Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ten tips for the first 100 days of a PhD

To date, we have focused more on issues that affect students in the later stages of their PhD. Here, we make ten suggestions on key activities for PhD students during their first 100 days.

1. Agree/develop a modus operandi with your supervisor(s) (e.g. agree where and how often you expect to meet, how to assess progress when the supervisor is away, the different types of feedback expected etc.).  In some universities, there may be a form to facilitate this (e.g. a learning plan or candidature plan). The following questionnaire may help you to investigate (and discuss with your supervisor) your underlying beliefs (and supervisors) about the student-supervisor relationship: Expectations in supervision questionnaire.

2. Take responsibility for arranging meetings with your supervisor, and provide an agenda in advance of the meeting, ideally with a few short explanatory notes about each topic. This will help your supervisor to understand the issue, and give them more time, subconsciously at least, to spend more time thinking about your agenda items. Make written notes (minutes) of the plans that are agreed with your supervisor.  Even a quick email to your supervisor can be very helpful to enquire ‘this is what I think we agreed, am I on the right track?’  Thinkwell provides a Thesis Meeting Template that should help you structure the main outputs to be achieved from meetings.

3. Write a project plan listing some key initial research objectives and preliminary deadlines (at least). This is easier said than done! This can then become the basis for more detailed planning. See Chapter 3 of Getting a PhD, which addresses project management for PhD students, and there is a multitude of project management resources available online. Remember that a key feature of the assessment of the PhD degree is based on the quality of work - see our earlier post and resources therein for more on this. For planning within shorter timescales, here is a template for a weekly planner.

4. Produce a Gantt chart based on the above for your project activities for the first, say, 6 months. This is a tangible output from your planning, and can serve as the basis for useful discussion with your supervisor.

5. Read journal articles, take notes and write a short literature review (even a few thousand words). You will learn a lot more by writing about what you read than by reading alone, and there is a huge satisfaction in feeling you have a folder on your computer labelled ‘my thesis’ with something in it.  This also makes sure you practice academic writing - a key skill- from your first day.

6. Get feedback from your supervisor(s) on this literature review; on your writing style and how to improve it where necessary; on whether you have read the right articles and; whether you are understanding the knowledge and uncertainties associated with your topic.

7. Read recent PhD theses in your topic to see what is ultimately expected of you. It is amazing how many PhD students do not do this, or leave it until they are almost finished their thesis!

8. Learn and practice new methods that you will need to use - before you start your research. Ensure that you can implement methods correctly - there is no point in progressing with methods and work if you cannot rely on the outputs and results.

9. Develop good professional habits for keeping all your information and data safe and organised (hard copies, papers, data, electronic files etc.). Think about everything that could go wrong (fires, floods, computer viruses) and make sure that data loss will never happen to you.  Increasingly, funding agencies require researchers to protect and archive their data in a secure manner. Check what storage facilities or formal requirements for data storage is available in your lab or institution.

10. Formally or informally review your skills (probably with your supervisor) and do a self-assessment of your training needs. This should help you to work out what skills you need to develop and what opportunities are available to develop these. Then, make a plan to participate in any relevant training events as soon as possible, and before you get really busy. In a previous post, we highlighted resources that should be essential reading, and another post discussed various forms of training.

Of course, there will be many other activities that you should be doing, and different people will have different priorities. Please let us know what other issues or resources that you think are priorities for settling in during the first 100 days!

PhDSkill: Actively manage the early stages of your PhD. The time in your first three months of your PhD is as precious as the last three months - use it as productively as possible!
 
John Finn and Alan Kelly


Useful resources 
John Finn. 2005. Getting a PhD: an action plan to help manage your research, your project and your supervisor. Routledge. (Contains lots of advice on starting a PhD, and develops many of the above points in more detail.)

Bench 21. Starting well: how to do a good first year in your PhD. (Blog post)

Introduction to resources by Thinkwell: Seven Secrets of Succesful Students
photo credit: emdot via photopin cc

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