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How to survive the start of your PhD!

8 tips for starting off on the right foot in your PhD work. 

For some years, we have been on the PhD board for the Department of Chemistry, University of Oslo. We have interviewed many PhD students for their 3rd and 5th semesters, and here are some pieces of advice that we have, following their progress!

This list of advice assumes that you have been hired and a project description has been assembled by you and your supervisor. These advices (do not address all issues and challenges that arise, but some concrete questions from some students) mostly apply to the first 3 semesters of your PhD study. They address tactical and practical issues, and touch upon some psychosocial aspects as well. So, let's get to it:

1. Map your field


Before you start planning a bunch of experiments, dive in to the literature of your topic. And dive deep! What is the state of knowledge at this moment? What are the initial breakthroughs? Where is today's cutting edge? What are the key potentials and limitations of the approaches related to the field?

It is quite possible that the dive you do into the literature can result in a (short) review paper, or at the “very least” a good chunk of your thesis' introduction. This exercise will also make your aim of study more sharpened; what are the knowledge gaps that need to be filled? And to which of these gaps can you make contributions?

2. Map the areas surrounding your field

When doing a PhD, you can easily become a bit nearsighted on the area of expertise that you are pursuing. However, your topic does not exist in a vacuum, but is connected to other fields. You should become familiar with key concepts and needs in related fields.

For example, if you are working on the physics of alternative energy sources, it wouldn't hurt to be well acquainted with key concepts of climate change or even political/economical considerations. If you are working with a new tool for blood analysis, it is a god idea to be familiar with medical diagnostics in general. Being open to the outside of your “PhD micro-universe” is healthy, in more than one way!

3. Get to know the people in your field


As with your topic, you as a person and a researcher will not cope well in a vacuum. Get to know the others in your group, and what their projects are. And try to be social, e.g. showing up for lunches and other events. If your group is a bit lazy social-wise, bring a cake from time to time (everybody comes for a slice of cake)! Ideally, a group should have a team spirit, and co-publications should be common.

Avoid trying to keep “your project” too isolated from the others, there is a lot of synergy in research. Attend local meetings and talks in your field, and try not to be shy about introducing yourself to other researchers. This can be awkward (especially for Scandinavians!) but if you start with discussing their talk or poster, this is pretty painless. A business card can be handy to have in this setting, especially if you see common research interests (and hence a potential collaborator)! Of course, some people are snooty, but don't let that get to you; most people are great.

But don't treat work as meaning everything. Connect richly with your out-of-work life: your family, friends, and hobbies! You might even wish to consider a trip to the gym or a jog in the woods from time to time. It’s well known that regular exercise has a positive impact on the creative mind and even your mental health.

4. Just get started!

Once you have established what your aims are, get started with the work! There is no reason to delay this. As Stephen King said: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work”.

If your PhD is of experimental nature, start to get to know the instruments and equipment. Mozart didn't just pick up the violin and was able to play immediately. You do not need to start on your Nobel winning work the first day; try some experiments that you “know” should work! Read the manuals and make documents on standard operation procedures for easy later reading and work. This allows you to become more independent of others' help (and mercy!).

Having said that, if you are stuck, reach out to your co-workers (that cake should help for this as well!). There is no point in suffering alone, if you can ask for advice. We repeat: just get started!

5. Your supervisor in this starting phase


There are many kinds of supervisors. Some are always around, willing to help and discuss whenever needed. However, in today's high-pressure science world, supervisors are often stressed out over grant applications, teaching, arranging scientific meetings, administrative duties, and what feels like a zillion other things. Therefore, setting fixed meeting times can be a very good idea.

If you want to get as much out of your supervisor as possible, the advice above will really help: Knowing your field, and being familiar with the instruments and equipment. This sets you up for having meaningful scientific discussions with your supervisor, and discussing details of the experiments that will be your thesis work.

Also, when you discuss with your supervisor, consider giving a brief overview of the aims and work that has been done. The more proactive you are, the quicker you and your supervisor will have a collegial tone. You and your supervisor might also find it useful to “calibrate” expectations. Here is a link to a document that can help with this.

Of course, you should expect your supervisor to be of assistance for a bunch of issues in the start. But not all supervisors are ideal ones, and one's own pursuit of theoretical and experimental knowledge is an insurance against poor supervision. If you feel that your supervisor is not a good match, you are not at the mercy of this person. At the University of Oslo, you are employed by the institution, and the administration is prepared to find solutions and alternatives, if needed.

6. “I am useless”: no, you are not useless!!


Of course, there will always be hiccups, e.g. painful technical issues and lack of instrument time. You might feel worthless and a bit depressed from time to time. This is a natural reaction to a high-intensity period, often felt by highly intelligent people (google “impostor syndrome”)!

There is a lot to say about these issues. But in this short document,  we would here like to guide you to a few concrete services we have: If you need to talk about rough times with your work, you can e.g. reach out to the nice people at “ForVei” . If you are a student at another faculty or university, check your websites for a similar option! In addition, your Head of Office is also prepared to have chats.

7. When should you start to write your first manuscript?

Even with all the frustrations that a PhD study can contain, you will most likely progress.  Small breakthroughs eventually lead to some initial results, and some rainclouds might disappear.  Suddenly you are asking, when does one start writing on a manuscript? There are several resources on how to write a paper. One particularly notable example is by George M. Whitesides, who makes a point out of starting with a manuscript preparation as soon as possible.

We have to stress that a manuscript will be edited and re-edited many, many times. Don't worry about having it in perfect shape the first time. Your supervisor will maybe butcher it. Then, you will start butchering it. Slowly, it will become a more complete work. So “write without fear, and edit without mercy”.

8. 3rd semester talk


We would like to wrap this document up by telling about the 3rd semester talk. In this semester, you will be invited to discuss your progress with members of the PhD board. They are interested in making sure you are in a positive environment that allows you to prosper, or simply that you are feeling ok.

You will have the opportunity to show some of your initial results and troubleshooting, and inform about other stuff, like which courses you have taken etc. Your supervisor is present, and you may both be given some “external” tips on how to move forward with the science and your communications. At the end of the meeting, the supervisor will leave the room, and you can confidentially give feedback on how you are doing!

Conclusion

To sum it up, a successful strategy is to take ownership of your project and be proactive with respect to the people around you. This means that you should try to influence and improve the direction and strategy of your research (without going completely AWOL) and that you should be the active part when interacting with your supervisor, your colleagues in the lab, and other people in your field.

Speaking personally, in our experience, one of the best things about working at the university is when candidates really take charge of the research and move it into areas and directions that we as supervisors, or even as the one who originally defined the project, could never have imagined or even been able to do!

And in a while you may also find this helpful: Day of Days: Surviving (and enjoying) your PhD defense