A reflection on my first month of PhD or, Hello, I’m you in five weeks’ time

Esme Lillywhite offers some inspiring words on the initial stages of the PhD journey for new PGRs.

Me in the first week of PhD: P A N I C

A yellow bird on a branch with multiple letter As in the background to represent screaming
Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA/comments/e02072/aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa/

Me now: :))))

A white cat looking very pleased with itself
Source: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/smug-cat

Ok, now let me use my words:

For the first week of my PhD, I had just moved countries and had graduated from my Master’s degree on the same day I began at Strathclyde. I hope you aren’t starting your PhD in such a chaotic style as myself, but I’m guessing you can relate to my feeling of being totally overwhelmed in the face of starting such a great endeavour.

I didn’t have my first supervisory meeting for a week, and I felt so overwhelmed and confused as to what my first step should be. On my first morning, I frantically opened a bunch of tabs and started listing some unfocussed literature, looking up data and reports, and repeatedly googling “what am I supposed to be doing on the first day of my PhD?” All of the inductions materials I had been sent were open on the ten other tabs.

But it got better! After going through the induction information, having my first supervisory meeting and meeting some colleagues, fast forward five weeks later and I am feeling energised and excited for this first phase of my PhD. It might be overwhelming at first but you will get to this point too. So, I wanted to give some advice based on my first five weeks at Strathclyde.

Whether you’ll have a formal induction, or a less formal one, I recommend reading the handbooks and other information you’ve been sent. In my faculty handbook I found loads of helpful stuff, especially the generic outline of a PhD journey that they provided. It will be important for you to get to grips with the library website, cyber security training, Neptune and Pegasus. But also, I found it really useful, particularly as someone starting remotely, to have a look over the Strathclyde website, my faculty page, the SU page, and at student blogs in order to start to get to know the new community you’re going to be a part of. It lets you get an idea of the culture you’re going to be joining, and it wasn’t until this step that I started being able to place myself in my new university and new role. It’s a lot of information, but it’s going to sink in over the first couple of weeks, I promise.

The official advice, according to my student handbook, is that the first three months should be used for settling in, training needs analysis, engaging with existing literature, formulating research question, working on a detailed chapter outline and elaborating on methodology. This is great advice (although make sure you take it one step at a time!), so let me supplement with my own more generic advice from what I’ve learned:

  • Write! I think I’ve written more in the past 5 weeks than I did for the last 6 months, and it was all on my PhD topic (including synergistic topics and personal reflection). It’s great to have your whole brain just buzzing along on one topic so just wait for your brain to get into that groove. It’s so important to always be writing- not with high expectations, especially when you’re just getting started, but just writing to get all those thoughts out of your head! I personally find journaling helpful, but that’s up to you.

  • Talk! I’m lucky in that I have weekly meetings with other PhD students in my research centre, but also talk to anyone who will listen to you about what you’re thinking! Talking has really got my brain juices flowing (ew), especially getting different perspectives on my research question. It’s important in this initial stage to look at different avenues to explore and different perspectives, and it’s been energising for my research process.

  • Rest! Come on, it’s absolutely necessary for me to say, don’t go too hard on yourself in this first month. You need time to adjust to a new rhythm, and your later self will thank you for not burning yourself out too much in the first month. I know it’s super tempting to work overtime to impress your new supervisors and colleagues and live up to your own expectations, but remember, you’re in charge here and set your own pace. Personally, I take two days off a week and it’s always great getting back to work on Monday morning with my brain juices all funky again (I’m sorry, I have to stop with the brain juices analogy). I originally wanted to do a 9-5 Monday-Friday schedule, but found it didn’t work for me, so I’ve been adjusting my schedule along the way.

Moreover, I’ve set myself up a nice little desk; bought myself an academic diary, got my notebook to scribble ideas into, and have my coffee cups piling up next to me. Welcome to the PhD life, my friends! Make sure to enjoy your stay.

Finally, I’ll conclude with a single don’t:

  • Don’t think about the whole three (or more) years, and all the tasks you must complete, and what to do after, and everything all at once because it will be very overwhelming, and you will get dizzy. This is where I was in my first couple of weeks. I felt so overwhelmed, and that everything was too big to fit into my brain and I was slightly paralysed. After slowing down and taking things one step at a time, I can reflect more on my goals for the next three years in a calm manner without stressing about all the things I want to do. I am on my fifth week, and I am working full steam ahead with ideas buzzing around everywhere. It does not take long!

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