“That’s a big mountain!”: Your first year as a PhD student

I thought I’d put a bit of a twist on all the useful “first-year” advice floating around at the moment and offer a few tips for those starting out on their journey into doctoral study. It can be an intimidating time, especially if you’re starting out at a new University in a new city. Hopefully, I can offer a few pearls of wisdom for those taking their first steps.

As I sit here and write this, I find myself sailing into my third and final (in theory) year of a PhD in English Literature. “Sailing” may be a misleading choice of word as it gives off an impression of listless abandon – and there have been plenty of rough patches – but nevertheless, my metaphorical boat remains chipper and intact. While the processes and procedures of an Arts and Humanities doctorate may differ from those in other Schools, I hope my experience can offer some valuable advice whatever your discipline.

Firstly – good on you. Don’t take for granted the fact that you find yourself beginning yet another degree, whether you be funded or self-funded. You’ve (again, in theory) already undertaken 4 years of studying and you’re getting up off the canvas ready to go another few rounds with academia. The decision to take on another 3-4 years of study is a big one and, especially in the current educational and academic climates, does not always offer the same personal or professional assurances that it did 10 or 20 years ago. Nevertheless, the essence of doctoral study remains the same – research freedom and total indulgence in your chosen subject and the determination to become the world-wide expert in whatever that topic may be.

For me, when I first started out, it was very much a case of wrapping my head around what it was I actually had to do. I’d been through the application process and had used rather sweeping generalizations to describe what it was I wanted to research. Now that I was doing it, I actually had to do all this stuff I said I’d do! Outrageous. But, where to begin?

Luckily, this is where the supervisors come in. You’re probably already well aware of your supervisor’s academic specialties which is probably why you chose to work with them in the first place. Make the most of their knowledge and expertise – they can help you wrangle your ideas into far more manageable and conceivable things, that will eventually turn into your first steps into doctoral study. It is a learning curve, in every sense of the word – but they are there to help. You are now on more of an even keel than you were at undergraduate and even Masters level, now being closer to colleagues.

Usually, your primary supervisor is the one who helps you with the academic aspect of your study, meeting regularly to make sure the research is kept on track and offering advice as to how you go about it. The secondary supervisor is the one who will guide your professional development, making the most of the University’s resources in terms of your development over your 3-4 years, but also in anticipation of life after doctoral study. This may seem a way off now – but trust me, it comes around incredibly fast!

This is probably where I can highlight some useful specifics of doing a PhD. The first year is roughly built around something called a Confirmation Review – a mock-viva of sorts where you meet with internal members of your department to justify your research and ensure it has legs to last the full 3-4 years. This can be intimidating at the end of your first year, but trust me when I say it’s not as bad as all that when it comes around. The panel are well aware that a thesis is an organic and ever-changing thing, and the Confirmation Review is much more about making sure you are finding the work manageable and you feel OK about everything. Naturally, they will offer constructive feedback – but it’s not so much an examination as it is a check-in.

Meanwhile, you will find yourself busy with other things throughout the first year – such as compulsory modules on critical writing, theory and research ethics. Whether or not these are relevant to your subject, it is a good chance to meet other doctoral students. These modules are designed to support your research and will compliment your work and encourage consideration of methods and techniques appropriate to postgraduate study.

Your supervisor will also introduce you to something called Training Needs Analysis (TNA) – a form that is filled out yearly by you to highlight what aspects of doctoral study you feel you need to focus on and develop over the coming year. Your supervisor will then go over this with you and offer suggestions and eventually concoct a plan of action to help your professional development. This can include additional modules, training courses or simply making the most of departmental contacts.

A useful thing to remember is, as a doctoral student, you are able to attend any course across the University. I myself have sat in on archeology, biology and psychology modules that have all helped me gain a broader understanding of the subjects. It is therefore well worth checking of University module directory for any that may compliment your studies.

Another is the Learning Management System (LMS) which is a series of modules and courses run by the University that aid personal and professional development – from learning how to use particular software packages to practical workshops on teaching methods. It’s all good stuff to add to the CV and another great way to meet people. Work in Progress (WiP) is another – a safe space to take your work and talk it over with others.

My last piece of advice for a first year in doctoral study – throw yourself into it. There are a huge number of societies, research groups and workshops going on all the time so chances are there’s one made for you filled with like-minded people. These can help motivate your studies as it’s important to get the right balance, for you, between work and down time. The Postgraduate Society network is great at setting up social events and well-worth keeping in touch with.

Remember, your department is there to support you throughout your time studying, but never more so during this first year. They understand you need to feel confident and happy in order to get off to the best possible start – and they want that too. Doctoral study can be isolating, but the University has supportive communities all over the place for you to use as much or as little as you like.

Before you know it, you’ll have a routine, action plan and be well on your way to your second year! Good luck – enjoy it!

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