My tips for a {happy} first PhD semester

I have now been in a doctoral program for six months. Which is shocking, but not as shocking as doing the math and realizing that I am now 1/6 in. WOAH. While I know it’s ok to take a little more than three years, I am of course aiming at closing up in September 2016. Time sure flies when you’re having fun.


So I thought about putting together a few tips for anybody’s who’s going to be in my shoes in the future: basically, things I wish I had known six months ago.

Start writing early. I truly cannot emphasize this enough. Start writing around the three months mark. Not because you’ll keep everything you write (because you WON’T) but because it’ll be easier once you begin with the real thing.

But also, read. And read extensively. I thought I only needed to read papers related to my topic, but truth is, the first year is for you to open your mind. I am now reading extensively in Anthropology, Economic History, History of Fashion, Literal Criticism, Bibliography. And not only do I get great ideas from them, it is good to mix it up – I never get bored.
And for God’s sake take notes of EVERY SINGLE THING YOU READ. Use Zotero. You’ll be happy you did.

Trust your supervisors. They know better. Whether you got to pick them or not, they know the environment, know what you need to do, know what works and what doesn’t.

Trust yourself. You can do it. Be aware that there’ll most likely be times when you want to jump off a cliff: that’s normal. From what I’m hearing, it’s also super normal for supervisors not to praise their students too much. Generally speaking, be ready to be left to your own devices. You’re probably only going to see one supervisor once a month, and the other as rarely as once a semester. Reach out to them if you’re experiencing difficulties, but learn to try and fix your own problems first. You need to be able to work alone to do a PhD. It is, most time, quite a lonely experience: you’ll be researching a topic so narrow most people will look at you funny when you explain it (been there, done that).

Network network network. A workshop on Friday evening, when I’m so tired I just want to crawl into bed? I’ll go. A seminar I can’t go to? I’ll find the speaker’s email address and drop them a line. A one-day conference two hours away that’ll require a 5 am wake up? SIGN ME UP. You’ll get to know people in your field (who are probably the only ones who’ll be able to laugh at your nerdy jokes and understand your frustrations), get suggestions on literature in the discipline, advertise your research. Find friends. I know this looks terribly out of character, but a research program is NOT about spending all your days in the library.

Find extra activities and extra funding. Languages, collaborations, volunteering. Once again, it’s networking. They bring good additions to your resume and take you mind off work. It is better to have to spend an extra semester on your degree and have some professional experience, than have future committees and employers think you spent one thousand days trying to beat the deadline. A good website for extra funding is this one, but you’ll need a subscription via your university.

Have fun! Remember you entered then tunnel because you loved your discipline!

Last but not least: don’t waste too much time reading about PhDs or doctorateness or whatever. But do read this article by Tara Brabazon, University of Brighton: How Not To Write A PhD Thesis.


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