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 🙂