PhD Tips: First Year or Becoming a Researcher

The pre-viva thesis ready for binding

I recently defended my thesis successfully. That I can call myself Dr. Singh is both an exhilarating and alarming feeling. What a way to end the year! As 2013 drew to a close,I reflected on my doctoral journey and realised what a beautiful, nerve-racking, stimulating, and tumultuous journey it has been: complete with day-of-printing Endnote disasters, I\’ve-collected-my data-now-what panic attacks, oh-no-someone-already-did-my-research (and did it better!) horror shows. But it has also been a stimulating and humbling experience. I learnt and travelled, read and wrote about something I care deeply about. Being an Indian student on her first trip abroad, I also experienced a different culture (who knew that a Yorkshire pudding is not a pudding at all!!) and adjusted to a completely different academic system.

Having completed my PhD in three years and three months, some friends have asked me how I managed. While a big motivation was having a limited scholarship, I do think I did some things right (with expert guidance from my supervisors of course) and so I began jotting down a few things down. Most of the \’tips\’ may be relevant for social scientists, with an element of primary data collection as part of their research. So here is what I did and also what I wished I did. 

First Year or Becoming a Researcher

  • Read, read, read: Even if you have clear ideas about what your research is, take a month or two to challenge your ideas. Make mind maps, scribble, and have frequent discussions with your supervisors. Read widely and across disciplines. For me the vast landscape of literature was intimidating at first, especially since I was returning to research after two years of non-academic work. So take a few months to establish reading (and note-taking) habits, organising your routine, and finding a suitable place to work.  
  • Organise your literature well (I rename each paper as Author, Year) and put them in subject-wise folders. I mixed on-screen and off-screen reading but preferred the latter. I know some people use NViVo or Atlas Ti to organise literature but I jot notes in pencil and revise them as I type them into MS Word. Do what works best for  you. As long as your plan is simple and effective.
  • Organise what you do with the literature. Early in my first year, I made mind maps to understand what were the areas of literature I wanted to focus on. Identifying themes and writing short documents on them are useful starting points. Since I was exploring farmer perceptions of climate change, I realised I had to straddle literature from psychology, anthropology and the natural sciences. With a Bachelors in Botany and Masters in Environmental Studies, psychology was definitely not my expertise. So I broke down my literature search into key words, and spent days looking for relevant papers. In retrospect, time spent looking for papers is definitely not time wasted. Of course, the first source of relevant papers and authors were my supervisors. As I got ahead into the literature, my mind maps evolved and shifted their focus. But they were a critical tool in helping me clearly identify what I was looking for.
  • Use a reference manager from Day 1. I used Endnote (paid) because Papers or Mendeley (free) were not available then. Whatever you do, do not attempt to hand type your references at the end of the three/four years! I also made theme-wise subfolders within Endnote that helped me organise my references.
    A screenshot of my Endnote library organised into folders.

  • Write early and extensively. I wrote several literature reviews during my first year that were NOT summaries of literature. They tried to examine gaps in existing research as well as find bits relevant to build my own research questions. Writing early helped me find my voice, be critical, and get feedback on my approach, writing, and direction early on. [A note for non-native English speakers: Get a friend to edit your work before you give it to your supervisors. That way you get feedback on your content instead of meetings becoming grammar checking exercises.]
  • Following from that, make friends within your school/department. I have realised it is infinitely more helpful to have one critic who will always read your work than many who will skim through and not give any useful feedback. It is also useful to have someone who doesn\’t know your topic read your work. My mother and cousin were my go-to readers. 
  • Eat lunch away from your desk. In my first year I developed a lunch routine which involved chatting with a friend and going for a walk in Harris Garden afterwards. It was the best thing I did because it helped me clear my head, get a teeny bit of exercise, and move away from my computer! 
    Impromptu yoga is a good way to let off some steam! 

  • Learn what your university expects early on: Learn what are the formatting rules (margins, page numbering style, fonts, heading styles etc.) and make a template based on them. Use the template for all your writing so that you don\’t have. My university had a great course on using Word for your Thesis which was helpful.
  • Know when to stop: There is always going to be one more paper you can read. I still find it difficult to stop reading and start writing – but it is a skill as important as any other. For me, when I had formulated concrete research questions and had surveyed what I understood as the key literature around them, I stopped. Of course, being told by my supervisors that I was \’there\’ was helpful. 
  • Do not leave research methodology for the end: With primary data collection, developing a workable research methodology is crucial to the success of your project. While I had some experience with field work and was working within my own country (though in a context far removed from my own), I did fret over my research methods and their suitability. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to develop a clear plan of data analysis BEFORE data collection. Although I did have a plan and it did go awry, having thought of the possible pitfalls, I was able to deal with them better. 
  • Figure out what software you may need. Learn how to use it. One of my regrets is not actively learning qualitative data analysis software in the my first year. Though I took some basic classes in NVivo, after my fieldwork, I had forgotten it completely and had to re-teach myself. It was time-consuming and definitely nerve-racking. I also had to learn a climate data analysis software which I had not planned for. Again, a lot of time and peace of mind spent over learning software in the third year when time suddenly takes on another meaning. 
  • RSS and blogging: Colleagues in my department have mixed views about having an online presence and subscribing to what one friend called PhD \’self-help\’ blogs. Personally, I feel they are great tools when used in moderation. There is no point reading about \’how to do a great literature review\’ if you don\’t actually do it. I use Google Scholar Alerts and email alerts from some key journals for learning about new publications in my field. I subscribe to a few PhD productivity blogs that taught and inspired me, and, finally keep (this) blog to document my readings/ideas, write summaries of conferences, write short articles for a wider audience, and to have an online presence. Only late in my third year did I join Twitter and I am glad I waited because though a great tool, I was mature enough as a researcher to know what my tweeting boundaries were. 
  • The upgrade/PhD confirmation: In a recent seminar, a PhD colleague mentioned that first year students tend to focus on the upgrade report (usually submitted towards the end of the first year) without keeping an eye on the larger picture (the thesis). The best way to overcome this is writing your upgrade report in a way that you can use it for your thesis. Personally, I was able to use my literature review and methodology sections from the report (with generous changes of course). 
  • Don\’t ignore your non-academic life! International students, TRAVEL. The first year is a good time to explore the country and satisfy all your tourist cravings. I went on a HOST visit, several day trips with friends, longer trips to some European countries and innumerable long walks along the English countryside

Quite a few points for someone who didn\’t know what this post was going to shape into! I\’ll write follow-up posts on second year and doing fieldwork, and managing data analysis and writing up in the third year soon! Questions? Suggestions? Leave them in the comments below!

  1. If you\’re in the UK, check out these research methods courses. Most are subsidised if you\’re a student. 
  2. YouTube is a great resource to teach yourself how to use a software. I learnt NVivo myself through these great tutorials and went on to explain them to my research group, which helped me really learn the software. 
  3. My favourite PhD-related blogs: Patter, PhD Talk, Raul Pachecho\’s blog

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

9 thoughts on “PhD Tips: First Year or Becoming a Researcher

  1. Great post, Chandni! I wish I could go back to the first year! Enjoyed so much the PhD process, but it is getting to its end!


  2. Hi Chandni, great suggestions! One thing that I wish I had done better in my first year was keeping a more detailed record of all my activities, documents submitted to supervisors, meetings with supervisors, other meetings, training done, conferences etc attended. I don't know how it's handled in your department but at the end of the year we were expected to include exactly these things in our annual reports and it's much easier if you can just copy the information into the document! Also, I wish I'd kept a chronological list of all my reading, with a couple of notes, to help me remember the names of articles I'd read the week before… Good luck for your post-PhD life, Kirsten


  3. I had gone back to my planner to see what conferences/workshops/trainings I had attended to fill my annual report. But yes, it would have been easier to keep a log from Day 1. Good luck to you for the last phase!


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