Some advice for people embarking on their PhD

By Helen Sunderland (@hl­_sunderland)

As I come to terms with the fact that I will soon no longer be able to call myself a first-year PhD student, I want to give some advice to those starting their doctoral research. Things I wish I knew when I started, some things I’ve learnt and others that I am still working on…

  1. Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. This is completely normal. Moving to a new city and a new university, everything felt quite overwhelming at first. With post-induction information overload, it took a good couple of months for me to settle into a research routine.
  2. Don’t dive straight into the detail. If, like me, you are a details person, this can be very tempting. But it is important to take time when starting your project to think through the big questions of your research. Be flexible and feel free to make changes to your original proposal (within reason!) Keep revisiting your research questions to stay on track and see how your ideas have developed. Put time into planning and thinking through the logistics of your project – and keep coming back to this. It will help your research in the long run.
  3. Work out how and when you work best and embrace it. Everyone has their own preferred style of working. If you are naturally a 9 to 5 person, great. If not, don’t force it. (Believe me, I tried, it doesn’t work.) Work when you are most productive. Take breaks, take days off and enjoy your weekends.
  4. Develop a system to keep on top of your notes. You will accrue an enormous amount of data over the course of your project. It is best to work out a system for managing all this information from the start. Whether digital or on paper, find ways to index and file your work so you can find it again easily, even years down the line. Back everything up. Look into digital research aids, such as referencing management software. I’ve recently started using Camscanner for archival photography and I cannot recommend it highly enough!
  5. Be strategic with your secondary literature reading. Create yourself a reading list at the start and edit it as you go. Keep up to date with new trends in the scholarship. You won’t be able to read everything, and you are not expected to. Engage critically with what you read, thinking through how you might incorporate it into your thesis.
  6. Write throughout your PhD. You won’t be able to leave all the writing until the end. Start writing early and write regularly. I find writing helpful for developing ideas as I go – even if this is just a summary of archival sources or my response to a book I’m reading, it makes starting work on a chapter far less daunting. Remember you are still developing your writing style – experiment with it!
  7. Get connected. Get to know people on your course and in your faculty. Being a history PhD student can be isolating, so it is important to build up support networks. Look out for opportunities to meet researchers outside of your university, through historical societies or at conferences. The Institute of Historical Research events page is a good place to start for upcoming conferences and calls for papers. I have found Twitter really helpful for keeping track of events and research outside of Cambridge.
  8. Attend seminars and workshops even – especially – when they are not directly relevant to your research. You never know the research discoveries you might make in unexpected places. Learn from how other people develop their research projects, present, ask and answer questions. And ask questions yourself.
  9. Choose opportunities outside of your PhD research wisely. You are likely to have opportunities during your PhD to gain academic experience beyond your research, such as teaching, convening a workshop, organising a reading group or conference, holding a committee position or getting involved in public history projects and outreach work. Maintain a healthy balance with your research – you won’t be able to do everything. Don’t do something just for CV points, prioritise the things you are genuinely interested in.
  10. Be proactive about training and funding opportunities. Research the training and funding provision from your faculty, university and further afield. Take advantage of the research and professional development training available. Funding applications for research trips or conferences often need to be made well in advance so be sure to plan ahead.
  11. Keep a list of future research ideas. If you come across things in the archives which you would love to research further but fall outside of your current project, write them down. They might become your projects of the future.
  12. Don’t compare your progress with others and celebrate the little milestones. Everyone’s research moves at different paces so try not to fall into the trap of comparing your work to others. Celebrate your colleagues’ success. Focus on short-term goals. And enjoy your research. If the rest of the PhD goes as quickly as my first year, it will be over before you know it.


Image: Library Books photograph by timetrax23 (flickr via Creative Commons)

2 thoughts on “Some advice for people embarking on their PhD

  1. Things I wish more people told me when I was in my first year.

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