Wednesday, September 7, 2011

PhD Tips and Tricks (or learning from others' experience)

The first day of Spring just passed us by, meaning a number of post-grads have recently notched up their first semester and a bit of PhD life. As with any other new undertaking a lot of lessons have been learned by the fledgling PhDs. The student-led Social Lab Group decided to create somewhat of a repository for recently enrolled PhDs, comprising both the lessons we learnt and some useful tips for surviving your first semester.

I'll preface the list by saying the tips seem to fall into two (maybe one) broad categories; 1) DO THESE THINGS ESPECIALLY IF THEY SCARE YOU, and 2) USE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY TO TRICK YOURSELF INTO BEING PRODUCTIVE.

  • Conduct your first study as soon as possible, and definitely before you feel ready.
  • Make yourself accountable by creating small goals and deadlines and announcing them to your advisor or scheduling meetings on their due date. It's not your advisor's responsibility to harass you about this, but simply telling them of what you plan to accomplish by X date or Y meeting can be a good motivator.
  • If you're looking to wrap up a meeting, taking a moment to summarise the key points out loud is both an effective hint and it makes you look totally engaged and on top of things.
  • Visit the journal websites to sign up to their free email notifications for new issues.
  • When reading a newly released journal article that appears to have completely and perfectly investigated your PhD topic, you should print it out and get out your angry highlighter and big red pen and lay into it. Identifying what the authors in their incomparable stupidity have failed to look at, control for, or explain is not only very therapeutic, but will help you realise that a) you still have a contribution to make, and b) people care about the topic you're researching!
  • Get in as much writing practice as you can. If you don't have any data of your own to write up, your advisor will definitely have some data somewhere (e.g., old honours student data) that they would be happy for you to cut your teeth on. The best of this is that your lack of emotional investment in the dataset will make the inevitable and crushing rejection substantially less crushing.
  • Look for potential paper collaborations as a 3rd or later author. Providing comments - even doing substantial editing - on a draft initially written by someone else is by far less exhausting than starting from a blank page.
  • Encourage, accept and laugh (as applicable) at criticism you receive. If someone is giving you honest and constructive criticism, that means they care enough about your work (yay!) and want to help you improve it (double-yay!). By seeking out criticism you are seeking out opportunities to improve your work and your understanding.
  • It is important to note that as a PhD student you are in research training, and are not expected to have all the answers. You are in research training, and not expected to have all the answers. You are not the exception to this expectation.
  • Tutoring is great for you. It allows you to develop presentation experience, deal with left-field questions, work on explanations for that much-venerated "intelligent but non-specialist audience", hone your time management skills, and pays well. You should do it at least once during your PhD, the earlier the better.
  • Force yourself to present wherever possible. Say "yes" to things like lab group, 3 minute thesis, RHD-Day, and conferences. When someone asks you "what do you do", use that opportunity to hone your 30-second version (and your self-control when they follow up with "so why does that matter?").
  • Attend conferences, summer schools, small group meetings (mini-conferences), seminars, lab groups and coffee dates wherever possible. The importance of your peers' and colleagues' contributions to your work, whether formally or informally, cannot be overstated. They can ask uncomfortable questions, point out flaws, grant blinding insight, listen to you whinge, and order another bottle of wine. How invaluable!

So, on behalf of the students from the Social Lab Group, I hope you can take something away from this post that helps you at some point during your candidature.

Feel free to add any of your own tips and tricks in the comments :)



  1. I think these are all great tips, Morgan. The only extra one which feels conspicuously missing is:

    Know when to say "no". Saying "yes" to every opportunity is a great strategy at first, but it quickly snowballs into a mountain of work, much of which isn't directly relevant to your real passion. Equally important is the trick of gathering your thoughts, figuring out where your core interests lie, and gently extricating yourself from work that isn't going to further them.

  2. RE saying "yes" to everything, I totally agree, and warned a new PhD about that just this morning.

    I also completely agree with your second point, Kate - the truth is 3 years isn't a long time to do a PhD, and the time will fly if you're doing a lot (or even some) of peripheral work. It's ok to be a bit selfish during a PhD and focus on your own interests :)