Congratulations! You have been accepted into your PhD program and are about to embark on one of the greatest academic challenges of your life. This journey will be a rollercoaster of emotions, providing you with lots of opportunities for personal and professional growth. It will be both rewarding and challenging, and it’ll be an enormous part of your life for the next few years.
After accepting your offer, however, you might feel lost and underwhelmed, unsure of what steps to take next. Should you dive in and start laying the groundwork for your research? To help guide you through this exciting yet daunting time, I’ve compiled a list of advice that was given to me before I began my own PhD, as well as a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Celebrate your acceptance.
Firstly, recognise the achievement of being accepted into a doctoral program. This is a huge accomplishment and you should definitely take some time to celebrate. After all, it can take months or even years of preparation to get to this point. So go ahead, celebrate and acknowledge your hard work and dedication. It’s official, you’re going to be a PhD student! This is just the first step in your postgraduate research journey, so start as you mean to go on by celebrating your first milestone.
2. Rest up!
You’ve put in a lot of time and effort into researching and writing your applications, not to mention the anticipation of waiting for a response. Now it’s time to take a break and rest. When my current PhD supervisor told me to do this, I thought he was joking. He was not.
Pursuing a PhD is likely to be the most difficult academic journey you’ve ever taken, and it requires consistent attention and effort. Although you will have opportunities to take breaks, you may not have the same level of freedom to rest for quite some time. So, take some time off to sleep, spend quality time with family and friends, and recharge. You deserve it, and there will be plenty of time for hard work later.
3. Talk with your supervisor.
After you’ve rested, and only after you’ve rested, you may progress onto step three. Now, there are a few different ways of starting a PhD, and nearly all of them require that you have some form of communication with your supervisors. Building a good relationship with your supervisor is crucial in a PhD program, and it is likely that you have not had much time to get to know them yet. Like Mercedes Gómez-López considers, ‘a good supervisor teaches you’. Introduce yourself and share your expectations for the PhD, as well as any concerns or specific needs you may have. It is also important to discuss your personal life and responsibilities, such as caring for others or childcare. This will allow you to collaborate on a plan before you start the program.
4. Network with your peers.
Building a network of peers is an important step in starting your doctoral program. Steven Zhou suggests that pursuing a PhD is like launching a startup business; starting a business requires networking, and so does academia. While your supervisors can certainly help you with this, it’s also important to take the initiative yourself. You can start by searching for other students who are also starting the program. You can reach out to them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or other networks. It’s also a good idea to connect with current and former students in the program. This can give you a sense of what to expect and help you feel more comfortable as you begin your studies. By building a network of peers early on, you’ll have a support system to turn to as you progress through your doctoral program.
5. Plan your move.
You’re likely going to have to move to study at a new university, so be sure to chat with your newfound connections about it. Find out where the best spots are, where the other doctoral students live, and how far away this is from university. There’s going to be a lot of planning here, so be sure to start early. Remember that there will be a lot of undergrad and masters students moving in around the same time, so there might be a rush on accommodation.
If you’re not moving, or have decided to live at home, be sure to consider your new schedule. Doing a PhD is unlike any other degree you’ve done before, and you’ll need a dedicated space to work with minimal distractions. If you’re distance learning, find out whether there is a university near you and whether you can gain access through your institution. There are various schemes available which will let you use different academic libraries, or have books sent to public libraries near you. Ask your library team – they’ll be more than happy to help.
6. Check out the local area.
It’s important to familiarize yourself with the area you’ll be living in during your doctoral studies. Take some time to explore the local area and get a feel for the community. If possible, visit your institution before starting the program to become more familiar with the campus and surrounding areas. The environment in which you live can have a significant impact on your overall happiness and wellbeing, so it’s worth taking the time to ensure that you feel comfortable in your new surroundings. Don’t hesitate to reach out to current students for recommendations on things to do and places to explore.
If you’re staying at home, then make a list of all the places you already love and discover new ones as well. Look for local libraries and coffee shops for places to write when your desk at home isn’t doing the trick.
7. Check out any additional course requirements.
Read the handbook! There will be plenty to red during your doctoral studies, and your student handbook should be the first. Now, it is very tempting to skip this one at the beginning of your journey, but it’s definitely worth taking a glance at. The handbook will contain the administrative aspects of your studies, including crucial deadlines and dates to remember, but it could throw up some surprises. You may be required to complete specific modules or earn extra credits during your PhD, and it’s important to learn about these early on so you can create a plan.
8. Get organized.
You don’t have to be too intensive at this point, but it could be a good idea to start putting together some resources. Buy yourself a diary. Create an ongoing reading list with relevant literature in your field, and maybe even start reading some of it. Create a study schedule and think about how you’re going to separate your time. Think about what extracurricular activities or trips you might want to do, and look at how you might go about applying. Consider making a sleep schedule, or how you will stick to regular working hours. You don’t have to do all of these, but thinking about some of them can help. Shivani Sickotra shares some great practical advice on managing your PhD, including creating a Gantt chart as a way of mapping about your project timeline.
9. Find out about professional associations in your field.
You can join professional associations in your field to aid your professional development. For instance, if you study sociology then you might be interested in the British Sociological Association. These offer brilliant opportunities to learn more and keep up to date with the latest findings in your field by giving you access to resources and networking opportunities. There will be a cost involved (usually with a discounted student rate) so be make sure you do your research before you sign up. You can always ask your supervisors and peers about which of these they’re already a member of.
10. Look after yourself.
The problem with these types of articles is that they risk making a PhD sound easy. Anyone can tell you create a sleep pattern as if they’ve stuck by one every day of their doctoral studies. I haven’t. I’ve had more journal rejections than I’ve had acceptances. I’ve had difficult supervisions and missed deadlines. I’ve also had great supervisions and handed work in early. I’ve worked many, many weekends. Of course, you’re much more than your PhD and your life outside of your research will challenge you too. Show yourself kindness at every stage of this journey. It is unique to you, and you may have to adapt your approach as time goes by. Prioritize yourself in the process by looking after your mental and physical health. Make time for things you like to do outside of academia.
As I come to the end of these suggestions, I want to remind you that you are the most important thing about doing a PhD. You’re not alone in this journey, however it may feel at times. There is an army of us experiencing the same issues you are, so be sure to reach out.
The journey is as much a part of your PhD as the thesis.