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Five lessons from first year

I’m now firmly into the second year of my PhD studies, whether I care to admit it or not, and it’s about time I took a moment to reflect of the last 15 or so months. I was also recently asked for some top tips for starting out on a PhD. So, in response, here are some key reflections on my first year and lessons for anyone about to embark on their own PhD journey.

Reflections on Loch Insh whilst demonstrating on a first year Geography field trip.

Lesson 1: Embrace the freedom

The start of a PhD can feel overwhelming. After writing my application and several weeks of preparing for the interview, I felt like I had a fairly good idea of my project going in. Little did I know how much there was to learn and decide. The blank slate at the start of a PhD can be exciting but it can also be difficult to know what to tackle first. My main advice would be to enjoy those first few months of freedom. Explore all of the different avenues that you might want to delve into over the next few years. I recommend making a bunch of mind maps, diagrams and trying to map your project out onto a sheet of A3 paper.

Lesson 2: Coffee always helps

Okay, maybe not always… But an informal chat with a fellow PGR student (preferably with a hot beverage) is often a good idea. Before starting my PhD, I had never really heard of the term ‘imposter syndrome’ but it something I can 100% relate to. There have been times where I have felt like I must have snuck into university or wondered whether there was an admin error with acceptance letters. The best remedy I have found is having honest conversations with your peers. The Environment Society Student Forum (ESSF) was particularly helpful for this in my first year. The forum brings together PGR students from across the School of Geosciences who are researching environment/society topics. ESSF was a helpful space to air any worries and have informal, honest chats with other PhD students. Although new students may be starting out over zoom, I would still recommend seeking out opportunities to connect with your peers and through airing any ‘imposter’ feelings, you will soon realise you are not the only one.

Lesson 3: Small steps add up

With such a long-term project, the end goal can often seem far away and sometimes quite blurry. One of the main lessons from my first year is to remember that small steps do add up. Although the big picture and the colourful Gantt charts are important, keeping track of the tiny tasks to making an online survey or writing up a report can help to track your progress. Also, remember to celebrate the small steps. Distributing an online survey to hundreds of people or completing a database of modules may not be a big deal to someone else, but it is a milestone in your project and no one else is going to celebrate for you.

Small steps add up.

Lesson 4: Use your supervisor meetings wisely

All supervisory meetings are different, and I think it took me a few months to figure out the best format. I have a great supervisory team and I leave my supervisory meetings feeling more excited about my project and with a clearer idea of my next steps than when I went in. There are few official deadlines/hand-ins, so I’d recommend using the meetings to set yourself goals. I have found making an agenda and taking time to write up minutes after each discussion really useful. The agenda/minutes might seem quite formal, but it means you can check back for answers to particular questions or dig out a good nugget of advice later on in your research.

Lesson 5: Research is messy

This is something I have been discovering throughout my studies and continue to learn every month in my project. You can make your research plan as detailed as you like out and write out every aspect of your timeline, but research is messy. When things go wrong, try to remember that behind every polished paper there is probably a lot of ‘mess’. I feel very grateful that my data collection methods were fairly undisrupted by the events of 2020. Still, there were plenty of surprises in my first year and I’m sure there will be a number of twists and turns ahead.

If anyone has their own reflections or lessons from the first year of their PhD, I’d love to hear them!

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