First Encounters of the PhD Kind – What it’s Like to Actually Start a Doctorate |
Posted on 12 Mar '20

First Encounters of the PhD Kind – What it’s Like to Actually Start a Doctorate

About to start your PhD journey but unsure what to expect? PhDs are full of new experiences. Here are some of those I had – hopefully they will help you prepare for the unknowns and surprises in your own research journey.

First supervisory meeting

Whatever you study, most PhDs begin the same way: an initial meeting with your supervisory team.

Well, my first project meeting with my supervisors did not start as I anticipated. I had prepared some rough notes about topics I could bring up, but nothing detailed – I had only just started after all. During my undergraduate meetings, my tutor had lead the conversation and directed the meeting flow. This wasn’t the case at all at a PhD meeting.

It actually went something like this:

I entered the room, listening to my internal monologue: “Okay, here we go, one on one with my supervisors, am I prepared? Do I know what I’m saying? . . . I think so. I’m sure it will be fine I’ve only just started, so they should go easy on me. . .”

We sat down around the meeting room table. They looked at me expectantly and said “Right, go on then”, to which I replied with a blank stare. The pause felt like an hour but must have only been a few seconds. It was followed by a question: “What have you got to show us?” I wasn’t expecting this –Where were the gentle introductions? – Where should I start?

I finally got my wits about me and talked through what experimental procedure I had prepared. By the end I don’t think it went too bad, and I knew what to expect for next time – and how to avoid seeming like a complete idiot.

First lab meeting

In a Bioscience PhD like mine, lab meetings are where members of the group get together and either talk about what they have been up to or give a longer presentation on their work over the past month or so. Other subjects will have similar formal or informal meetings – particularly if there are lots of PhD students in the department.

I didn’t know what to anticipate from my first lab meeting, though I remember asking myself – what will be expected of me? Do I need to prepare anything?

Because I was new, I had to introduce myself to those I hadn’t yet met. There are about 12 people in our lab group, I know some groups can be bigger, but it still felt quite daunting.

As we went around the table, one by one the members of the lab updated everyone else about their recent findings and asking for advice on techniques that weren’t quite going to plan. I had no idea what most of the people were discussing, so I couldn’t really help; I had to pick up on the subtle things they were saying to try and figure out what their research is about. This was very difficult as they were all using acronyms – it was almost like they were talking in code.

Then came my turn. My heart was racing. I couldn’t calm down. Why couldn’t I calm down? It made trying to talk all that much more difficult: people were going to hear how nervous I was, which made me more nervous. I was mostly worrying about what I was going to say “Is it good enough that I’ve only done a little reading and some experiment planning? – I haven’t even been in the lab yet!”

In the end, all I did (and could) say was what my project is about and what my plans were. Not very exciting, but maybe next time I would have something to show. After all that worthless worrying, people understood my position and seemed interested in what I had to say.

First time in the lab

I don’t think it matters how much practical experience you have, starting a PhD in a new lab always leaves you feeling lost and disoriented. I imagine it’s similar for other students, trying to find their way around libraries, archival resources and department politics.

Now, I’d done some lab work previously, but I still felt very nervous to actually start for my PhD. Maybe it was because I would be working in an actual research lab, rather than a teaching lab? In undergraduate, my supervisor had started me off easily with a protocol I’d followed before, so I knew what I was doing and why. However, this time I didn’t even know where anything was. Everyone seemed very busy and focused; I didn’t want to disturb them.

I started to look in random cupboards, praying I’d find the right one. I found myself quickly trying to remember the lab induction a few weeks earlier “I’m sure the glass beakers were in one of those cupboards. Maybe someone moved them?”

In the end, the protocol went well and I felt better to have started physical research rather than just reading about it. Things took me slightly longer than expected, but I felt like I was settling into the lab. Experiments obviously got easier as I carried on.

First time presenting at a lab meeting

The first time I presented my research was a nerve-wracking experience. I felt like I knew my lab group a little better by this point but the thought of standing up in front of them all and presenting my recent data still seemed a big task.

Again, my internal monologue stuck up, worrying whether my presentation was good enough – “Do I have enough results for the time I’ve been working on my project? Do I know what I’m going to say for each slide? Will I freeze up or get something wrong?”

I’d done presentations at undergrad and the only thing I remembered being told is that I sound monotone and boring when I talk (why is it that the bad comments stick with you?). The internal monologue stepped up a gear to panic: “People will think I’m not qualified to do this, that I’m an incompetent imposter who only got here because offered me the place by accident.”

Everyone was looking at me expectantly. But you know what? After the first couple of slides were over I started to feel more confident and comfortable talking about my work. I actually knew more about my project than I gave myself credit for. Then came the questions – the bit I was most worried for. But these really helped reveal where I could take my research next and gave me the drive to ask more questions of my own, about my data.

Looking back, this is a good way to prepare you for the future as you will most likely have to present to a wider audience and even at conferences!

Take away message

Starting a PhD can be a daunting task and there’s nothing that can prepare you for the unknown. But know this – it’s really not as bad as you (or your internal monologue!) may expect.

Also, you’re not alone. Everyone feels a little awkward at the start of a PhD – you just can’t hear the thoughts inside their heads. So relax, if you can: go forth and enjoy the first experiences as a PhD student.

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Last Updated: 12 March 2020