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19-10-2021

7 tips for new PhDs for a (successful) PhD

Written by: Martina Stella, PhD student

As a PhD student in my fourth and hopefully my last PhD year, I’ve written down 7 tips that will help you to successfully manoeuvre through your PhD.

Before you keep reading, first a necessary disclaimer: I have not made it (yet). Thus, the tips I will share to the new PhDs will not be sweetened by the memories and nostalgia of the good old days as PhD. These tips are rather the retrospective collection of what I would have liked someone to tell me on day one. Or even better, before day one. Like the advice uncles and aunties casually share with you on a Christmas day, when you are too busy with the enthusiasm from presents to pay attention to the real gift: their advice.
To come up with these seven tips, I have asked friends who are doing a PhD, or who have already completed it, for their contribution and tips. With some exceptions , they are in the science domain and are based in Europe. These tips are based on our collective experiences.
Without further ado, here are the tips which I hope that will be your lifeline during the more rocky times in your PhD.

1. Choose the right supervisor
For some of you this advice might not apply any more. But if you already have a supervisor, take a second to ask yourself whether you respect this person, whether you trust him/her, whether he/she is giving you the freedom you would like to have for your research. Especially ask yourself whether you see him/her as a mentor. In this journey you might want a lighthouse that enables you to sail even in the most difficult moment. A firm point that can guide you without getting in your way.

2. Don’t wait for deadlines
It is way too easy to wait for deadlines. It is such a well-established attitude that it is not even seen as a mistake. Deadlines will determine your agenda, your planning, your stress level and the amount of time and energy you will dedicate to a project, and eventually the quality of your work. Lack of planning will dominate the work-life, until the moment the deadline becomes closer and closer… So start on time and don’t postpone until the deadline is in sight.
That’s why this is followed by the next tip:

3. Plan, prioritize and keep the goals clear
I think this is one of the most important tips. It even seems redundant to repeat it. However, the truth is that most PhDs know the theory but forget to put it into practice. Planning and being strategic in the decisions are something you will learn with time, experience and especially through your mistakes. It will seem unnecessary at the beginning, when you still have three or four years in front of you. But it will be the most crucial skill to have when time will become tight. Be in charge of your planning and don’t let the deadlines determine your schedule. Together with planning the art of prioritizing will help you to have a clear idea of the actions and tasks in front of you. The moment you have a good plan, following it will make your (PhD) life easier.

4. Embrace failures
Enthusiasm and energy dominate the beginning of every PhD. That’s the way it should be. However, the moment a (part of the) project fails, the future seems blurred. But failures are an essential part of any PhD. They come in many ways: papers rejected, failed experiments, unmet deadlines, inability to answer questions during conferences and presentations, etc. The ability to embrace the discomfort and discourage that come with them, is what unlocks the admission to a meaningful life.

5. Stay curious
… and try to keep understand things even when it would be easier not to. The temptation to simplify the analysis, stay superficial in the discussion and acritically accept whatever it is suggested to you (especially whenit comes from supervisors) is high. Even more when the time is short. But nothing can make you prouder than fully understanding your own research, without this starting point it will not be of any use for anybody.

6. Make connections
Connections are paramount. The ability to create a network is not a task explicitly asked from you. But is the best gift you can give to yourself. It will be your asset in the long-term period; however, you need to start early to build it. If you are interested in something or someone, take initiative, and approach the person, don’t be afraid to ask. Do not be shy. Be pro-active. It might happen you won’t have this chance twice and you do not have the luxury to regret it.

7. Keep a (social)life
In other words: do not live only for your PhD. You have finally found the PhD of your dream. It is the topic you love. You can now dedicate all your time to it. But do not let this dream turn into a nightmare that persecutes you. Friends, family, and your personal life still deserve your time. A step back from your PhD will help you to keep it into the right perspective.
At the end, I would like to conclude with three pragmatic tips for your everyday PhD life.
• When you are working on an important document on your computer, save it many times. You can’t do it too often.
• Keep the folders that collect all your work tidy. You do not want to waste time looking for documents and e-mails that you surely have.
• Every now and then create a back-up. You won’t like to start from scratch again, if something happens to your files. Even though by that time you know you can survive

And remember: you are not alone.

If you would like a more complete “helping hand”, the book The PhD survival guide by Julia Wijnmaalem was truly inspirational to me. It is a funny and light journey through what the writer defines as a bumpy ride, aka PhD.

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