and family in between reading sessions, research, seminars and meetings with your supervisor.

‘Don’t worry if your project changes as you progress’

“Don’t worry if your project changes as you progress, and when that happens, don’t be concerned if you feel a bit lost and unsure as to what’s happening,” says Áine. “Doing a PhD means contributing to knowledge and so it’s totally normal for what you might contribute to change as you go through.”

You’re challenging existing beliefs and customs, all while developing new ways of thinking. Remember you’ve chosen to study a PhD to make a significant contribution to your field

Regularly check in and assess where you are in your schedule, but keep in mind that encountering problems and new developments are inevitable. Accepting that your initial plan-of-action may change is also ok.

Find out more about Áine, her PhD and Future World Changers education project in the video below.

Lead image by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

This article was originally published in November 2020 . It was last updated in April 2021

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Written by

As the Head of Sponsored Content for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com (until September 2021), Stephanie created and published a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. She attended the University of Portsmouth where she earned a BA in English Language and an MA in Communication and Applied Linguistics.

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