10 Questions To Ask Yourself At The Start Of Your PhD

So you’re starting a PhD! Congratulations!

October is a time of year that heralds many new starters in postgraduate research. It is ten years to the day that I arrived at Room 524, my office, sat down at my desk and wondered, “What the hell am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing here? Should I just read through my Masters notes until my supervisor calls for me?”

Three interesting questions… But I can think of three better questions to ask yourself at the start of a PhD – in fact I can think of ten! It might be useful for you to work through these and make some notes. They can form the basis for later plans and review.

Get Started

Why do you want a PhD? If achieving your PhD has specific meaning for you – a future job, a life in academia, prestige, money – record that now. Write it down and be as specific as possible. Don’t forget this, and don’t worry if this changes – keep it recorded somewhere.

What do you know about what you are going to be researching? Write some notes about the task ahead of you, noting required outputs. If you are working on a project that was offered, write what you know about that and what you know of the background knowledge. If you proposed the research, write what you know of that and what you hope for. In both cases, write down a list of information that you don’t have yet but think you will need.

Have you told your supervisors what you are hoping to get from your PhD? At your earliest opportunity, and in the best way possible, share with your supervisors what your current long term goal is. Chances are they might already be wondering what your plans are. Your supervisors are a resource and can offer you help – if they know what you are working towards.

What are your best strengths? Everyone has talents. Think about what yours are and what they can do to help you get your PhD. Consider what you have accomplished in the past and how that might be relevant.

What do you need help with – and where might you get that from? You are not expected to know everything or be able to do everything at the start of your PhD. Be honest with yourself – write down some things that you might need, and also list potential sources of help.

What resources do you need to get started? Resources covers a broad range of things: materials, computer equipment, journals, access to software and publications. Think carefully about what you need but currently don’t have. The sooner you know what you need, the sooner you can work towards getting it.

What questions do you have about how to do research in your field? You are not expected to know how to do research well at the start – if you’ve been accepted on to doctoral programme it is because people believe you can do it. You undoubtedly have questions about how things are done, what standards are accepted as “normal” and so on. Think about what you want to know, and then find sources of information – your supervisor will be a good place to start.

What skills would you like to develop during your PhD? A PhD is a time for personal development. However accomplished you are, you will have to develop skills as you do research. An amount of forethought can really help this process. Think about what skills you might need to develop – but also about what skills you think will be of use to you after your PhD – at some point you WILL finish it and be doing something else.

What sources of advice are you aware of for PhDs? Your supervisor and institution are great places to find information on how to do a PhD; there are also hundreds – if not thousands – of sites, books and services that can offer you real, useful advice. Ask people what they read and use, or go looking for yourself. The Thesis Whisperer is a good place to start looking!

What are you going to achieve this year? Really, really think about this. It’s a two step process actually.

  • Step One: Write down what you want to get done and feel proud of one year from now.
  • Step Two: Start working towards that goal.

These are ten questions to get you started; if you are tempted to run headlong into your first year, just take an hour to answer these on a single page of A4. If you have no idea where to begin with your PhD, if you’re sat in your own Room 524, take an hour to answer these and see where you end up.

And if you’re starting your second, third or fifth year of your PhD, come back tomorrow when I share ten questions that might be helpful to you!

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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