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How to Prepare for and Start a PhD

A doctoral degree is very different from any other form of education. So, it can be unclear what the best practices are in the early stages of PhD preparation and commencement. This guide explains some of the useful processes that can help you prepare for and start your PhD.

Building relationships

Early on in your preparation for a PhD, developing effective working relationships with several key people is important.

The most significant professional relationship that you will develop through a PhD is with your supervisor. They will:

  • Assist you in your doctoral research
  • Help coordinate your PhD study
  • Provide advice
  • Give constructive feedback on your work (most significantly on the final thesis)

However, the exact role and responsibilities your supervisor will actually perform depends on the nature of the research discipline, the university and both you and your supervisor’s working style and personalities.

Therefore, it is very important to develop an effective working relationship with your supervisor. Communication, especially early on as part of your PhD preparation, is critical in achieving this.

There are also some other key relationships that should be developed. These may be with the secondary supervisors, fellow PhD students, other research staff, and support staff.

Getting involved with your department / lab group

Most research departments and lab groups will hold regular meetings, and it's helpful to get involved in these early on in your PhD. Your department will probably hold research seminars - these are another chance to show an interest and get involved with other members of the university. There are likely to by plenty of other organised events, too.

In addition to being useful sources of information and guidance, the other members of your department or lab group may become your friends. Establishing professional and social relationships with them will be helpful over the course of your PhD.

What if I don’t get on with my supervisor?

If, for any reason, you feel that your relationship with your supervisor is counter-productive, there are several things that can be done.

Firstly, the problem with many student-supervisor relationships is a lack of communication. An honest and open discussion about your problems can help build effective relationships.

If the problem is with the supervisor’s working style, such as being absent or overbearing, communication could help fix this, too. There will also be additional support staff to help you.

If you still have problems, you should get in touch with your secondary supervisor and / or other staff members to fix the problem. If the relationship is irreparable, it can be possible to change supervisors with direction from your university.

Supervisor relationships

To develop an effective relationship with your supervisor, it’s important to understand what to expect from each other. You can find more about this in our guide to PhD supervisor expectations.

Planning your research

At the beginning of your PhD, or as preparation before you start, it will be helpful to plan your research.

This means expanding upon the research proposal, if you have written one, or researching more of the proposed project. It is valuable to become more knowledgeable about the research field, even before you start the PhD research.

Because a PhD is an independent research project, you will be responsible for the planning and management throughout. This planning includes setting SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, time-bound) aims and objectives.

What if my research focus has changed?

It is unlikely that the plans you make for your research will remain the same throughout your PhD. Encountering problems or new developments will change the focus or direction of the research. However, effective planning is still an important stage of the early PhD.

Finding a suitable working environment

In order to be successful in your PhD, it is helpful to find a suitable working environment. Everything should be set up to make it easier to focus on the PhD.

This includes:

  • Living within reasonable distance of the research institution you are studying at
  • Finding suitable working spaces such as a clean and organised office area free of distractions, or something similar
  • Having the tools to complete the research, such as a computer, access to library etc.

This may be more relevant if you are settling into a new city or country for your PhD. The earlier that you can settle in, the better.

Studying your PhD abroad

There can be additional challenges to starting a PhD in a different country. Our guide provides lots of useful information.

This is also important for maintaining your wellbeing and mental health. Establishing a suitable working environment, with access to any support you need, will be a significant advantage.

Completing your induction

Upon starting your PhD, you will usually go through some form of induction. This will be carried out by your university, a specific department, and / or your supervisor.

The induction should provide you with some information regarding:

  • training
  • health and safety
  • rules and regulations (of both the university and PhD programme)
  • organisation of meetings / seminars

During the PhD induction, you could be asked to complete a skills audit such as the Training Needs Analysis (TNA). This is a way of identiying your strengths and weaknesses, and finding ways to improve your skills throughout your doctorate. This will be started at the beginning of your studies, and will require regular updates throughout your PhD journey.

You may also be introduced to university or departmental student societies and invited to social events.

However, an induction will not provide you with all the training and skills you need to complete your PhD. Because doctoral research is self-taught study, you will be responsible for staying up-to-date with all your training and development needs.

Starting to write

For effective preparation and management of your PhD, you should consider writing early on in your research. It may even be possible to start before you commence your PhD.

Some of the first work you will be required to complete is a literature review and the MPhil upgrade. For each, you will need to submit some form of written work. The earlier that this is started and completed, the greater the benefit will be to the rest of your PhD. Some of this written work may even form part of your final thesis.

Conducting research and collecting results early

Although most of your research and results will typically be generated in your second and third years of PhD study, it can be extremely beneficial to start your research early on in your PhD.

Effective planning and management can allow you to achieve many of your results and work in the early stages of research.

This will also develop constructive working practice and habits for later on in your PhD.

What if my early research is poor / doesn’t work?

Any research performed early that ends up being of lower quality or importance will not be in vain. This work will provide valuable experience of research techniques and inform you of avenues that do not work. These negative results may still form part of your final thesis.

Doing a PhD

For more advice and guidance on the journey of doctoral research, check out our Doing a PhD guide. You can also search through over 5,000 PhD projects and programmes on FindAPhD.

Last updated - 20/11/2018

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