Preparing for your PhD: 5 Top Tips Before You Start a PhD |
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Posted on 8 Sep '22

Preparing for your PhD: 5 Top Tips Before You Start

You’ve undoubtedly put in a lot of hard work to get here, but with a PhD the hard work truly begins.

You may be nervous, excited, apprehensive. . . but here are five tips (that I wish I had known!) that will help you get the most from your PhD.

1. Hit the ground running

A full-time PhD programme lasts three to four years. This may seem like a long time, but it won’t come as a surprise that this time can fly by. By the time you have finished, you’ll wish you had time for one more experiment, one more study.

So, to squeeze every minute out of your research programme you’ll need to hit the ground running. Often, the first year is seen as the introductory year, where the PhD student becomes familiar with the work environment, the specific field of study, and the research techniques. However, the first year is also something of a wasted opportunity; quite often much of the time and effort that goes in during the first year does not translate into outcomes or results. It is common to look back at the start of a PhD with a sense of regret.

To avoid this, you can start working now. Put in as much research as you can, even before you formally start. Learn about your research topic, plan your experiments, and understand what it is you want to have produced and what you want to achieve by the end of your degree. The more you can do now, the better position you will be in on day one.

Make sure you are organised right from the start, too. Regularly document everything you do, update your notes, and use your lab book. If you start as you mean to go on, good organisation will be extremely useful when it comes to writing your thesis and preparing for your viva voce.

2. Communication is key

The major skill that you are encouraged to develop during your PhD, regardless of your discipline, is independence. Be an independent learner, an independent thinker, an independent researcher. But being independent should not mean being isolated.

Make sure you communicate as much as you can. Talk with other students and researchers, in other departments, universities and beyond. Learn the best way to talk about your research to people at parties or at the pub. Can you explain what you do to your grandparents? The Three Minute Thesis competition has great examples of researchers who excel at explaining their work to a lay audience. Get comfortable and confident at communication – you never know how or when it will pay off.

Of course, the most important person you need to communicate with is your PhD supervisor. Now, PhD supervisors come in all shapes and sizes, and you never you what you’re going to get. Some may be hands-on, some may prefer to leave you be. You could be your supervisor’s only PhD student, you could be one of ten. In whatever case, you will need to adapt to your supervisor and staying in good communication them is the most important way to do it. A good working relationship with your supervisor will not only lead to a good PhD, but to a professional relationship that can last well into your future career.

3. Write up early

As with the first year being the ‘introductory year’, another misnomer is that the final year is the ‘writing-up year’. It’s common practice that the final year is the time to collate the research findings and write the PhD thesis. This is a highly stressful time, filled with regret, despair and panic. In fact, many people quit at this stage (sorry to be all doom-and-gloom!). So why bother with a writing-up year? Why leave all that writing until the final moments? Why not start now?

It’s easy to get writing early. Even if you haven’t started your PhD yet, you can still get working on an introduction. You will quite often find yourself with a spare half-hour; instead of scrolling through Facebook, why not write a few lines? It all adds up, and with word-processing apps on your phone or tablet it’s easier than ever. Being able to write whenever, wherever is a brilliant way to use your time wisely.

It’s easy to think that there is little advantage to writing early. After all, in three years’ time much of it may need editing or updating. But, it is much easier to change or add to your thesis than it is to write from scratch.

4. Your career starts now

In the process of studying for a PhD, you may find yourself trapped within the ‘PhD bubble’. It’s as if your research consumes all and nothing else matters. But your PhD will be over in three to four years – then what? What are the next steps in your career? It’s true that PhD graduates are highly employable, but how do you stand out from the crowd?

Your university will offer doctoral training courses, some of which may be compulsory. These are great resources to enhance your current skills and develop new ones. Make sure you take advantage of these; they are an excellent way of fleshing out your CV and helping you become a well-rounded researcher. But, it is important to identify what skills you need to learn early on. It’s no good realising you do not have enough experience or confidence in public speaking too late. The Researcher Development Framework by Vitae is a brilliant tool to identify what you’re good at, and what needs work.

It is also a good idea to sign up to the research-relevant social media platforms early. If you don’t already have them, register for ORCID, ResearchGate, LinkedIn and These platforms are great for creating your researcher profile and collating everything you will publish.

Your PhD study is also a great time to practise the dark art of being a professional researcher: networking. The old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is still true in academia. An often repeated statistic is that 70% of job vacancies are never formally advertised; they are offered to people in the know. Fortunately, a PhD is the perfect time and environment to start building connections and relationships with people. During your study, you will go to research meetings, conferences, and other opportunities to meet people. You will meet lots of fellow researchers and academics, people in industry and elsewhere. Get your name out there – chat to people, show an interest in what they do. You never know what will come of it. And the earlier you start, the better.

5. Look after you

A PhD degree can be tough. There will be days, weeks, even months where nothing seems to work. In times like these, it is important to remember to look after yourself. Managing work-life balance is not just good for keeping things in perspective, it’s an integral skill for a researcher. Don’t neglect friends and family, and find time for activities and hobbies. You may have to work long hours and say no to some things, but make sure you relax when you can. Even Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse has advised “Don’t work too hard”. When you’re stuck in a quagmire and can’t seem to get any success, taking the time to unwind can give you a fresh perspective to get you going again.

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Last Updated: 08 September 2022