How to survive your first week of a PhD. What I learnt (hint: it’s a little lonely!)

It’s been exactly one week since I started my PhD.

If you’re thinking about doing a PhD, you might be wondering what your first weeks might actually look like. What kind of skills do you need to make it?

Here is what I have learnt in the first week of a PhD.

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What have I learned in the first week of my PhD?

1. You’re on your own.

You’ve got to be ready to tackle this PhD on your own accord.

On my first day as a new PhD student, I didn’t even see my supervisors!

But, I got in to the lab, set up my bluetooth keyboard, computer, and settled my pot-plant into its spot near the window – and then that was it. It was up to me to sort out what the heck I was doing, what my to-do list was, and what I would occupy my office hours with.

You have got to be motivated to get what you need to get done, by yourself.

There was no one there to tell me to complete my research induction, finish the workplace safety module or start reading hundreds of papers on my topic.

I am lucky enough to be in a lab environment, so I was super welcomed and congratulated on my first day by the other PhD students, Honours students and post docs floating around.

However, not a single person cares what I am doing at my desk.

There is no one telling you to get things done.

You have got to be 100% self motivated (which, I think mostly comes from starting your PhD for the right reasons, not just because you’re not ready to leave university!).

On the flip side, no one is telling you to get tasks done, which means you can focus on exactly what you want.

If one day you want to watch 10 videos about vaguely-connected-to-your-project physics concepts, you can. If you want to watch last year’s data science conference talks, you can.

Want to make three coffees? Sure!

It’s an incredible independence you would never have experienced during undergrad.

2. You’ve got to treat it like a full-time job.

Following on from being in charge of your own PhD, you’ve got to treat it seriously.

Treat it like a full-time job.

After the first week, I told my partner that, “I can see how people just never get anything done.”

There’s no one to tell you to get stuff done every second of every day.

But in six months, you’re going to have to check-in with the university and prove that you’ve actually achieved something towards your PhD.

It’s easy to want to head home a little earlier, or skip a day of work (which you totally have the freedom to do, if you really need it!) but you’ve got to be careful to actually put in the hours you need to truly knuckle down on your PhD.

Don’t laze about and then be stressed in 1.5 years when you’re no where near where you should be.

One of my Honour’s supervisors said that the easiest way to get your PhD done, is to just rock up everyday.

Show up and you’re halfway there.

3. You need your workspace to work for you!

Part of your reason for showing up – should be how your workspace / desk make you feel!

You should want to wake up everyday, snuggle into your office chair, and knuckle down on some reading, writing, and analysis.

I know that some people aren’t lucky enough to receive their own dedicated space in a lab or university, but never-the-less, you should always strive to make your environment work for you.

I’ve brought in a calendar, a small wooden shelf, arrowhead pot-plant, snacks and coordinated my folders and customised my iMac.

And on top of just aesthetics, your environment is super important in habit forming and maintenance.

You’ve got to employ stimulus control techniques to ensure that you’re teaching your brain that sitting at your desk means ‘work.’

If you’re going out for lunch, go out for lunch and step away from your workspace.

Teach your brain that desk time is PhD research time.

And chatting, eating and socialising should occur outside of its bounds.

If you want to learn more about stimulus control, have a read of this article by Ingvarsson (2019).

From the very first week of a PhD, make those rules for yourself.

4. You’ve got to sort out a meal routine.

Let’s be real: food is the most important part of any day.

If you’re going to start treating your PhD like a full time job, this means you’re going to have to start preparing food for it too.

The number one trap at any full time position is falling into buying lunch every single day.

Every bit of money you earn is just going straight to the lunch lady!

Don’t get sucked into the ‘buying lunch’ culture in the first week of a PhD.

Find something quick, easy and super yummy to eat everyday. It should be easy to prepare and something that you can prep for days in advance.

My favourite is hummus, tomato and cucumber on bread. I bring in a loaf of rye bread, large container of home made hummus, a whole cucumber and a couple of tomatoes. Chuck it in the lab fridge and it will last me the entire week!

5. Your first week of a Phd is flipping exciting.

I’m starting a full-time position, am completely in control of my everyday happenings and one step closer to receiving that ‘Dr.’ title.

Starting your PhD is an exciting time.

The first 6 months often include in depth exploration of your topic, organising methods and materials, and writing up your first proper research proposal. Here is exactly what I did in the first month of my PhD.

But on your first week, relinquish in your new duty. You earned your spot.

When it’s time to start writing that research proposal, you can check out how to write a research proposal here.

It’s incredibly exciting to be a big part of up and coming research in the scientific community.

It’s just the first week – and I feel like I only have a small taste of what is to come.

Here’s to the next three years!

Check to see if I’ve made it through my first year here: My First Year PhD Student Experience.

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