Starting well: how to do a good first year in your PhD

When I started my PhD I was passionate about chemistry and I was excited about starting a research project of my own, that I could drive in the direction I wanted to. But I wasn’t exactly sure why I was doing it; I just wanted to. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that is not such a bad reason for doing a PhD. You should certainly not do one just because it is ‘the next step’ on the academic ladder, or because you can’t think of what to do next.

I recently noticed this comment on Pete Etchell’s (twitter) blog Counterblanced, asking for advice on the important first steps to take in a PhD, and thought: “That’s a good question”.

I remember being pretty worried in the first year of my PhD and thinking that I was getting nowhere. So here’s my advice (in a handy partner to this ‘How to write a thesis’ post) on how to start your PhD well.

I think getting to grips with what makes a good start to a PhD depends on understanding the goal of the process [1]. So here’s my tentative definition of what a PhD should achieve (comments/disagreements welcome):

Completing a good PhD will turn you into a self-reliant researcher with the ability and confidence to define and solve complex problems.

With that in mind as the basic goal, here are some things to consider during your first year:

1. Come to terms with the fact that ‘In your first year you break it, in the second year you fix it, and in the third year you get your results’.

This is a bit of lame catchphrase (I forget who first said it to me), but I found it to be frighteningly accurate. Please don’t expect to be a competent scientist immediately upon starting your PhD – that is what you will be at the end.

Instead, accept that for a significant chunk of your first year you will be making mistakes, learning techniques and probably not making much headway in terms of new work. If you are – great. But don’t worry if you’re not.

2. Learn how to manage your supervisor.

Academic supervisors can vary hugely in their ways of working, just like any other type of person. Generally the older and more established your supervisor, the bigger their group will be, and the less you will see of them.

It’s important you work out as quickly as possible how to manage your supervisor. A PhD is, to my mind, all about becoming self-reliant: being able to approach a problem yourself, think it through, decide on the best course of action and then get on with it. But to begin with, you will need some help from your supervisor.

They can be of three broad types: hands-off, hands-on or somewhere in between. Unless you are lucky enough to have the latter type, you will probably need to learn how to get the help you need from your guy without being swamped in ‘banter’ or being left without any guidance.

There is no easy way to do this, but once you get that your supervisor is a resource for you to use, not someone who is necessarily going to direct your every move (supervisor can be a misleading term), then you can at least start to deal with the problem [2].

3. Read text books, not just papers.

It can be tempting to think that now you’re a postgraduate you don’t need textbooks anymore. You possibly don’t need your undergrad. ones (at least, not as much), but advanced, subject specific text books will give you a great introduction to the literature in your field from the most prominent experts. You should start reading these straight away – I didn’t bother and I wish I had. Why was I reading random papers, hoping to hit on good stuff when I had a library full of books telling me what the important developments were?

Yes, read papers, but don’t think that you’ve left textbooks behind.

4. Conferences: when, where and how?

Most PhD students have a chunk of money set aside to spend on travelling to conferences. This is great, but since you will have a limited amount, it’s worth thinking carefully about how to spend it. You will often be able to go to small regional conferences with little expense, but when it comes to big international conferences my advice would be this: one near the start and one near the end.

These serve two functions. The one near the beginning of your PhD will help you get a good feel for who the main guys in your field are. This is much more illuminating than sitting, reading papers because you can instantly get a feel for the spirit of someone’s work from their talk. The one near the end is a chance for you to present your own work to an influential audience – this is important for your CV and for networking purposes. The later you leave this conference (within reason), the better chance you will have of gathering enough results to put together a substantial and interesting talk which people will remember.

5. Don’t repeat other people’s work (with caveats!)

One of the most unpleasant experiences of my PhD was trying to repeat the synthesis of a complicated molecule (it was about 13 difficult chemical reactions), which had already been published by a former group member. I was asked to do this at the beginning of my PhD, and I just didn’t have the skills to pull it off. The result was a feeling of complete inadequacy: “This stuff is published! It works! And yet and I can’t get it to work!?”

The problem was that – at that stage of my studies – the synthesis was too much for me. And further than that it was a loose-loose situation: if I made the compound I had done nothing new, and if I didn’t manage it, I looked silly.

The reason that you might get asked to do something like this is if a particularly interesting compound for your group has been used up and some new tests are required. If this happens, I would encourage you to think seriously about the cost-benefit ratio. How long will repeating the work take? And how likely is it that you will get a significant new insight from the extra experiments? If you feel like the ratio is unfavourable, go to your supervisor and explain how you feel – but be prepared to make a good case. And have an attractive plan for how you could better use your time.

6. Collaborate

Is there something your group can do really well, but which in itself isn’t going to furnish interesting results? Maybe you just have a rare HPLC-MS, and others in your department are jealous? Why not offer to run a few samples? You never know where it might lead.

To illustrate: a story. A labmate of mine noticed that our group was pretty good at making more-than-averagely-complex macrocyclic organic compounds (like these). These compounds are only really interesting if they are functional (they do a useful job), but there is quite a time investment in making them in the first place. My friend decided to look for opportunities to use his expertise in making these types of molecule, and apply it to what other people were trying to do. In the end, he spotted a guy in Italy who was working with some interesting components which could act as starting materials for our synthesis. He contacted him, and a collaboration followed in which my friend quickly churned out some interesting molecules and sent them back to Italy.

The net result was an impressed supervisor, a new contact in Italy, an interesting paper and a whopping smile on face of the guy in the next fumehood.

7. Ask you supervisor for opportunities to write.

If you are looking for a relatively academic career (and let’s assume you are if you are doing a PhD) then writing is going to be a hugely important skill in the future. Supervisors often get requests from relatively minor journals to do reviews in their pet subject, but may not always have the time to write. That’s where you come in – you can write the draft of the review and practice your writing skills whilst also getting yourself a nice publication.

8. Tailor your off duty activities to the skills you need post-PhD.

There’s plenty of time to do ‘extra-curricular activities’ during a PhD; from demonstrating in undergraduate practical classes to public engagement activities. There are so many opportunities for PhD students that you really must make use of them to help you with your future career. Everyone else will, so don’t miss out!

But don’t do too much – don’t neglect your research. Instead choose what you do carefully and tailor it to what you want your future CV to look like. A PhD is a training exercise. Make sure you get the right experience for what you want to do.

Notes:

1. This, like my last post, is slanted towards a science PhD, and may not be true of all doctorates, like mickey-mouse English ones (joking, joking!!)

2. To be clear, I’m deliberately not making any comment about my supervisor personally here. It would be easy to find out who I worked for if you wanted to, and he is an eminently clever and talented man to work with.

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