Things I wish I knew when I started my PhD…

As the academic year begins again, new PhD students across the country (and further) are slowly settling into their fresh surroundings. I stayed at the same university when I made the switch to postgraduate research but I still remember feeling quite lost at the start, not knowing what to do or where to be. I’m now entering the final year of my studies and have (I hope) picked up some useful knowledge along the way.

So I’ll cut right to the point: below is a list of handy tips, tricks, general advice and things I wish I knew when I started my PhD. The list was put together from chats with other PhD friends of mine, but is by no means exhaustive (nor is it in any particular order, though it did get quite long…). Hopefully it will help somebody. Please share your comments at the bottom if you have things to add – the more the merrier.

1. Learn Latex.

This beautiful typesetting program may seem scary at first but it will help you create very organised and professional looking documents. It also sorts the layout for you, thus avoiding that awkward problem in MS Word when you need to insert a figure into the beginning of a document that you’ve already spent hours getting right (we’ve all been there!). It is also really well documented online, with hundreds of help pages and forums, not to mention templates of ready-made documents. Even PhD thesis templates (e.g. from Charly here).

2. Use Bibtex.

Avoid needlessly hand typing out hundreds of references! Linked to (1), Bibtex is an additional package that automatically outputs and typesets your reference lists, depending on the citations you call in your document. You’ll need a Bibtex file, but that’s easy with (3).

3. Keep your papers organised.

Using some software to keep all the pdf’s of journal articles and papers you’ve read in order is essential. Bibdesk is useful and comes with most Latex/Bibtex installations. Others include Mendeley, which is free and can sync across multiple computers (this is what I use), and Papers, which has a small initial cost. All three can produce the bibtex file you need to automatically create reference lists in (2).

4. Keep a formatted list of your own publications and conference abstracts as you go along.

It will make things much easier when you need to provide these sorts of things if you start applying for postdocs.

5. Always give conference abstracts different titles.

Even if you’re presenting the exact same research, make sure you give it a new title – it will look much better in the long run, especially on your list of publications/abstracts in (4).

6. Keep on top of your emails.

This is two fold. Firstly, organise your inbox with folders so you can easily find emails months after they were received. Secondly, if emails need a response get them out of the way early. Continually putting this off may result in you forgetting entirely and missed opportunities. Personally I try to get all my emails in order each morning when I first get to the office.

Poor email and time management can cause unwanted issues... Image credit:
Poor email and time management can cause unwanted issues… Image credit:

7. Manage time.

Time management is key when trying to balance your research with teaching/demonstrating duties, a personal life and anything else you get up to. A routine may help with this, see (27).

8. Hypothesis testing.

At least from the science background I know, hypothesis testing is key to a successful research project. Related to your overall science aims, think about what you would like to test and keep this is mind so you stay focused on your original goals. Having a hypothesis to test ensures you have an overall scientific aim, which is especially useful if someone new you meet asks you what your research is about.

9. Keep detailed notes.

Of everything. All the time. Whether this is a lab book, a diary, or a note book with model edits and useful computing commands, write everything down. Keeping it chronological with dated entries is also very useful. This is one of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started. Keeping notes in this way will make it much easier for you to revisit old research and remember what you were thinking at the time. It will also make getting back into your research after a holiday, conference, or workshop etc., much simpler. Even after a weekend, it will allow you to pick up where you left off before you stopped early and went for that end-of-week drink.

10. Avoid perfectionism.

When you’re making that final figure, or drafting a paper manuscript or conference abstract, don’t spend ages making small incremental changes in search of the perfect final piece. Chances are it will change. And then change again. If you’re preparing a piece of work that will be commented on by your supervisor or other co-authors, your best bet is to just get it to an acceptable standard and send it off for those comments asap. The sooner you get it away and then back, the quicker you can see what your ‘superiors’ think of it and incorporate their comments before firing them back the second draft. This short, sharp iterative procedure often works out quicker in the long run.

11. Always give deadlines when you want feedback.

If you’re sending your supervisor or co-authors a document for comments always specify a deadline. This may seem scary at first, but take a note from outside academia – nothing in industry goes anywhere without a deadline. E.g. if you’re drafting a manuscript for a paper, tell them you will submit it in 2 weeks so they have until then to get their comments to you.

12. Source additional funding.

Chances are you will see various emails come and go mentioning possibilities for additional funding to attend conferences or fieldwork, for example. As funding for science is getting cut, this sort of extra money becomes even more important. Once you learn of something that may be useful now or in the future, keep it written down in a list somewhere. Then, when the time comes, you can revisit the list and start applying for the money you will (almost definitely) need. Talking to other PhD students and postdocs in your group is also useful for this to see what sorts of things they might have applied for in the past.

13. Write as you go.

This is pretty self-explanatory, but writing as you work your way through your PhD years will make the thesis much less of a monster when you come to the end. Writing up papers to adapt into thesis chapters is a useful way to go about this, with the added benefit of getting your name into the scientific community of your chosen specialisation.

14. Don’t be scared of your supervisors.

They are there to help you after all.

15. Log out of Facebook.

Yep, it’s sad but true. Facebook (and other social media for that matter) has become an integral part of society, but with all the buzzfeed quizzes, videos of kittens and “I fucking love science”, it can (obviously) be a massive distraction. Log out while you’re actually working and try to restrict yourself to only checking while you’re having short study breaks or lunch.

The perils of Facebook in the office... Image credit:
The perils of Facebook in the office… Image credit:

16. Keep an eye on your budget.

This links back to (12). If your PhD funding comes with a certain amount for research costs, conference travel, and fieldwork etc., make sure you know how much you’re spending and how much you have left.

17. Diversify yourself.

One of the beauties of doing a PhD is the numerous opportunities that will become available to you during your studies. You should indulge – go to as many additional courses and workshops as you can. This is a great way to improve things like science communication, outreach, presenting, and scientific writing, amongst other subject specific skills.

18. Music.

If listening to music while you work is your thing, you’re going to want to get yourself some decent noise cancelling head/ear phones to drown out all other unwanted office distractions. This also works the other way, and stops your office mates from having to hear your music. You may like the Spice Girls, but they might not…

19. Get your workstation set up.

This has a variety of levels. First and foremost is your desk and chair combo. Ensure this is as ergonomic as possible to prevent discomfort down the line – you could be sitting here for 40+ hours a week for 3+ years. Next is your computer. Hopefully your supervisor will provide you with one, but you may need to lean on other members from your research group for assistance to set up the internet, printing and any software/hardware you need for your specific research. Plenty of help is also available online. For those of you who use a Mac, a lecturer in our department has put together a page called ‘Mac Eye For The Geophysics Guy’ which has lots of useful tips for configuring a Mac for scientific research. It has a slight geophysics and Bristol University slant, but a lot of it will be useful for others too. Last is working out where you will get your hydration from. Source out the kettle/water dispenser/coffee shop of choice and work out if there are any common times when people break for a caffeine fix. Hydration is key to a clear and alert mind, while taking breaks with your colleagues will ensure you don’t get too locked up in your own research and go for hours without talking to anyone but the computer screen…!

20. Take notes in meetings.

This is linked back to (9), but making sure you write everything down, even when you might be in an important meeting with fast-paced discussion, is essential if you want to remember what was said and decided upon a few weeks later. If it doesn’t seem important at the time, it may well prove to be extremely useful in the future.

Being well read on your PhD topic, as well as the wider field, is key to a successful PhD.
Being well read on your PhD topic, as well as the wider field, is key to a successful PhD.

21. Read around your subject.

This is important to ensure you know where your own PhD fits within the bigger picture, and the overall aims of your field of research.

22. Write a literature review.

I didn’t do this when I started my PhD but I wish I had. After reading up on your subject, and then around your subject, you will hopefully have a good idea of the current state of research. Now is the time to formulate your own research ideas, and hypotheses to test, and get this all written into a concise literature review. Chances are it will eventually form the basis of your PhD thesis introduction chapter.

23. Socialise!

When deadlines are tight and things aren’t going well it can be easy to retreat into your own little research cave. But try to avoid this where possible (sometimes it might be impossible). Keeping contact with friends or meeting work colleague outside of the lab is good for morale and to help you forget about the troubles you may have been facing during the working day.

24. Sport and/or hobbies.

Engaging in some exercise a few times a week will work wonders to reduce your stress levels as well as keep you healthy and in good shape. Likewise, starting or continuing a hobby will also help you to relax after a long day or week (baking seems popular in our department and has the added benefit of making others happy too).

25. Go to conferences and workshops.

There are multiple benefits here. Conferences allow you to present your work to people, as well as learn about the most up-and-coming advances in your field. Workshops are excellent opportunities to learn new skills, often from the people that first pioneered them. Both, however, should be used to network.

26. Network.

Building up a network of researchers and industry contacts in your field can prove invaluable down the line. It may open up new study visits and exchanges during your PhD, or it can help you to secure a postdoc or job upon finishing your PhD. Don’t be shy about approaching an established professor at a conference – chances are they will be just as excited to learn about what you’re doing as you are to speak to them. Business cards can be useful here, though they are not super common in academia.

27. Establish a routine.

This doesn’t work for everyone, but some people like to set up a routine to allow them to manage their time more effectively. This may include things like exercising on certain days at certain times, set days for grocery shopping or batch cooking, and fixed working hours, amongst many other possibilities.

Take the lead of your own PhD!
Take the lead of your own PhD!

28. Take the lead.

Always remember it is YOUR project and YOUR paper and YOUR thesis. Even if you chose a predefined PhD project, it is up to you to decide how it progresses and which research leads you follow up. These are your steps to proving yourself as an independent researcher, so do just that!

29. Practice presenting your work.

Conference talks make everyone nervous, but there is no better way to prepare than by practicing. This could start off by you talking to an empty room, before taking on your research group and then maybe a departmental seminar of some sort. The more you practice, the more natural it will feel when you’re stood up the front – eventually the research will be rolling off your tongue with ease.

30. Be prepared for the worse.

One of life’s great mottos is “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”. A PhD is no different. You should be expecting things to go wrong at some point. It might not, but chances are something will not go to plan at some point. This can be particularly true if your project involves a lot of lab work. But rest assured, if this does happen it’s not the end of the world, and there are usually people around for support and help. Search them out.

31. Back up, and back up again.

Hard drives are notoriously unreliable. Coffee easily spills. Laptops are easily stolen. Not what you wanted to hear I would imagine, but these things can easily result in the loss of a lot of work. Prevent this from happening by constantly backing up your work. Back it up to different places (the cloud, external hard drives) and keep the back ups in different places to each other and the originals.

32. Small steps to success.

Don’t focus too much on long term goals (publishing papers, finishing the thesis); remember to walk before you run as it were. Aim for small progressive steps that lead to the bigger goals – finishing a set of analyses, producing some summary figures etc. It’s all good for morale.

33. Keep on top of admin.

Yes, it’s boring and can be time-consuming but it needs to be done, especially if it includes making sure you get paid for teaching or demonstrating. Getting stuff like this out of the way can easily be done while you wait for an analysis to run or a simulation to finish for example.


The most important thing of all :).

Smile and enjoy it!
Smile and enjoy it!

Originally posted on the EGU blog network

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About James Hickey

I'm a geophysical volcanologist trying to better understand volcanic unrest.

4 comments on “Things I wish I knew when I started my PhD…

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this insightful article. I must say that as a 4th-year PhD student, I can confirm most of the points you made.
    As for the first few points you mention about references, I would like to highlight the fact that even though the three reference manager your mention all do a great job, you really have to choose the one that fits you best from the beginning of your PhD, because as your reference library keeps growing, you will realize that it is very difficult to change from one software to another. Although they claim to be able to import libraries from other software, it never really worked.
    So I am an Android guy, and I wanted my articles with me all the time, for many reasons:
    – To read my articles in the subway
    – To be able to quickly get a paper during a chat with a fellow in the lab’s hallway
    – To have all my protocols on the bench, in the cell culture room or in the cleanroom, while limiting (dust or bacterial) contamination risks (a tablet is easily cleaned with 70% EtOh and does not generate fibers unlike paper sheets)
    – To keep my music sheets organized in case I take a well deserved break during immunostainings.
    – Or just to have my tablet as a second screen close to my computer, so that I can read the cited references while writing a manuscript, without having to switch back and forth between windows.

    Well, I had been on Papers for 4 years (since Master’s degree) and Papers is only available on iOS.
    I struggled so much trying to port everything to Mendeley, which, in fine, I don’t like, that I ended up programming my own Android app for synchronizing Papers and Android.

    So now, I guess your post is slightly outdated as there IS an app for Papers on both iOS and Android, and for both tablets and phones 😉

    It’s called EZPaperz and you can find it here:

    1. Hi Yohan, thanks for your comment. Sounds like a useful app for anyone wanting to read their papers on an Android device.

  2. Hey James- since you go straight to LaTeX and BibTeX in your list of things you knew before you started your Ph.D. I feel like letting you and your readers know about Authorea ( which is a platform for collaborative science writing – something in between Google Docs and Github for science content. We also have written quite a lot about LaTeX and its inadequacies to make it function on the web, e.g.
    Something to consider for young scholars entering Ph.D. programs!

  3. Seems very helpful for all aspiring PhD students, infact I have shared this link to my students as well. Its better to be aware for these things before embarking on a PhD journey. And, the key to all this is the last point, ‘Enjoy It’. It is very important for students to enjoy their work. If they don;t enjoy there work, they will loose interest and hence this can lead to increase in frustration levels.

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