Things I wish I’d known at the start of my PhD

As the start of the new academic year approaches and I’m coming to the end of my third year as a PhD student I thought it would be a good time to share a few thoughts I’ve had (and collected from peers) about ‘things I wish I had known at the start of my PhD’.

1.The journey is the reward

Your time as a PhD student is as much about learning how to be a researcher as it is about completing you PhD project. You will have lots of opportunities as a postgraduate researcher to attend training events, seminars, and workshops; don’t feel guilty about taking time away from your research to go to these events even if they’re not directly related to your project. The same can be said for opportunities you might have to help with undergraduate teaching or even present your work, and I promise the more you present, the easier it gets!

Talking about my experiences at a Women In Engineering event to a group of girls from a local school

2.Don’t compare yourself to others

Imposter syndrome is so real in the world of academia but remember that each PhD journey is unique. Some people will publish papers, win awards, and go to international conferences, others won’t, and that’s okay! There’s a big ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ culture in academia but remember there’s no set way to do a PhD. Find people you can be open and honest with.

3.Organisation is key

Whether that be time, data, or papers, it’s so important to stay on top of things. Remember that in 3 years’ time you’ll be looking for a paper you read, some data you collected or something you wrote in your first year and you’ll want to be able to find it. Your future self will thank you for organising (and backing up!) your files and commenting your code, trust me!

4.Make the most of flexible working

There will be times in you PhD when you need to be on campus a lot for lab work, supervisor meetings or undergraduate teaching but there’s so much flexibility in when and where you work, so make the most of it! That might mean working 9-5 at your desk or it might be taking you laptop to a local café for a morning and then going for a bike ride in the afternoon. It’s important to learn how you work best and keep this flexible. Remember that it’s about the work you produce, not how many hours you put in. Lots of people find setting themselves mini deadlines a helpful way to stay on track.

Working in my favourite local café in Busbridge, Surrey

5.Your supervisor relationship is important

Your supervisor will play a large role in your PhD over the next 3-4 years and this relationship will look different for everyone. It’s helpful to establish some expectations of each other early on in terms of how often and how you expect to communicate with each other, specifically with regards to your supervisory meetings. Throughout this, remember your supervisor is there to help you, so it can be beneficial to maintain a profession relationship and try to not take criticism too personally.

There’s more I could say but every PhD journey is unique. Just remember, a lot of a PhD is working out what question you’re trying to answer and that’s okay. Welcome to the world of research and good luck with your PhD journey!