Just started a PhD – what now?!

I’ve just started a PhD – what now?! |The First Year

by Krystina Osborne

Congratulations, you’ve been accepted onto a PhD programme. What next? You may have been applying for several years (or longer) at a variety of institutions, and therefore finally receiving the ‘yes’ that you have been hoping for may seem, in a strange way, like a triumphant end…but of course, to paraphrase The Carpenters, you’ve only just begun (that’s still a relevant reference, yes?). Obviously everyone’s situation differs, particularly concerning (a lack of) funding and the contrasting time constraints on full and part-time programmes. Overall, though, I would be willing to wager that 99% (this may not be an accurate figure, but I’m a Humanities student not a mathematician) of current and former PhD students would tell you that their first year flew by quicker than you can say ‘How’s your PhD going?’, a question that you will hear several times a day for the duration of your PhD, never becoming less annoying. The following guide explains what you should be doing during the first year of your PhD, and what you will probably end up doing instead…

1. Seemingly endless admin tasks

When I recall how I spent the first year of my PhD, the overwhelming memory is of admin: so much admin that I barely had time to do anything else. This will vary between institutions, but I had to submit an extensive registration document and – thanks to my awkward start date halfway through the academic year – an annual monitoring report within the first six months. The remainder of the year was spent preparing for my MPhil to PhD transfer. Looking back, all of these exercises did help to hone my thinking, giving me a better sense of the boundaries of my project, but back then they seemed like a colossal waste of time. Whilst you are clearly supposed to demonstrate the progress you have made in between submitting these forms, it is often difficult to remember the thing that made you want to do a PhD in the first place: your research!

2. Reading

Regardless of whether or not you are an English Literature student like I am, a large portion of your first year will be devoted to reading. It goes without saying that you should, of course, read as much as you can, whether it be primary texts, theoretical tomes, journal articles, completed PhD theses or academic blog posts (like our very own Top Tips!). Most of this reading will ultimately have no bearing on your actual thesis, but it is absolutely not a waste of time (as I told myself, over and over again). Reading widely allows you to establish a sense of the existing literature in your field of research, and enables you to understand where your research will fit in. By the end of your first year of reading, your project will barely resemble your original research proposal, and that – almost always – is a good thing!

3. Attending conferences

Throughout your first year, try to attend as many academic events as your own financial situation allows. Realistically, this is almost certainly fewer than five (not including events at your own institution, which should hopefully be free for you to attend), and probably closer to two or three. Submit an abstract if you feel confident enough to present a paper yourself, even if it is still a ‘work in progress’: remember that most, if not all, of the other speakers will also be discussing unfinished, unpublished research. Undertaking a PhD can be an isolating process, particularly if there are not many other postgraduates in your department, or if they are working on research far removed from your own field. Attending academic events in your first year affords you the invaluable opportunity to establish a network of other researchers in your field, who are likely to be interested in your research and able to offer helpful comments. Furthermore, the likelihood is that, towards the end of your PhD programme, you will be too preoccupied with actually writing your thesis to afford the time to attend many external events, so make the most of them early on! Read our Conference Glossary and a guide to What Not to Do at Conferences for further conference-related Top Tips.

4. Wanting to quit

We cannot pretend that this does not happen to most, if not all, PhD students. Starting a PhD is very different to completing a Masters. You may be riding high on your MA or MRes experience, under the impression that a PhD will be an extension of this glorious year, times three (or five, or seven, etc.). If so, prepare to be disappointed, as most of the elements that make up an enjoyable Masters degree – your fellow students, a favourite module or tutor, and (let’s be honest) a joyfully light timetable – simply do not translate to PhD level. If you remain at the same institution, you may benefit from your familiarity with the staff, but if you move elsewhere, you may find that you do not gel with your new supervisory team, or the institution in general, which is likely to do things a lot differently than your previous one. There are numerous other reasons why first-year PhD students may consider quitting – financial struggles or external commitments, for example – but rest assured that you are not alone. Speak to your supervisors and don’t be afraid to seek the help you need (most universities offer a free counselling service for students at any level). When faced with a seemingly insurmountable hurdle, your first thought may be to quit, but there are other options, depending on your individual circumstances, such as suspending study for a specified amount of time. Of course, not every first-year postgraduate student completes their PhD, but do not assume that having doubts automatically means that you’re not cut out for PhD life (we’ve all heard of ‘imposter syndrome’, after all). I am certain that the prospect of quitting has crossed the mind of every single PhD student, if only briefly, and talking to others always helps.

5. Anything but writing

We have established that the first year of your PhD will be spent reading, attending academic events, filling in forms and worrying that you’re not good enough (sounds fun, right?). Some PhD students may also be given some teaching duties (but that’s a whole other blog post!). Overall, there are lot of distractions from that pesky little task of actually writing your thesis. Of course, the process of ongoing research is such that it is unlikely that anything you write during your first year will actually make it into your finished thesis, but some people relish the opportunity to continually draft and redraft (I am not one of those people). If you want to start drafting your first chapter on the day you enrol, then do so. If you prefer to compile copious notes first (as I do), then stay true to this method.  Above all, remember that no one knows your writing process better than you do.

During the first year of your PhD, start as you mean to go on. Don’t ignore those emails offering workshops on ‘Planning out Your First Year’ or ‘Beginning a Research Project’. Before you know it, you will be receiving invitations to workshops on ‘Preparing for Your Viva’ instead… Good luck!