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Posted on 5 Apr '18

The 1st Year of a PhD - Surviving the Initial Month of Madness

Are you considering a PhD and wondering what to expect from the start of a doctorate? In this special series Kirsty Smitten looks back at the first year of her PhD in Chemistry. Here she reflects on the very first month of her degree. Signup and make sure you don't miss a post.

Starting your PhD may be a daunting process, especially if you are moving to a new city. When beginning my own PhD I found that there was little information out there on what to expect within the first month, or even week. But the start of your PhD doesn’t have to feel like being thrown in at the deep end. In this post I’ll settle your nerves slightly, drawing on my own experience.

Induction week

As I entered the main building for the general postgraduate university induction I was surrounded by students from multiple departments looking around nervously as they waited to begin their time as PhD students. The induction itself was very informative: we were told about the University, the support network available, what the next four years would entail and, perhaps more importantly, the societies and union events we’d be able to take part in.

The departmental induction was somewhat different. Here I met the other 18 new Chemistry PhD students, some of whom I knew and others that I didn’t. Team building, those typically enjoyable spaghetti bridge making exercises, allowed us all to socialise, making the new students feel more comfortable. The session concluded with a safety talk, where the safety officer tried to ensure one of us wouldn’t accidentally cause an explosion in a department filled with natural gas. All in all, it was quite an enjoyable week.

Meeting one with the supervisors

I went in thinking this was going to be the first of five meetings I would have with my supervisors that month. How wrong could I be. The truth is your supervisors are probably busy, and within a science degree the likelihood of you having new results every week is slim. (If you do then please let me in on your secret).

This means that the first meeting with your supervisors will be important, setting you up for the work you’ll do over the next few weeks. So, what was it like?

For me the initial meeting was a combination of déjà vu and nerves. My supervisor had been my personal tutor for four years. Entering his office in this new scenario as one of his research students was slightly odd. Usually I’d be picking up dreaded exam results or handing in tutorials. This time I was greeted by a familiar face and my second supervisor from another department.

As I was starting in MBB (Molecular Biology & Biotechnology) for the first time it was difficult to understand the microbiological terms the supervisor used. However, the meeting was a brilliant experience, I learned what I would be spending 4 years researching and was able to provide my input into the direction of the project.

Finding my feet

After that first supervisory meeting, you will have an idea of what you will be doing. So, the next step is to meet the research group, familiarise yourself with the work everyone does, and decide where to begin.

Some people spend the first month reading, some degrees require you to do this for a literature review. I’d already read some of the relevant literature prior to starting my PhD (and I’d definitely recommend this if you know enough about your project to do it).

Now, I felt the best approach was to just get into the lab and get a head start on the work. It is a bit scary walking into a research lab, but luckily my group was large, I had support with my initial experiments, which meant I found my feet quickly.

Dealing with group clashes

Not everyone will experience this problem within their degree, and most likely not within their first month. However, personalities sometimes clash.

Discussing any issues or clashes is a good first step, but, if this doesn’t help, you should make your supervisor aware of the problem, and, if necessary, also approach HR. Sometimes to maintain the peace of the group it is difficult for the supervisor to get involved and approaching an external support system is a good option. A small number of initial problems in my lab were easily mediated and the problem was quickly resolved.

Working outside the typical week

I remember when I was asking PhD students about their research, they’d say they dedicated every hour of their lives to their project. This made it sound like they lived and slept within the lab. So, how true did this end up being?

I can’t speak for every subject, but within Biosciences it is very probable you will have to work some weekends or evenings. Sometimes experiments over-run, or bacteria need to be grown the night before, these things can’t be helped.

However, there is freedom within your research, as long as you work the 37.5 hours in the university contract. This is a wonderful benefit to PhD study. It means you can have a long lunch to see your friends, or in my case my puppy, and if you do work a weekend you can have some time off in the week.

Life outside of my PhD

People often think that working towards a PhD means you won’t find the time to do anything else. This isn’t the case. I play hockey alongside my studies, as well as being a devoted Sheffield Steelers ice hockey fan. Whatever your interests, I would recommend joining a society, or looking for a sports team: university sport is a great way to escape from the pressure of your studies and have some fun.

I would also suggest you attend any induction fairs at the beginning of your PhD. That way you can find out about societies and events. In my university there is a postgraduate society, running sporting and social events in the first month. I found these were a great way to meet new people.

Overall, the first month of your PhD can be a bit scary. However, if you submerse yourself into postgraduate life, get a head start with your work, and make sure you maintain a balance of social, active and educational lifestyles, you will find yourself settling in very well. So much so you might look at your calendar as I have and realise you’re suddenly half way through second year wondering where all the time went.

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Last Updated: 05 April 2018