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).
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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!).

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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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How to Write a PhD Proposal: Secure your Post-Grad Spot

Writing a PhD proposal will be one of the first things you do as a hopeful PhD candidate.

Depending on the university you are aiming to attend, this may occur in one of two ways.

Your research proposal could be due before securing your spot as a PhD student. To make sure you’re the right person for the job, universities can ask for a proposal showing your ‘proposed’ PhD research (and what you plan to do with your time as a student) before they even allow you to take on the role.

At other universities (and in my personal experience), the PhD proposal is the first to-do item when you begin your life as a post-graduate student. The university lets you take on the title of PhD student and then you need to prove that you have a solid plan of action!

For me, I had the first six months of my PhD to finalise a proposal, have it reviewed by external reviewers, and then present it at my proposal meeting. See my tips on acing your proposal meeting here.

Regardless of when your university wants your proposal, this guide will help you make sure you include everything that is required to secure your spot in a doctor of philosophy program.

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How to write a PhD Proposal

A typical research proposal includes the following sections…

Introduction

Here, you introduce the reader to your topic focus. The introduction is an overview of the current state of literature in the area – so it is important that you’ve done lots of research before you even get to this point! See how to read a journal article here.

Typically, the introduction should start very general and open, and slowly become more focused in on your exact research. But what does this mean exactly?

Say that your research aims to look at differences in resting electrical brain activity in healthy people vs. those with chronic pain.

It would be good to first explain what chronic pain is (to give your reader a general idea) along with how many people it affects and how much of a burden to the health care system is it. Basically, you need to highlight how important it is to study it, while being very broad.

Next, it might be good to explain some typical differences that you might see in thinking styles, cognition and sensation that you might find in those with chronic pain vs. those without. This is before even mentioning electrical brain activity.

From here, you want to start getting more specific. It’s time to introduce electrical brain activity (and EEG) and what resting state measurements might tell us about the brain.

Then, discuss the similar research in this area (what other populations show differences in resting brain activity?). It would be good to highlight some strengths and limitations of this literature, to start shedding light on some gaps that your research might help to fill.

After that, be really specific (time to introduce your study). If this is all the information that’s been found before, what are you going to do about it? What things are you planning to research, and how will it give us more (important) understanding about the topic?

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It is super important throughout the whole of your introduction to ensure there is a smooth ‘flow’ to your story. Be sure to have opening sentences in your paragraphs (to let the reader know whats coming) and concluding sentences that highlight why that information is important, and what’s coming up next.

I usually like to make a flowchart of the paragraph’s topics to make sure I have a clear outline of where I’m going and which information is needed in each paragraph.

While the next bits of information can also be within the concluding paragraphs of your introduction, my proposal requirements stated that the significance of the research (why its important and its practical benefits) and general research aims should come under their own headings. This is individualised for every discipline though, so make sure that you are including the right subheadings and correct information!

Key points: Think big picture -> my tiny study using one paragraph at a time. Use linking sentences and always highlight how each bit of new information is vital to the current research.

Significance of the research

While you’ve likely introduced briefly in the first paragraph why your research is important from a broad standpoint, it is crucial to highlight its direct benefits and future directions.

For example, you should explain how your research will further understanding in the research world (and help to guide future research in the area) but also illuminate how your results might directly benefit people in other contexts. This might be in clinical practices, environmental standpoints, government aid or even just how the knowledge could improve everyday situations.

Key points: Who/where will your research benefit? (i.e. What’s the point?)

Research Aims

The research aims is a clear, concise paragraph that sums up the information from the introduction into the foundation for your PhD. So, you’ve explained everything you need to, it’s time to tell the reader what you’re actually going to do with it.

In a paragraph (or sometimes a few dot points) demonstrate the aims of your research. With your research, what questions do you aim to have answered?

There is a really careful balance of broad and specific to your study here. You want to list questions/aims that are relevant to the idea introduced in the introduction, while leaving room for exploration at every step of the way!

Key points: What questions am I trying to answer in my PhD?

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Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Methods/Research Design

It’s time to tell the reader what you’re actually planning to do. You’ve figured out your questions, now it’s time to show how you’ll answer them.

For psychology, the typical structure for a research design section includes subheadings of: participants/recruitment, materials/measures, protocol.

Depending on the style of your project, it might be good to break this section up into the number of experiments that you’ll be running. If you’ll be using just one larger experiment (that collects loads of data to analyse in one chunk!) then you can just follow the structure once. Otherwise, it might be good to have multiple participants -> materials -> protocol for each individual experiment.

Each section here is pretty self explanatory. For participants, who are you planning to research and why (include references for why certain inclusion/exclusion criteria exists).

Materials include anything that will be used for the experiment. For psychology, this is typically some psychological assessment batteries (how they work, how they are scored, and their reliability/validity). For cognitive sciences, certain programs, stimuli and tests should be explained.

The protocol is exactly what is sounds like. This is the step-by-step of everything you plan to happen during your experiment, from recruitment of participants to their final honorarium.

Key points: participants, materials and procedure (i.e. who, what, and when).

Data/Statistical Analyses

Within your research design, you should also be letting the reader know how you intend to analyse your data. Once the experiments are complete, and the data is collected, what are you planning to do with it?

This is a chance for you to show off your data skills. Let the reader know what programs you intend to use, the variables you intend to measure, and the statistical models you will implement to analyse what you’ve found.

This is normally the shortest section of the report (although sometimes EEG analysis pipelines can use lots of your word count!).

However, it is important to showcase the methods your are using, reference other literature that has used them before, and highlight why these are the correct analysis tools for your dataset.

Always be explaining why why why throughout your proposal. Every idea, every test, every plan should have a reason why it’s there.

If you introduce an analysis technique, mention why its better than others or reasons why other people have used it before.

Key points: explain you’re working out (and why its the best idea to do it that way).

Research Timeline & Thesis Outline

Toward the end of your proposal document, you need to give the readers an idea of how you plan to separate your time as a PhD student. It should include when you plan to be preparing experiments (ethics approval, method design, piloting), collecting data, analysing, and writing up your findings (either into chapters or publications). It should also include any conferences you plan to attend or overseas travel.You can be ambitious here (its likely that every plan you make will change anyway, so don’t stress about it being final).

After this, it’s also important to give an outline of the chapters you expect to include within your thesis. It’s ages away – so again, doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s just something to base your ideas off of as you go along.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in the first six months of my PhD, its that your research/thesis will not end up looking like your PhD proposal one bit.

Key points: Make a (very) loose plan.

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Review your PhD Proposal

Before you submit anything, give it a thorough review and read over. Make sure that you use a critical eye.

It is likely that your discipline will have specific requirements that are necessary in your proposal. Ensure that you are aware of these (even before you start writing!) Some disciplines may have alternate heading structures or some certain pieces of information that must be added. Some disciplines also have specialised formatting rules (for example, APA for psychology) so its important you are adhering to the requirements of this format. This can included being mindful of font, size, title pages, contents page and reference style. See how to make referencing quick and easy here!

Also, think ahead! Think about your supervisors/reviewers and try to anticipate questions/comments your readers may have. Read through your proposal as if you are an outsider and see what questions pop up.

Sometimes, its nice (but sneaky) to leave some tiny loopholes that encourage a specific question (and then you can prepare your answer to it!). This doesn’t mean leaving out huge chunks of information just for the sake of it, but sometimes you can aim to guide your reader to a specific question.

And that’s it! Good luck with your proposal writing!

For some more information on how to write your PhD proposal: see this article.

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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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How to Choose your Thesis (or Dissertation) Supervisor.

In semester one of my third year, I was already stressing about narrowing down my options for my Honour’s thesis topics (also known as a dissertation, depending where you are).

There were so many things I had enjoyed in my undergrad, and so many topics I could see myself enjoying in the Honours year, that I was overwhelmed.

It can be super hard to choose your thesis supervisor!

I was left to my own devices while I tried to navigate my potential options in my third-year.

My lecturers were saying that students should “perhaps meet with some potential supervisors toward the end of the year,” but no one was explaining what I should look for in these potential supervisors.

I want to share with you the five steps I took to choosing my thesis supervisor and why you shouldn’t stress too much about picking the perfect topic. How should you choose your thesis supervisor?

Questions you need to ask yourself to choose the right thesis supervisor

1. Brainstorm Topics

Reflect on topics that peaked your interest during undergrad. This could be from the class curriculum, discussions with your peers or professors, or everyday musings.

Think about:

What modules most interested you? Which subjects did you choose as electives? What readings did you enjoy?

As a whole, what drew you to your degree program in the first place?

What do you talk about – in regards to your degree – to family or friends outside of university?

2. Review your Favourite Professors & Lecturers

Sometimes, topics that you enjoyed are not necessarily parallel to teachers you enjoyed having. And this also works vice versa.

Students often first turn to their favorite topics when deciding on their thesis supervisor – but you do not want to neglect thinking about the relationship you will have with your supervisor.

You will be spending an entire year with this person as your guide. Reflect on who you want to have weekly meetings with (someone you can comfortably converse with), share your problems, and even maybe cry with (not that I hope you get to that point – but it happens!).

I can assure you, the supervisor-student relationship you have will be absolutely crucial to navigating the Honour’s year.

Take it from my personal experience, with the COVID-19 crisis, I am so grateful for my supervisors. The unwavering support they have given me through the many Zoom meetings (and the added bonus of cats in the background, pyjama bottom morning meetings and virtual coffees).

3. Look at their Published Papers & Research Methods

So you know what and who you like – which academics in your university tick some of your boxes?

Check out their published research and see what directions they could take you. You can easily do this on Google Scholar.

It is important to review their style of project: what research methods do they use? Is this something you can see yourself doing?

In Psychology, the classic dichotomy is qualitative vs. quantitative research. This usually means working with numbers and statistics, or working with more complex (and usually wordy) data like interviews and stories.

For me, I crossed out a lot of options, as I knew I wanted a neuroscience focus and to work with some electrophysiological data (EEG).

Think about the types of skills you’d like to gain from your project.

4. Assess their Work Environments/Office

Where would you be working if you choose that supervisor?

Some supervisors may be a part of a larger research team. This would mean you’d have access to a larger group of people if you ever needed help. It can also expose you to a wider variety of research projects and give you an office to work in during your Honours year.

Some supervisors may not be part of a research team, and thus you won’t have the opportunity to mingle with many of their colleagues. You might be left to your own devices more than you would within a larger research group. This may be okay for you – but that just depends on your work style.

5. Technicalities

There are also some smaller technical questions you could ask yourself:

Is said supervisor going to be around when I need them? Will they have any periods of leave over the year?

What are their specialties? What are their weaknesses? Will you need co-supervisors on board to assist in other areas of the project?

Will said supervisor help to lead me to the career / future I’d like to follow? Does the project you could potentially do with them align with the skills you’d need for a future job?

Final Things to Consider…

At the end of the day, I would prioritise finding a supervisor that you can see yourself having a healthy working relationship with.

While it can seem overwhelming trying to perfect every aspect of your choice, you should know that your Honours year is about developing your skills and showcasing your research ability.

Don’t worry too much about your exact topic! Instead, focus on what you will be able to learn from the process, and preparing to put in the effort to present a final project to the best of your ability.

Hopefully these tips can help you to choose your thesis supervisor!

Have a look at my latest posts here!

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