Top 4 tips for surviving the first year of your PhD

Every year of the PhD is hard. Year 2 is host to the dreaded ‘second year slump’, when you still have a long way to go, but the novelty and newness of doing your PhD is wearing off. Year 3 is full of the pressure of writing and editing, picking examiners and choosing when you will finally hand in, the year when the end is in sight. Year 1, on the other hand, is probably the strangest. It’s when you’re starting out, fresh-faced, full of optimism and anticipating new opportunities, knowing you have 3 full years ahead of you to do what needs to be done. But it’s also the year when you don’t really know what you’re doing or where to start, when optimism can quickly turn to dread and panic once the pressure of it all starts to dawn on you. So, to make the transition a little easier for anyone about to start their PhD, or in the middle of their first year already, I thought I would share my tips for surviving (and thriving!) in first year.

Write as soon as you have something to write about

As I’ve said in this previous post, developing your writing skills is vital throughout both the first and second years of your PhD. But future-you will also thank you a lot for getting those words down as soon as possible. I don’t know about any of you, but I forget what I’ve had for dinner last night, let alone what I read 2 or 3 years ago. The fact that I’ve already written about what I’ve read and researched doesn’t just mean I have the words on the page, it’s a great way to remember what I have found out, my older ideas – plus, it’s easy to refer back to. My supervisor encouraged me to write chapters as soon as I had done the research, and I’m so glad that he did. If I can pass on anything to first-years, this is perhaps the most important.

Keep track of what you do

While writing is a great way to keep track of all of your research, you will also need to keep organised with other things. As I’ve said previously, keeping all of your papers and online documents organised is paramount, and a good habit to get into early on. I also find it helpful, and encouraging, to log what I’ve been doing and when in my research journal. It’s nothing fancy, just a little notebook with information about what I’ve been working on and what I’ve done, as well as all the notes from my supervisions. This means that I’ve got all of my feedback from my supervisor in one easily accessible place, and looking through it is also a great way to plan my time and set realistic deadlines, since I can see exactly how long it took me to complete research, writing, or editing of every piece. Sometimes, I like to look back through it to see how far I’ve come – it’s a great exercise in self-reflection, and there’s something really satisfying about looking back at everything you’ve achieved.

Pen and notebook

My research journal

Build up a support network

One of the most crucial things when you start a PhD, and for throughout your PhD life, is to have a support network around you. As I’ve said, for me, this is mostly people who I live with, since I’m in university halls. For others, this is people in their department. Or maybe it’s friends from before your time starting a PhD, who you went to school with, or met during your undergraduate or Master’s years. Whoever it is, make sure you have someone you can open up to, who will be there to talk if you’ve had a bad day, a bad supervision, or who you just want to rant to. Everyone knows that mental health difficulties are a huge problem in PhD study, but this can be greatly mediated with a strong support network.

Start where you want to start

When I started my PhD, I was under the impression that most people started with a literature review, so naturally that’s what I chose to do first. In hindsight, I consider this a mistake. I’m sure for some people it’s a great way to ease into their topic, but for me, I didn’t really know what my topic truly was, until now, three years later. Now, it’s clear to me that a lot of what I read at the start, while it was interesting, is no longer relevant for my thesis. I wish I had just hit the ground running and jumped straight into the real core of my research. The moral of the story is – don’t feel pressured into following the status quo, take the time, both independently and in consultation with your supervisor, to really consider where it would be best for you to start.

Stack of books

I can’t lie and say that the first year of the PhD is easy, because no year of a PhD is. However, while it presents unique challenges, the first year also provides opportunities for you to develop and put into practice habits that will help you throughout all of your PhD, and maybe beyond. If you put the work in, you can really make the most of your first year.

Most of all though – be kind to yourself. A PhD is a learning process, not something anyone does because they already know everything. It’s okay to feel lost, confused, and unsure – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be doing it right.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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