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10 things a new PhD student should know at the beginning of their study – postgraduate blog

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Postgraduate Student Andrea Mohan

Starting a PhD can be very exciting, but it can also be very scary to some students. Now that I’m in my final year, I realise that there are things that I had wish known when I first started. I’ve pulled together a list of 10 things (with the help of my peers) that you should know as a new PhD student.

  1. When you first start, you will feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s OK. In fact, that’s NORMAL. Chances are, you will still feel like this a year into your studies. How do you deal with this? Communicate with your supervisors on a regular basis, and speak to your peers as often as you need to. You’ll be amazed to find out how any people feel the same as you!
  2. In your first month, you’ll feel like you’re not doing anything. Relax. In this month, spend your time getting to know your way around your department and the university campus. Trust me. This can save you a lot of time in the future. Find out about specifics like printing, using the library and where the nearest kettle and microwave are located. Take wee walks around the campus and get to know the place better. Also, take the time to get acquainted with your fellow PhDs as well.
  3. Ask your postgraduate tutor or postgraduate representative (staff or student). Chances are, they will have the answer to your questions, or if not, they will direct you to someone who will know.
  4. If you’re new to research, and feel a bit nervous/daunted by the thought of doing a research degree, then find a good book that addresses this. One of my peers recommends Norman Blaikie’s book ‘Designing Social Research’ (Blaikie, N. (2010) Designing Social Research. (2nd edn) Cambridge: Polity Press).
  5. You may be shocked to find out that you are not a proper PhD ‘student’ when you first start. Don’t worry…for all intents and purposes, you are, but in most universities, you only become officially registered after some sort of review process. This usually occurs nine to twelve months after you first start, and the review process differs across institutions. Try to find out from the beginning what this process entails, and make sure that you prepare sufficiently for it.
  6. Try to establish a good working relationship with your supervisors, or at least your main supervisor from the beginning. It’s important that you are able to communicate properly with them. Don’t be afraid to let them know if you are worried about something relating to your study. If you finding it difficult to communicate with your supervisor, then speak to your postgraduate tutor or representative.
  7. Find a sport or a hobby. A lot of people will remind you that your PhD is not the only thing going on it your life, and this is true. Find something that you like to do, that can help you to de-stress. Just make sure that it doesn’t overtake your life and prevent you from doing your work. It’s all about balance.
  8. Take coffee/tea or lunch breaks with your peers. When pursuing a research degree it’s easy to feel isolated. If you’re in one day, and a peer or some peers are around, then ask them if they’d like to go get some coffee or lunch with you – even if it’s once a month. Don’t take it personal if some refuse (they may be genuinely busy).
  9. Try to find out what special events are on for postgraduate students throughout the year in your department and the university. There may also be seminars, writing days and lunches as well. If you can make time to attend some of these events, this will be useful in terms of helping you to meet and network with other peers (or members of staff).
  10. This tip is for international PhDs. I’ve spoken about isolation already, but this can affect international students even more than local students. The best way to deal with being homesick or being lonely is to make friends: befriend your PhD peers, find out if there is a group of students at the university that are from your country, or find a group of students who have similar interests as yourself. If you find yourself feeling really sad, speak to your supervisor or a counsellor.

Always remember that you are not in this alone!

Andrea Mohan
PhD Student, Health Sciences, University of Stirling

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