First Year PhD Student – how to know if it is for you!

It is December 28th, 2020. I can officially say that I have come to the end of being a first year PhD student.

Miraculously, I have survived. I have made it far past my first week as a PhD! And I can honestly say that it has been an absolutely amazing learning experience and my self-development this past year has been at an all time high.

So, what did I learn as a first year PhD student? It has been so much more than just learning how to use R, Zotero and mark student assignments.

my first year phd student life

My experience as a First Year PhD Student

1. My day-to-day is very different.

Every day as a PhD student feels like a completely different job. I think that is what keeps everything so interesting!

No two days are the same. I have to complete an absolute myriad of tasks across each week, and all of them involve a different skill set, so I am always kept on my toes.

For example, a typical week would include a mixture of the following:

  • Researching (reading academic journal articles, taking notes).
  • Writing (not surprising!)
  • Attending meetings (lab meetings, supervisor meetings, industry partner catch ups).
  • Preparing experiments (understanding computer programs, collecting EEG equipment).
  • Running experiments (emailing and interacting with participants).
  • Attending workshops, lectures and conferences.
  • Supervising Honours students.
  • Teaching undergraduate classes and meeting with students.
  • Analysing Data (learning coding languages like python and R).
people sitting on chair in front of computer
Photo by Dom Fou on Unsplash

2. Industry partners can be great motivation.

As I’ve said before, completing a PhD can feel lonely. Especially if you don’t have a lab environment or specified PhD space to interact with other students or academics.

When you have to be working independently, it can be incredibly difficult to keep up the dedication, set your own goals and timelines and feel motivated to show up each and every day!

Therefore, a PhD project that comes under a larger project or alongside an industry partner can be incredibly helpful in keeping you accountable on your PhD journey.

For me specifically, I was having monthly meetings with the industry partners on my project. They wanted to be kept up to date with my progress, my results, and any issues I was having.

In this sense, they kept me accountable to make sure that I was in the lab everyday, and always chipping away at the project. Having someone else relying on the work that you do can be very beneficial in making sure you continuously show up!

If you are under the wing of a larger project, there will be deadlines and things that need to be done at certain time intervals to keep with the flow of the whole project.

However, I know that not every PhD project is tied to another larger project. If this is you, then make sure you are having the discussions with your supervisor and ask questions like:

  • What are the big deadlines I need to meet in the next 3/6/12 months?
  • What should I focus on this week/month?
  • What does the general outline of my PhD project look like?

It is so so important to make it clear what you need to achieve each day to reach the larger goal (and be consistent!).

woman in white and red polka dot long sleeve shirt
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

3. Not meeting a deadline is not the end of the world.

In saying that though, having a clear deadline/timeframe can also make you narrow-minded. Of course, hitting those deadlines is amazing! However, missing them is not the end of the world.

For example, this lesson became very clear to me during data collection.

I had a goal of collecting data from 40 participants from June – October this year, and writing up a report in December.

However, with COVID continuously messing with everyone’s plans, and people being wary to venture out, I was only able to run a total of 9 participants through the experiment protocol.

I was worried this would disappoint my supervisor, but they were incredibly understanding. No matter how many people I asked, how many classes I advertised to, I just couldn’t get people to volunteer!

When December came around, I just wasn’t able to provide a full dataset and analysis. But, I was able to write up a progress report of where I was, challenges I’d faced and subsequent alteration of experiment protocols that had been done along the way.

Doing this thorough analysis of the little data I had collected means that I have a really good idea of the trajectory of trends/patterns we are starting to see. Also, I have code scripts prepared to run through all additional data that comes our way!

My first year PhD student experience has been incredible. More so that I could have imagined. I have enjoyed delving into research, but also lending a hand to undergraduate and Honours students when they need it!

I have definitely been kept on my toes!

Now, we start planning for year 2.

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