Monday, March 27, 2017

Getting Started With Your PhD

by Kristina, Academic Life Histories:

Five steps for finding your feet as a new PhD student

​I just started my PhD around 6 month ago and especially in the beginning I felt quite insecure.

Everyone I met was asking: “What are you going to do for your PhD? “ I had no clue myself, so I turned red and mumbled something like “Um … study the behaviour of blue tits?” Honestly, I often felt like an idiot and wished the ground would open and swallow me up.

But, despite all these insecure moments I was highly motivated to get into this new area of research! Beginning with something new is always tough and this is probably especially true when starting a PhD. In this post I summarized five points which I think are really important in the first weeks/month of your PhD and I hope they might be helpful for some of you.

1. Self-confidence

For your PhD you might move to another country, meet a new research group and maybe you are even unfamiliar with the research topic itself. A few weeks before I started at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology I suddenly became very unconfident. “Am I tough enough for a PhD?”, “Am I good enough to work in a world class institution?”

During the first days at my new workplace this feeling got even worse … I had the impression that everyone else was way smarter and more experienced than I am. The turning point came during a “teaching” week in which all new PhDs participated and we talked exactly about this feeling - self-doubt. It turned out that everyone else felt exactly the same! So, my message here: Get rid of your self-doubts! No one is perfect and there is a reason why you got the PhD position in the first place. 

2. Read, read, read

Especially when you are new to a certain research area: sit down and rummage through the literature. This will help you to get familiar with the area and most important it will provide you with information about what might be interesting to investigate during your PhD. In the beginning this can be a frustrating process as you discover that all your potential ideas already got published. But, at the end you will find a niche which is interesting to do research on.

To avoid getting lost in this huge amount of literature it is very important to find a good way to store and organize it. This will also help you a lot later on when writing your research proposal or your first publications (see 4).

Another hint: Do not stop with reading papers across your entire PhD. Even though you might have already finished your proposal this is really important to keep up to date! By the way, reading also helps you in getting more confident and clarifying your ideas, that way you won’t feel like an idiot the next time someone asks you about your research. 

3. Talk, talk, talk

To your supervisor: Depending on the type of supervisor (some might be present frequently, others you barely see) it can be difficult to approach them. Nevertheless, it is very important to talk to your supervisor about your research and progress! She/he is usually an expert in the field you are doing your PhD in and thus they are a very important source for guidance and inspiration! To make the meeting efficient for both of you - come prepared! Supervisors have very limited time. So, you could send around a list of points you would like to discuss or make a little presentation. She/he will definitely appreciate that!

To your colleagues/friends: Be social and talk to as many people as possible about your research. This will not only provide you with valuable feedback for your own research but open opportunities for potential collaborations. This is also true for non-biologists or friends working in a different field of biology! I experienced that they often ask very basic questions which you might have completely overlooked while digging deeper and deeper into your research topic. 

4. Write a research proposal

During my first weeks, members from my cohort complained the most about writing a research proposal. “I still have no idea about what to do”, “Planning experiments? If that ever worked!”, “All the chapters will change again during my PhD!” etc. Indeed, writing a proposal might seem to be senseless and is definitely not easy when you just started a PhD. Nevertheless, I think this was one of the most important tasks for me.

You might already have a vague idea about the questions you would like to address during your PhD and the experimental setups. However, writing it up properly and embedding this into the current knowledge of research helps to determine what your research questions and goals will be, and in particular why your research matters! While doing so, a good literature review will be of huge value! 

5. Time management

Time is one of the biggest issues during the PhD and will pass faster than you might think. You will probably encounter situations where people ask you “How is work? What did you do last week?” and you simply don’t know. How is it possible that I can’t remember what I did for one full week!?

Honestly, I still have to struggle with this but according to more experienced PhDs and Postdocs this is completely normal. Nevertheless, it is important to make a rough timetable for your PhD and to set yourself specific millstones to reach! For example, every 6 months you set yourself a specific goal: In the first 6 months you might want to finish your research proposal, after one year finish your first experiment, and so on.

Further, time management also means a good work-life balance. I won’t go into detail here about this but what I would like to say: There is also a life outside of your research and breaks are really important to stay motivated and creative! So, go out every now and then and have a beer with your colleagues and friends!

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