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Six & 1/2 Things I learned in my first Six-ish Months as a PhD Student

Hello, Dear Readers, and welcome! Today on An Eddying Flight I'm going to go through some things I've figured out over the exhilarating, terrifying, stimulating and surprising first six months (and a bit) of being a full-time PhD student in Creative Writing at the Open University.

  1. Supervisors are Key. Every article or blogpost or book that offers advice on how to get a PhD tells you this, but I'm here to say: they are not kidding, sunshine. Having the right supervisors, not just for your project but for you personally, is even more important than you think it's going to be. If you're applying for places on existing research projects, please, please try to make the time to contact the supervisors for a chat so you can get a feel for who they are. Don't pick someone just because they're a big name or have the right keywords in their publications or they have a lot of money following them around; yes, this is a professional relationship, but if you can't stand them or feel that they can't stand you then the next three to six years are going to be, to put it bluntly, miserable. And if you're like me and are proposing your own research project, do not be fooled into thinking that, given that your work will be more self-directed, your choice of supervisors is any less vital. You might think that getting the funding you need is more important, and that you'll work anywhere with anyone so long as that's in place, or that ultimately you can do an end-run around unhelpful or distant supervisors the way you might a bad boss, so it doesn't really matter who's supervising you. It doesn't work that way. You NEED your supervisors. Especially in the first months when you are establishing yourself, but also at every key stage in your PhD, any time when you feel unsure, or are going through things as a researcher or in your personal life. They are everything to you. Working with them can and should be one of the best parts of the PhD experience; you should feel that they both challenge and reassure you, that they're constantly pushing you to do better but also willing to help you get to the answers, and that they're genuinely there for you. I've already heard some fairly nightmareish stories from people I know about how their supervisors have dismissed or crushed them, and it just makes me shudder. I am so grateful for the team I have.

  2. Start your bibliography or reference list NOW. Yes - now, right now. And make sure the references are in the right format. Yes, all of them - even if you have to spend half a morning figuring that out. And update it DAILY. I mean it! You are going to save your future self - whether that is two-weeks-in-the-future or two-years-in-the-future - so many migraines and ulcers.

  3. Get into the habit of reading and writing at the same time as soon as possible. It will make the world of difference in how your reading, writing and skills as a researcher will progress. It will also make you feel much more in control of your research right from the beginning, and help you retain so much more information. And you'll spend a lot less time trying not to nod off, trust me. More (much more) detailed information on how to set up this dynamic can be found here.

  4. Don't be afraid to skim-read, or abandon unhelpful papers or books unfinished. This one was - and is - a real toughie for me, because I am the kind of person who is just... weirdly compelled to read everything super-thoroughly. I get a guilt complex and become convinced that I must have missed vital information if I skip so much as a paragraph. But I am working on it because a huge part of being a PhD student is learning what NOT to read. None of us have loads of time to waste reading content that isn't truly useful 'just in case'. The fact is that even if a book or paper has a title/abstract or keywords that promise to be perfectly relevant to your research, that doesn't mean it will. And even if it is relevant, sometimes it still won't be helpful. Sometimes the author is a really bad writer who puts you to sleep no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it turns out they're covering stuff you already know. Sometimes there just isn't anything in there that lights you up or makes sense to you in terms of your own research questions. You're not obligated to give 100% intense focus to everything you've picked up, and having skim-read a few pages, you are allowed to say 'OK, this isn't helpful' and put it down. And just in case you don't believe me, here's a very helpful video from a history PhD student at Yale going through all the different ways that she reads/skim-reads for different results.

  5. Develop a work-life balance. Don't just expect it to happen on its own because it won't. What will happen instead is that you will (of course) need to have time for both work and personal life, but you will feel constantly guilty and stressed out about this fact. When you're working you will feel guilty that you're not spending time with family or doing the laundry. And when you're doing the laundry or spending time with family, you will feel anxious that you are not working. Honestly - why do this to yourself? There needs to be space in your schedule to have fun and look after yourself and the things that are important to you that are not your PhD - like hobbies, pets, family and friends, exercise, leaving your house and looking at grass and clouds - as well as to encompass unexpected life events that may reduce your research/reading/writing time. If your plan for completing your PhD over the next 3-6yrs relied on you working literally every hour you have, seven days a week, then the moment you get sick or something explodes in your relationship or your landlord gives you three months notice that they're turning your flat into an AirBnB (Curse you, AirBnB - curse you and your life-ruining business-model) you will not only be behind with your work - you will also have to deal with the crushing weight of guilt and anxiety which makes every situation worse... and why? Because you have a life, like every other graduate student out there! Work five to six days a week at most, set yourself reasonable hours each day and stick to them, and allow yourself to actually enjoy personal time. I give you permission!

  6. Learn the art of saying 'no'. Lots of training, academic events and socialising opportunities look genuinely important, or fun and interesting. You may feel both internal and external pressure to make the absolute most of this unique time as a PGR (I know I do) and pack in as much stuff as possible, taking advantage of every opportunity that is offered. But only a certain amount of that stuff is actually vital: what is always vital is your research. The moment that attending this research group seminar or connecting with this cohort of fellow PGRs or doing this training course starts to feel like it is impinging on your ability to dedicate sustained thought to your own work and progress it, it has become unhelpful. I know people want you there and you feel guilty responding with a 'no' instead of a 'yes' or 'maybe' but you need to grit your teeth and do it. The more you say no, the easier it will be to do going forward, and - amazingly - the easier it will become to say yes to PGR activities that you genuinely do want and need to do.

And a half:

You already know this, but I have to say it because you may know it without believing it: you will probably feel better if you reduce your caffeine intake a bit and drink more water. I'm not trying to wrest anyone's morning latte or PG Tips from their hand (mainly because if anyone tries to wrest mine off me they will lose their hand). But a couple of cups of tea or coffee a day is a very different thing to four or five or more that you have to have just to feel like you can keep going. De-caf and alternatives like Rooibos are a thing, and they are delicious - and your brain doesn't actually need constant chemical stimulation to allow you to focus. In fact, your brain does much better without those things, long-term. Plus, life in general becomes much more pleasant when you're not walking around with a permanant dehydration headache and the shakes. Just sayin'.

I hope this was helpful or at least amusing, Dear Readers - and if you've got any revelations of your own that you'd like to share, please do comment over on Facebook or Twitter, or down below.

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