How to handle your PhD: Part One

Welcome to something a little bit different - this is the first time I’ve worked on a  blog post in collaboration with someone else (because I’m a real control freak about content), and what’s more, it’s the first time I’ve written a blog post in conjunction with a YouTube video.

I’d like to introduce you all to David Gozzard. David recently completed his PhD at the University of Western Australia. We met at a conference in 2016, and have stayed in touch (predominantly through Twitter) since then. You can follow David on Twitter here, and don’t forget to check out his blog and YouTube channel too! 

Somehow this is the only photo I have that has both of us in it. I really miss my 2016 haircut now.

Somehow this is the only photo I have that has both of us in it. I really miss my 2016 haircut now.


Earlier this year, David and I recorded two videos worth of footage of us talking about some of the ways we’ve navigated out PhD experience, and collecting together some advice we often give students who are just starting out (or even further though) their own PhD. You can check out part one of the video here, and below are some notes based on the video that you can come back to later!

You can watch part one of the YouTube video here

Step One: Choosing your supervisor

I’ve always pointed out that your relationship with your supervisor is likely to be one of the most significant during your PhD (or maybe this is a sad reflection on my life). You will be working with your primary supervisor for at least three years, and during this time you will have successes, failures, agreements and disagreements.

 Consequently, picking a supervisor based on the fact they are just a big name in their field isn’t necessarily the best idea. As I point out in the video, a good litmus test for me was picking a person that I got along with well outside of a research context: someone I could sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee with, and talk about something other than research.

As David points out, choosing a good supervisor for you should play a part in the PhD project you ultimately pick. While it’s a good idea to have a rough idea of the field you’re interested in, a good supervisor can tailor a project to complement both of your strengths.  

Both David and I were lucky enough to have spent time with our respective supervisors prior to committing to a long term supervisor-student relationship. A summer project or internship can be a good opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ with regards to working with a particular supervisor. Failing this, it can be a good idea to talk to a prospective supervisor’s existing students. They will give you insight into what day to day life working with the supervisor is actually like. 


Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life...

So you've arrived for your first day as a PhD student. Don't worry, the shine will soon rub off and you'll be just as salty as that one student who's been here for like 7 years in no time. In the meantime, enjoy the abundance of enthusiasm while it lasts.

David strongly recommends checking out online resources from iThinkWell. Run by Hugh Kearns, from Flinders University, these resources have been compiled and developed over many years to help out new PhD students. Hugh has both a Facebook and Twitter page.

When you start your PhD, you may be moving to a new institution - this was my experience. However, the following still rings true if you are remaining at the institution you got your undergrad degree at like David did: your first week or so should be spent acquainting yourself with other new and existing students, and researchers. The relationships you will develop with other researchers as a PhD student will be quite different to those you had as an undergraduate student. It is likely you will have to identify a supervisory panel of 2-5 people in addition to your primary supervisor, so this is a good time to make connections!

As David says, you need to not only get to know your supervisors, but your fellow students, other researchers and the admin staff too. Everyone around you has a different set of skills and knowledge and can help you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of these people whether it’s about some technical aspect of research, or how to connect to the workplace printer or how to work the coffee machine. Most people are more than happy to help!


Reading papers: why you gotta have time fo' that

So you’ve started your PhD and chosen a supervisor. Chances are, you’re going to be spending a lot of time reading papers to get to know your area of research better. When you first start reading papers it can seem daunting, and it can be time consuming, and you will find that you won’t understand everything you read in the first weeks and months (and maybe years) so it’s important to go back to significant papers over the course of your PhD. As David says, you can make notes on what you understood, as he did, and then go back to them months later. this can be a great way to track progress! Another good idea is to seek out PhD theses from your institution and around the world, to get an idea of what a PhD thesis looks like and what might be expected of you.

Reading papers is the perfect way to stay up to date with what is happening in your field, as science never stands still. Getting involved in, or organizing something like, a journal club is a great way to keep up to date with the science that is happening around you. While these can seem like a waste of time, it is a good way to build reading papers into your day or week, and watching and listening to more senior students and academic can give you some tricks for understanding and evaluating papers, and direct you to papers that are more important. 


Your PhD is about more than research! Work-Life balance!

This section is definitely more of a case of “do as we say, not as we did”. Both David and I have been guilty of not taking adequate time away from work over the course of our PhDs. For many people, the idea of taking time off can make you feel more stressed,  not relaxed like a holiday should. However, it’s also worth remembering that it usually takes five to seven days for your brain to switch into “holiday mode”. It’s very important to make the most of your vacation time and use this time to rest, relax and recuperate. Not only have you earned the rest, you need it!

In academia you will see people who appear to be working every hour God sends, but it’s important to remember that the key work here is ‘appear’. Neither of us have met a person who can sustain that level of work effectively and efficiently, and not taking adequate breaks or holidays ultimately leads to burn out and inefficient work practices. Often, spending more time at work simply leads to spending more time on Facebook or YouTube. Even senior professors don’t and can’t work all day every day! You’re better off spending 6-8 hours actually working at work, and then taking your evening and weekends off to do things that you find relaxing and enjoyable.

Many students come from the undergrad mindset of assignments that have to be finished by a set time, and many people develop bad habits during this time of staying up until the early hours of the morning to finish work. As a PhD student, it’s more about being able to sustain effort in your work for a full three plus years, and you should view it more like a 9-5 job. You will probably have your own office space - use this to your advantage. Try and only work at work if possible, and if you create a work space at home, for God’s sake move it out of your bedroom! And one more thing: stop checking emails when you leave work for the day, and especially don’t check emails before bed!

But who’s going to remind you to take time off work? As well as holding yourself personally accountable, making friends both at work and outside are important for your mental health and wellbeing. If you’ve moved to a new place, however, this can feel especially daunting. Fortunately, there are not lots of apps and websites for meeting new people for social events, and you’ll soon realise you aren’t alone in this endeavour. A new student in David’s office (and myself, actually) have had a lot of success with Meetup. You can use it for thinks like sport (think ultimate frisbee, soccer, paddle boarding and rock climbing) but there are usually lots of other groups in your area who might meet for drinks, to go for a hike, play boardgames or around a common interest such as photography.

Most universities also have large numbers of student clubs and associations that you will be able to get involved in, and the variety of clubs is usually endless, and if you can’t find one for your passion, start one! David also found his university’s Postgraduate Students Association really good - this is a good place to make friends and discuss PhD related problems with other students who may be further along in their studies, and have a little more experience.

Making friends within your PhD program can seem quite daunting sometimes: you might be coming in to a group where people already know each other quite well. I recommend going along to daily or weekly gatherings like morning teas, finding out when people usually gather for lunch and where they do so, as well as going to things like colloquiua that might be occurring. When I first moved to ANU, I set myself the challenge of meeting one new person every week. It did take a bit of courage, but I’ve ended up with a fantastic group of PhD buddies. Oh, and don’t restrict yourself to other students! Some of my best friends at work are members of the IT department (always good to have onside in case of a computer meltdown) and other academics, right from emeritus professors down to undergrad students. 


Time for a trip: Your first conference and how to make the most of it. 

I recently wrote a fairly comprehensive blog post about how to make the most of conferences. I really wrote it in response to a few people asking me how I ended up getting to go to a conference as an invited speaker.

Conferences are an ideal chance to grow your network beyond your institution. If you want to stay in academia, your network will be the support structure for your whole career, and in many ways will shape your career. Make sure you talk to and meet with not only other students, but more senior academics at the conference you go to. Don’t be afraid to approach senior, well known individuals in your field - however, if they are very busy it can be a good idea to contact them prior to the conference and nail down a time to chat for half an hour during the conference.

I would also always recommend giving a talk where you can. No matter how early you are in your PhD (I saw someone one month in give a talk at a recent conference). And most importantly, keep your talk to time. This means practicing your talk before the conference, in front of an audience. This last piece of advice was something we really should have thought about when creating these videos and blog posts, so this will conclude part one. You can access part 2 of the video here, and part 2 of the blog is coming soon!