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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Considerations when embarking on a PhD: Lessons learned from my first year

Considerations when embarking on a PhD: Lessons learned from my first year

Katheryn-Margaret Pascoe (MADev12) shares some practical information and tips for starting and surviving your first year of being a PhD researcher using her recent experience in the UK.
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

Embarking on a PhD is not a decision you come to lightly. Even once you have started, you will often reflect on the choices that led you there. I’ve written this blog to share some basic practical information and tips from surviving my first year as a PhD researcher in Northern Ireland.

Where to source funding?

Funding is one of the biggest questions when considering embarking on a PhD, so where to start looking?

  • The UK Research and Innovation, made up of seven Research Councils, is one of the largest funders for PhD research in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Funds are managed by Doctoral Training Partnerships and Centres for Doctoral Training such as the Northern Ireland and North Eastern DTP and the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science DTP. This funding, however, is generally only available to UK or EU residents.
  • The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding is an online database containing opportunities offered by UK charities. With functions to filter funding based on nationality, subject area, gender and age, the grants can range from a couple hundred pounds for conference participation, right up to full fee coverage. If you are currently a student at IDS/Sussex University, you should be able to sign up for free access!
  • Individual Universities also offer significant grants and should not be overlooked. Many of these are advertised on Institute websites and through FindaPhD. Sourcing funding is fundamental and will require time and effort.

Where to study?

The University reputation is not the only factor to consider and the best reputation does not equal the best experience. The relationship with your supervisor(s) is more likely to impact on your research progress and completion. Ask yourself, are your potential supervisors accessible? Are they experienced? Are they engaged in your subject area? While the supervisory relationship will be the main source of guidance, also consider what additional supports are offered through the Institute such as a Doctoral College or established Postgraduate Student Union. Lastly, location. In response to Covid-19 international travel has become more complex. If you are considering moving abroad, be mindful that you may not be able to return home for a long time. It has been almost a year since I was able to visit my family, that was not part of my plan.

8 things I wish I knew before I started

Beyond practical considerations, here are some top tips that helped me survive my first year. This reflects my personal experiences; however, expectations will differ across subject areas, institutes and research communities.
1. Your submitted thesis will not perfectly reflect your initial research proposal. During the PhD you will undoubtably have to adjust your project. Adapting to unforeseen challenges, participant recruitment, available resources, time limitations and emerging literature is normal. Discuss revisions with your supervisor(s) and remember to justify any changes.

2. You are not a research assistant. A PhD is an opportunity to develop your critical thinking and independent research skills. Your supervisors are there to guide, question and encourage you, not to micromanage a project. It is healthy to disagree with your supervisor(s) and take this as an opportunity to consider alternative perspectives, extend discussion and further clarify your positionality. This is your PhD.
3. Connect with other PhD researchers and staff at your University. Engage in cross disciplinary debates, learn about other projects and be exposed to different perspectives. A PhD does not have to be a lonely journey and having a network of people that both understand and encourage research can nourish your development.
4. Communicate with your supervisor(s). If you are avoiding an unopened email, delaying meetings, or not answering the phone when yousee their number, this is a strong indication that you need to sit down and talk. Whether you are struggling with methods, understanding the ethics process, or your own wellbeing; communication with your supervisor(s) is key.
5. View a PhD as a series of steps. Typically, you will be required to submit an 80,000-100,000 word thesis. Basically, a book. This can be overwhelming, so break it down into specific goals to help maintain motivation. For example, a literature review is one element of a thesis. Consider reducing this to even smaller tasks such as “Identify seminal authors on my topic,” “Write 1 – 2 paragraphs summarising each article I read,” or even “Group literature based on themes.” I find setting daily or weekly goals, no matter how small, help me focus.

6. Write. Writing a thesis is a marathon. You don’t just wake up and run 42kms one morning, you need to train. Although what you write in the first year of your PhD may not make it into the final thesis, it will never go to waste as writing is part of the overall analysis process. And, remember, a draft is a draft. It does not have to be perfect when you send it for feedback.
7. Access training where possible. This is more than attending conferences. I am talking about specific research skills such as using SPSS for data analysis, developing interview schedules or how to design a survey tool. Your Institute may offer training to PhD researcher, and there are many free online courses such as Research Academy or MOOCs delivered by other Universities (Massive Open Online Courses). Discuss your training needs with your supervisor(s) and be active in seeking out these opportunities.

8. Your PhD is not your life. Finding some balance is essential for your mental, spiritual and physical health. There are lots of free resources to aid in planning your time and managing selfcare. I have used some from I think well and have cycled more in the past year than I have in the previous five (despite the Northern Irish rain).

A PhD is different for everyone, find what works for you.

Other Useful IDS Links:
IDS PhD by Published Works
IDS PhD by Research
IDS Scholarships & Funding Sources
IDS Alumni Mentor Search

Images all from Unsplash in order shown: Raphael Biscaldi Clay Banks and Nathan Dumlao

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