So you’ve been offered the opportunity to become a PhD candidate. Congratulations!
That really is one of the harder parts of your academic career, so you should be proud of reaching this milestone.
You stood out from a high level of competition, and you should remember how valued you now feel by your new PhD supervisors. Well done.
Once that PhD studentship is offered, I’ve seen many people online asking, “what can I do to prepare for a PhD?”, and it got me thinking about a fun-filled six months I had before I moved to Germany to start my own PhD in 2016.
Here are six pieces of advice I would give to any upcoming PhD candidate:
1. Get some rest!
Don’t feel the need to make your PhD preparation a 9-5 routine. You’re about to enter an intense period of your life, full of multiple tasks, challenges, adversity, and deadlines (you will have time for fun too, I promise!). Burning yourself out BEFORE the PhD has even started is counterproductive, so be sure to enjoy yourself. Spend time with your friends and family, consider a holiday, and fill your time with a number of fun endeavours.
I was offered a PhD scholarship in March 2016, with a start date of September 2016. This was the year that my boyhood team Leicester City won the Premier League, so it’s safe to say that I enjoyed the six months before my PhD commenced!
Finding a PhD wasn’t easy though (as I’m sure you will all agree). I had spent over a year trying to secure a PhD scholarship (check out some dark times in my life in my previous blog), so a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders when I was offered an opportunity to move to Germany. The stress I’d put myself under gave me a new sense of perspective. “It’s only a PhD”, I told myself. Nothing would match the sheer misery I had felt just trying TO GET a PhD opportunity.
“You’ve been accepted. Now it’s time to relax, enjoy the summer, and look forward to a new adventure abroad.”
Whilst I highly advocate rest, there are a few things you can do in your spare time to get up to speed, as you will read in my subsequent points.
2. Absorb the wisdom of others.
Don’t just rely on academic Twitter for advice on PhD life (it often contains horror stories, and doesn’t give a fair balance of PhD experiences). Whilst social media, Google and YouTube (even my own channel!) are useful resources, nothing beats a real conversation with a current PhD student or experienced academic in your field. Pick the brains of others and ask insightful questions:
“What advice would you give to someone about to begin a PhD?”
“What have you learnt about yourself from your own academic experience?”
“If you started a PhD again, what would you tell yourself?”
Reach out to multiple people via LinkedIn, Twitter and e-mail. Try to keep your message concise (3-4 questions), and don’t hesitate to send a polite reminder message if you don’t receive a reply after a week. Before I started my PhD, I e-mailed around 30-40 academics with multiple questions. The conversations raised plenty of areas I hadn’t even considered, which turned out to be vital in my PhD preparation! Networking with people doesn’t take long, and the experience of others will really help you feel more prepared for your new journey.
3. Research your upcoming surroundings.
Get a feel for where you are moving to.
Do not leave the key details to the last minute! Examples include:
• Properties to rent
• Good and bad areas in town
• Tourist attractions
• Local amenities (restaurants, cafes, gyms)
• University societies (e.g. sports teams, support groups)
From experience, I regret not taking this aspect seriously. In my first few weeks in Germany, I was living in a complex owned by the university, and struggled to find a rental property of my own. I also did no real research on what the town had to offer, and how to make the most of social opportunities in the local area. Such factors can be key to settling down when starting your PhD, so please learn from my mistakes and do your homework before you move!
4. Reach out to upcoming colleagues.
This is something I strongly recommend. You are about to spend three years around a small pool of people in a little department building. Under such potential cabin fever conditions, it can only help if you get on with people!
Drop a friendly introduction e-mail to a range of students and staff. Consider the following cohorts:
• Other PhD students
• Research Assistants
• Lecturers in the department
• Practitioners (e.g. Laboratory Technicians)
Personalise your e-mails. It won’t look great if you send the same template e-mail to twenty different staff members. I have experienced this, and it made me reluctant to reply to a seemingly disingenuous and lazy message. Use the university website to find staff profiles, and absorb information from their biographies to break the ice. Such examples include:
“I noticed you have published a paper on…”
“I saw on your biography that you have worked with…”
“I was interested to read about your teaching experience in…”
Show a genuine interest in the people who you are contacting. Naturally you are introducing yourself and getting your name out there, but don’t make it all about you. Make it a mutually beneficial conversation.
One final thing. Remember that you don’t have to get on with EVERYONE at work. From some e-mail responses, you may not feel a chemistry with certain department members. Don’t worry about this. Use this communication to get a feel for people with mutual interests and attitudes, and allow positive relationships to form naturally. Never feel you have to work on a relationship with somebody who is not as keen to be warm or welcoming.
5. Brush up on relevant skills.
From your own self-reflection and networking with academics (as recommended in Section 2 of this article), are there any areas you want to strengthen before you start your PhD?
Break down your upcoming PhD and analyse the different segments. You will have to share your research at a conference, or present a proposal to your supervisors. How do you rate your presenting skills? Your PhD may involve some qualitative statistical analysis. How confident are you right now in that area?
I’m not advising you to burn yourself into the ground and become an expert in the relevant areas before the PhD has even started, but develop some BASIC skills in relevant areas whilst you still have the free time. From experience, trying to learn new skills from scratch whilst also keeping up with multiple tasks and deadlines DURING your PhD can make things more chaotic. I’d often be in such a situation and ask myself “why didn’t I learn this earlier?”, and have plenty of regrets that I didn’t use my free six month period before my PhD brushing up on these skills.
Use multiple resources to suit your learning style. For many PhD skills, you aren’t too far away from finding blogs, books, podcasts, webinars and videos to help you develop. Many of these resources are free, and suit beginner, intermediate and advanced skill levels. Be proactive and use your time wisely in order to hit the ground running as a PhD student. You’ll feel more confident, and create a great first impression with your supervisors if you turn up prepared.
Remember to just keep it basic and develop a grounding of these skills.
Just having some fundamentals will be a life-saver in the future (trust me!).
6. Understand career pathways.
My career goal post-PhD was always to become a university lecturer. I understood the importance of completing the PhD to move forwards in my career, and I welcomed any teaching experience that could come my way during the PhD period.
Do you know what you want to do after your PhD?
Great! If this is you, then take the time before your PhD begins to read relevant job adverts (even though you won’t apply for such positions for another three or four years). Take note of the level of experience, skill-set, and qualifications required in order for you to understand what you need to get those roles in three or four years down the line. Before my PhD began, I would read adverts for lecturing positions and write a list of goals in my diary. It looked something like this:
• Gain teaching experience
• Acquire module leadership skills
• Seek experience in admin duties (setting and assessing assignments/examinations)
• Become experienced in providing pastoral care for students
• Assist students with placement searches
All of that was now in my remit as a PhD student, and I was proactive in finding these opportunities. For me, this preparation and vision meant there were no surprises in job adverts when I started to apply for lecturer roles in the future.
On the flip side, are you someone who isn’t sure of what to do after the PhD? That is no problem! Use multiple resources to learn more about different career routes. I’d recommend the following:
• Speak to the Careers Service at your university
• Contact experienced academics in your field and ask questions
• Gain advice from current PhD students in your field
• Throw questions out on social media (e.g. #AcademicChatter)
• Do your own research online (Google/YouTube)
Don’t feel the need to use this exercise as a way of cementing a career option, but just see it as a way of raising general awareness of the number of career options you have.
Why did I feel the need to research such information BEFORE my PhD had started?
There are two reasons. Firstly, understanding the essential and desirable criteria from lecturing job advertisements allowed me to create a list of goals that I knew I had to adhere to if I wanted to get ahead of the competition in my field. Secondly, it gave me increased motivation. On the days where I would slump and feel deflated, being fully aware of the standards I needed to become a lecturer would give me a push and keep me focused on getting through the PhD.
As mentioned, you don’t need to have your career mapped out BEFORE the PhD has even started, but having a basic awareness of career options may reduce anxiety and give you more focus over the next few years.
It really is up to you what you do with your spare time before your PhD begins, and it’s not for me to tell you what to do as you are about to embark on your exciting journey. We all have different methods, and it’s about YOU finding a routine that makes you happy and motivated to start your PhD.
What worked for me may not work for you.
That said, I hope some of my points discussed were of interest, and gave you something to think about!
In my opinion, there should be a balance between rest and preparation as you are about to begin your PhD journey. You can always a find an hour here or there to read through job adverts and plan ahead, or spare fifteen minutes to send networking messages to academics. A statistics course may take you a week, but it may prove valuable in the long-term and reduce anxiety and pressure during the hectic PhD data analysis period.
Make sure you do enjoy that period of rest too. Also bear in mind that a PhD will give you time to rest, and that there is more to life than a PhD. Don’t let it absorb you, and don’t feel that the rest period before your PhD will be your last chance to kick back!
Contact me on Twitter if you wish to discuss anything further, and check out my YouTube channel for content to help you settle into PhD life. Enjoy your PhD, and remember to keep talking to people through the process. You are not alone.