Monthly Archives: December 2011

Top Ten Tips to a Great PhD Start (part 2)

“Chi ben comincia è a metà dell’opera!” This is an old Italian saying that means “The one who starts well is already half way through”. This holds for your PhD too. There is a lot to take on board when you start a PhD and sometimes things can get overwhelming. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to start well and give the best impression you can. Last week, I shared the first five of my top ten tips to a great PhD start. Here, are my other five.

6) Be interested. Doing a PhD is quite a bit more than just working at your research project. It also means getting involved in your community, taking part in the departmental life, finding out what your peers are doing. Apart from the social aspect of it, being interested and being involved will give you plenty of opportunities to broaden your horizons.

7) Take advice. Let’s say you are smart. Ok, let’s say you are very smart. Maybe even smarter than your supervisor. That’s a great thing. However, as long as your doctorate is concerned, this is probably new territory for you (unless, of course, you have already done a PhD before). Your supervisor, on the other hand, will have been there before and most likely will have already supervised other PhD students. As such, they have a better view and understanding of what it means to do a PhD. So, just take advantage from their experience and be open to take advice.

8) Communicate well. Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance polymath and my greatest genius of all times, developed quite a remarkable way of writing, from right to left, that could only be read holding his scripts in front of a mirror. Some people say it was because he was left-handed, but others believe that he was afraid to have his ideas stolen or copied by others. In fact, an incredible number of inventions and discoveries remained unexploited during his lifetime and had to be “re-invented” centuries after. The morale? No matter how good your research is, the point is that unless you are willing to communicate it and communicate it in a way that others can understand it, there is little point in doing any research at all. The communication skills that you will have to master during your PhD (and ideally in any career you choose after that) will involve mostly written, oral and poster presentations (more about these in future posts). However, when it comes to communication, also the way you interact with your supervisor, your colleagues and your peers matters. In fact, even the way you communicate by email says a lot about the type of person you are. While there is no need to be unduly formal, it is always worth keeping in mind some etiquette rules. When writing to people on more senior positions, always make sure you use a proper salutation (no “heya” or the like) and a proper ending. Be polite and to the point. Avoid sms-like text. Don’t be sloppy and check for possible grammar mistakes!

9) Follow your words with actions. I just cannot count the number of times I have been promised something (a thesis chapter, a report draft, a meeting at a given time) just to be met with a delay, a problem or simply nothing. It is frustrating. Sure, there will be times when something genuinely happens that prevents you from sticking to your words. It happens to all of us. But if not following through your words happens just all too often, then your credibility is lost. If you suspect that you may not be able to meet a deadline or an arrangement (however informally agreed that was), say so at once. Always assume that whatever you are asked to do is going to take much longer than you anticipate and plan accordingly. This will minimise the risk of having to come up with some reason as to why you did not stick to your words. Ultimately, this is part of becoming professional, which takes us to our last point.

10) Become professional. The holder of a PhD is a fully professional research scientist; can produce research of interest to other professional research scientists; is knowledgeable enough to evaluate the work of others; and can communicate their results to an audience of professional researchers. Of course, it will take time to acquire all these skills, but these are the goals you should be aiming for from the very beginning of your PhD. Knowing in advance where it is that you are heading can help you better define the path and focus on the key tasks that will allow you to gain such skills. The way you will operate during the years of your doctorate is likely to set the stage for whatever comes next, whether it be a post in academia or a job in the “real world”. The people with whom you interact are the same who will provide references about your achievements, but also – and equally importantly – about your personality and attitude. Make sure you get the best possible reference by being the best possible professional you can be.

PS This is the last post of this series for this year. We’ll resume in January. Until then,  very best wishes to all for a happy festive season!


Top Ten Tips to a Great PhD Start

Have you ever thought about the difference between under-graduate and post-graduate studies? Do you have an idea of the major challenges you will face in your PhD? Do you know what to do to make sure you start off in the best possible way?

The transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies is a crucial one. Learn quickly about what is expected of you and you’ll be able to make the most of your doctorate. Just to give you an idea, here are some key differences between being an undergraduate and being a PhD student. Undergraduates follow a prescribed and well-defined curriculum; are told what to study; are given textbooks as recommended resources; focus their learning on well-established knowledge; and do all of the above as part of a class (which means they can get help from their peers). If one gets stuck, there is always “the answer” to look up.

As you embark on research as a post-graduate student, on the other hand, you have no curriculum to follow; you mostly teach yourself what you need to know; you barely know what the questions are; and nobody provides an answer. Indeed, very often nobody knows the answer! If this wasn’t enough, you do most of the above on your own, with only some guidance from your supervisor.

It is no surprise then that fully accomplishing the transition is going to pose some challenges. Luckily, there is a lot you can do to set off to the best possible start in your PhD. Here, are five of my top ten tips to make sure that you achieve precisely that.

1) Be proactive. Once you have met with your supervisor and have decided on your project, make sure you take initiative. Ideally, your supervisor should set up regular meetings with you. A good frequency at the beginning is about once a week and later on you can decide to meet less frequently or whenever required by the progress on your work. However, if your supervisor is one of the very busy types, being proactive is crucial for you. Ask your supervisor to meet you for half an hour whenever (s)he is available. Come up with an agenda of issues you want to discuss. After the meeting, write a brief summary of what has been agreed and send a copy to your supervisor, together with a list of actions to be completed (most likely by you) by the following meeting.

2) Take the lead. This means realising that your PhD is YOUR project. As such you need to take the lead on the way you want to organise your work and make sure you are always on track to achieve the milestones that you will agree with your supervisor.

3) Set your path. Develop a system that helps you make the most of your time. Remember that you will have plenty to do in addition to your research. Depending on your departmental rules, this may include: tutoring or demonstrating in undergraduate classes; taking courses for your PhD; attending summer schools; presenting your work at conferences; preparing yearly reports; and so on. A good PhD planner can be a very useful tool to manage your time effectively, to make sure you have everything under control and never to miss a deadline.

4) Ask for help. If you do get stuck or indeed if you realise that something is not quite working as it should, do ask for help. And do so as soon as the problem arises. People tend to underestimate early signs of problems and hope that somehow the issue will resolve itself in due time. While this may OCCASIONALLY be the case, more often then not problems have a tendency of getting bigger and worse if left unattended. Depending on the nature of the problem you are facing, you can talk to other members in your group, to a secretary who is familiar with the system, or indeed to any caring person who is wiling to offer a sympathetic ear.

5) Turn up at useful times. Let’s face it. The freedom to manage your time as you please is one of the best aspects of working in academia. No one will tell you when you should arrive and when you should leave. But there are circumstances when you really need to make an effort to be around and available when other people are (most notably your supervisor) so that you do have plenty of opportunities to overlap. It always pleases me to come in in the morning and see one of my students already there.

If you manage to put in practice all of the tips suggested so far, you are already in a great position to make a good impression on the people around you and on your supervisor. Remember: you only get one chance at making a first impression! Next week, I am going to share with you the other five top tips to help you achieve the best possible start. Stay tuned 🙂


How to Choose Your Supervisor and Sail Happily Through Your PhD

Some people say a PhD is like a marriage and indeed, depending on the nature of your project, you are likely to spend much more time with your supervisor than with your partner. For many, a supervisor will be a mentor, a friend, a confidante, an adviser. Someone to rely on when things get tough or when you just can’t see the end of it all and need support and encouragement. So, chances are that the relationship with your supervisor will be an intense one both professionally and personally. A mismatch in this respect can become frustrating for both parties involved, just as a mismatch in a loving partnership can cause serious headaches on both partners. Choose well and you will have a greatly enjoyable time and a generally successful PhD. Choose poorly, and you may end up hating everything you do regardless of how well your project is going.

So, how do you choose the right supervisor for you?

Odd as it may seem, the very first thing you need to asses is what type of student you are and how close a relationship you want. If you are someone who likes or needs constant feedback and guidance, then a supervisor who is able and willing to check frequently on your progress is the one for you. And certainly, at the beginning of your PhD it is desirable to have someone who gives plenty of guidance to make sure that you are moving in the right direction.

If, on the contrary, you prefer to work on your own until you get tangible results before reporting back to your supervisor, you may benefit from a more detached supervision style. But, be careful. While the expectation is that you will gradually move towards a more independent approach to your research during the course of your PhD, a supervisor who is either constantly absent or chronically unavailable is not ideal even for the most independent of students.

Senior or Junior?

In addition to personality issues, there are a number of other considerations to keep in mind. For example, should you go for a senior or a junior member of staff? Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. A senior academic is obviously more experienced and is more likely to have already established their own group. This, in turn, means that you will have plenty of people around who could help you out in case of need. On the other hand, a senior academic is also more likely to be busy with other stuff and will have taken on roles of greater responsibility in the department (head of group, head of department, director of teaching, director of research, just to cite a few) and may have little time to devote to you. A younger supervisor, by contrast, may be somewhat less experienced (though not necessarily less knowledgeable!), but more likely to be generally available. Also, what they lack in experience they may more than compensate for in enthusiasm and genuine interest in your progress.

Beyond the obvious

Whether junior or senior, someone with an established research record, who is actively contributing to their field of expertise, and who is invited to speak at national and international conferences is only too obvious a choice. However, other aspects may be even more important to you. For example, answering some of the following questions may help you decide if you are in doubt about possible supervisors. Do they have time to devote to you? Do they care for you as a person? Are they willing to support your career? If you get publishable results, will they let you have your name as a first author? Do they have key contacts who may become useful in your future? Are they willing to teach you skills that will allow you to sell yourself in the job market if you decide not to stay in research/academia?

It maybe hard to find a single person fitting all of these requirements, but finding out which of these features really matters to you can help you choose accordingly and avoid disappointment later on.

Chemistry matters

So, how do you find out if your potential supervisor has all the qualities you are looking for? The obvious thing is to go and meet them in person. Find out about their general attitude to supervision and try to assess the personal chemistry between the two of you. Also, have a chat with their previous and current students and see if they enjoy being part of the research group they are in.

Ultimately, a good relationship with your supervisor can last a lifetime and may develop into a solid professional and personal collaboration. If you decide to stay in research, a good relationship with your supervisor may well be one that opens opportunities for your future. I know many people who have remained in close contact with their supervisors well after the end of their PhD and their relationships have evolved over time into a constant source of mutual support and advice. So take your time now to choose carefully, and enjoy the benefits of your choice for the rest of your career.


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