“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!