Advice for new PhD students

It’s that time of year again! Here’s a really nice blog post giving the top dos and don’ts for new PhD students by Prosanta Chakrabarty, via Exchange (a Wiley blog).

There are few things there I’d definitely add to a list of my own – for example,  how useful it is to establish a good social network, not just for professional purposes. In the end, it’s so often your labmates and friends that really give you the great ideas and get you through your PhD – not your supervisor or faculty advisors. Not that they’re not important. Prosanta recommends checking in with your supervisor early on, to which I’d add: don’t expect them to be the same sort of animal as your previous supervisor. I was used to weekly, chatty meetings with my undergrad project advisor, who liked to see whatever I had – even if that was a mindmap on the back on an envelope. That wasn’t the case for my PhD supervisor, who just didn’t have time for that – it took us a while to find the right balance, after what was for me a stressful start trying to adapt.

This post also points out something that almost everyone said to me in the first month of my PhD, and which I just could not seem to take in: Don’t try to pick a dissertation topic right away. I’d gotten my place on a project proposal, and was totally, utterly committed to it. When I arrived and found that it might not be as feasible as I’d thought, I balked, unable to think that something else might come along, or that changing PhD topics is actually really, really common. Learning to go with the flow is an important lesson in research. Stick to your questions – but learn to discard the questions that won’t get you anywhere.

I’d add a few things to this post too:

1. Get your references organised early.
Think indexing systems are boring? You’ll be laughing when it comes to writing your first paper and you have searchable notes on all that reading you did linked to the correct references. Pick a good referencing software and make it your friend. And repeat after me: filing is sexy! Filing is sexy!

2. Figure out who the good people to know are, and know them.
I’m not talking about networking – I’m talking about knowing who to email when you need a council tax exemption form and all the other new PhD students are running around in an impoverished panic. There are people in every University who have the power to make your life so much easier. Know who they are, and you will be rewarded many times over.

3. Prepare to publish.
As someone who made a conscious effort to write up as I went along, I can honestly say – there is no other way to proceed with a PhD in a calm and efficient fashion. In your first year publishing needn’t be your first priority, but by “prepare to publish” I mean: keep your analysis in order, your files somewhere you can find them, and your reading up to date (see 1). When the time comes to write up a chapter (and some time later, your dissertation), you will feel like a chump if that bit of crucial analysis is nowhere to be found, or that graph needs changing and you can’t find the code, or that paper with that key reference isn’t in your software and you can’t remember if… I could go on. But it gives me a headache.

4. Calm down.
You’ve just started your PhD, you have your matching stationary, your whiteboard already has a list of seven “to do” things on it, and you’ve just spent a day trying, and failing, to import a file into R for the first time. Relax. It’s hard to hear, but the first year of your PhD is one long stumbling block. You will fail. You will figuratively run around like a headless chicken in the great farmyard of science. You will sit poker-facing in meetings and talks where you are certain you have not one single clue what the speaker is talking about. Relax. Everyone does it, no-one really talks about it – like farting, or watching the cooking channel.

5. Don’t let other people tell you how to work.
So your officemates are in from 9-6 every day? It doesn’t mean you have to be. Don’t feel pressure to work a normal office day; don’t feel pressured to work weekends; don’t feel pressured to work in the office if you’d rather work at home. Working hard does not mean working long, and we are lucky enough to be in a system that realises that, and promotes flexibility. Figure out what works for you, and don’t let the office culture tell you what that is!

6. Take as many holidays as you can afford.
This was the first, and best bit of advice anyone gave me when I started my PhD, and it had been passed down to her by previous PhD students, and so on. A PhD is a long mental slog. It’s also the most flexible you will be in your entire life. If you can do points 1-5 then you will be efficient and productive. Reward yourself. You’ll finish your PhD, just like that one person who is in the lab for 12 hours every day. You’ll both get PhDs.

So, to all the new PhD students out there – good luck! Have fun! Onwards to glory!

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I’m now blogging part-time at BlueSci’s Zoology blog!

BlueSci is the University of Cambridge’s science magazine, written and edited by a crowd of excellent young writers and scientists. It’s always well worth a read if you’re able to pick it up around the University – if not, it’s available online at

I’m delighted to be joining their blogging team along with fellow Cambridge colleagues Max Gray and David Williams. (I will, of course, still be posting regularly here.) You can check out our posts here. First up – me! With the fascinating story of the deceptive fork-tailed drongo…