‘Survival’ was the keyword during my first Ph.D year, in fact, five of us created a WhatsApp group aptly named ‘Ph.D Survivors’ as a prophetic sign.
Personally, I had not engaged with academic materials for almost 20 years, but the curiosity to go back into studying, being challenged intellectually, and learn more of a topic I was passionate about was strong enough to push me through the year.
No matter what your subject-specific journey is, a number of exciting challenges will await you: investigating new theories and practices, seeking out alternative answers, revitalising old research insights, and mobilising knowledge outside subject silos are all traits that bind together as the research progresses.
However, despite this initial trumpet blowing, the first year of a Ph.D is a different kind of beast when it comes to the day-to-day! There are often no lectures and seminars, no exam modules, no mid-week or end-week post-lecture and seminar reflections; there is only a long year ahead of you. You’d better use it constructively!
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I’m now in my final Ph.D year and I’m so glad that, in that first year, I packed in as many research training courses as my University offered. More than I could possibly need, in fact.
So be selective!
For example, I needed to merge speed-reading with effective-reading to reduce time spent on book chapters and journal articles that tended to pile up far too fast – with two kids to raise I had to stick to a strict timetable.
I needed to make my academic writing good enough again, if only not to bore my supervisor unnecessarily prolonged prose.
I also needed to confidently present my thesis’ aims in a short space of time, sometimes in as little as three minutes, to an audience of like-minded PhD students. Taking questions from those outside my department was the first learning curve; it humbled me without taking away my self-esteem.
So here is the key point: if your university offers post-graduate training courses then sign up for as many as you can. If they do not, then try to organise your own. Me and my peers used social media to create what we called our very own PPD (Ph.D Professional Development). It helped fill the skills gap we faced.
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You may not see the added value of such alternative training straight away, but you will soon realise that the hardest thing in your second and third year is to see your social and academic life slowly reduced to the bare minimum. Therefore, those small circles of friends I made during those PPD sessions have always been available for support in later years.
After three of us came up with the PPD idea, we tested it amongst ourselves and then invited people to share research skills and tips to become more productive in our research.
For example, we created one session that focused on paragraph structure in academic writing; as an ex-teacher, I shared a simple technique to condense points, give evidence, select examples and attempt evaluations. Others offered their IT skills to create an organised reference list. Others offered yoga and meditation sessions.
However, the point about PPD is that you don’t have to be an expert on something, your group may simply agree to share what is common practice for each of you and you will see how much you have to give (and take!). For example, a fellow Ph.D student reminded us of the importance of ‘foldering’. (the best advice I got from those sessions ), which involves you, from day one, separating your readings and writing into different e-folders as well as hard folders. It will save you considerable headache later on.
While such informal training is key to your first year and avoids you feeling too isolated, professional training sessions from your University will give you added purpose, as they structure your week’s timetable and make you look forward to something.
Always remind yourself that you are STILL learning, that a Ph.D is JUST the beginning of a potential career and all you have to show is that you have potential to be a re-searcher. Good luck and enjoy it!
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