What I wish I knew before starting my PhD

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Thinking about doing your PhD but worried about the stress and long days of writing? We understand that doing your PhD can be a stressful and lonely time. That’s why we asked some of our PhD students to share their best advice and tips from their experience to help and support you through the tough times.


Have a healthy work-life balance

Maintain a healthy work-life balance by finding a routine that works for you. Treat your degree like a full time (9 to 5) job. But remember that what you are doing is highly skilled, so don’t forget to allow some slack and show yourself some kindness. Make sure to take days off, like in any normal job and do nice things for yourself. Take care of yourself by getting plenty of exercise, socialise with your friends and do something that relaxes you and makes you happy. Most importantly, make sure you eat well and drink plenty of water throughout the days (not just coffee!).

Practice, Practice, Practice

Spend a significant amount of the first few months doing your PhD background reading.  This will give you a solid foundation of knowledge to work with and build on as you progress in your research. 

Analyse your data straight away! If you’re consistently in writing and analysing, you’ll make your boards much easier.

Present your research. This can be at the lab-group meetings, conferences and so on. Presenting can be scary, but it gets easier as you practice, and it’s a great way to discuss PhD experiences, get advice and help, improve your research and make friends.

Draft, write and submit! No matter how much time you spend perfecting your first draft, your work will come back covered in corrections, and you’ll go through many more drafts before you submit your final version. Send your drafts to your supervisor sooner rather than later. Aim to publish your research. It might not work out, but drafting articles and submitting them to journals is a great way to learn new skills and enhance your CV.

Get to know your Expenses

Get to know what sorts of expenses require pre-approval from the PGR team before you go to your supervisor for agreement. This can save you a lot of time and stress. The application can take a lot of time in processing; especially if you don't know what PGR team had to agree first. 

Build a good relationship with your Supervisor

Try to maintain good contact with your supervisor during your studies. It’s important that they know how you work and how they can offer the best support for you. Discuss expectations with your supervisor, because everyone works differently.  Show your thesis progress as you go to your supervisor – it’s a good practice and it’ll help you to get your ideas organized. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed to let your supervisor know if you don’t understand something, messed up an experiment or they forgot to give you feedback. The more honest you are, the better your relationship will be. Help your supervisor to help you!

Never struggle on your own – talk to other students and your supervisor. Remember you’re not alone! If you're still in need of help contact SU Advice or Student Support

Manage your time by planning ahead

Organizing early will save you time later on. Organize your work and workspace. Make sure to use meaningful labels so you know what and where things are. If you need to know to a programme, this will take time that was not planned for. Make sure you add some extra time to account for any unexpected delays. If you need to submit your thesis template using Latex program, start using the program for an article template, make sure to know the department and university styles for the PDF file.

Break your thesis down into SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals. You will be more productive if you have a to-do list. Many small actions lead to one complete thesis.  Write down everything you do, even if it doesn’t work. This includes meeting notes, method details, code annotations, among other things.

Decide on your goals early. Look at your departmental guidelines and then establish clear PhD aims or questions on the basis of your thesis requirements. Goals can change later, but a clear plan will help you maintain focus.

Keep a running bibliography, you don't want to be writing a years' worth of references at the end of your PhD! If you keep an annotated bibliography, you not only avoid losing valuable time down the line, but also you keep a reflective journal that reminds you of what your thought patterns and processes were in prior terms.

Don’t compare yourself with others

Avoid comparing your research, achievements and progress with other students. All research is an opportunity to conduct something original that reveals new information. All PhD programmes are different and are based on your own view and understanding. You just need to do what works for you and your project! Also, don’t forget that not everything works out according to the plan. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad student! Remember, we all make mistakes. Keep calm, take a break and carry on. Even failed experiments and negative results can be still written up as a part of a successful PhD.

Enjoy your PhD! It can be tough, and there will be days when you wish you had a ‘normal’ job, but PhDs are full of wonderful experiences and give you the opportunity to work on something that fascinates you. Celebrate your successes and enjoy yourself.

Written by: Kathryn Chard – 2nd year PhD, Health & Social Care & Hannah Prentice – 4th year PhD, Biological Sciences



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