Advice for new PhD students

Have been meaning to do this post for a while. When I met up with Tractor Girl at Greenbelt, she asked me my advice for new postgrads. I wittered away a few things, but then thought of lots of other things. So I thought I would just do a post where I note down some of the advice that was helpful to me, and the advice I wish I’d been given, and the advice I was given and wished I’d followed, and all that sort of thing! So, in no particular order:

Starting off
* Plug yourself into the postgrad networks in your department/faculty. Get along to research methods seminars, but just as importantly just join in with conversations in the common room. Chances are at least some of the discussions won’t be about Big Brother but will be about research issues they have faced and how they have dealt with it. This has been one of the single most useful things for me, learning from people who have gone through it already.
* MAKE NOTES as you go along. I can’t tell you how important this is. You will read tons of things, but you won’t remember it all.
* Related to that, sort out a filing system for notes and journal articles and references and whathaveyou. The filing system will change as your research goes along, but at least having it in some sort of systematic form where you vaguely know where things are means that it will be much easier to find things later when you actually need them.
* Ask questions of everybody. Chalky told me that I could probably get away with asking questions for about a year and a half before I’d be expected to know what I’m doing, and I’d say that’s about right.
* Don’t worry in your first year/year and a half about that feeling that everybody else knows what they’re doing and you’re the only one who hasn’t a clue. EVERYBODY feels like that, it is an absolutely universal PhD experience. It WILL get better and that feeling WILL go away (or at least subside), particularly once you’ve collected your own data/done your fieldwork.
* Keep in regular contact with your supervisors. If you have more than one, I’ve personally found it better to meet both of them together at the same time. That way everybody knows what has been said, and if they want to give you conflicting advice they can thrash it out there and then rather than leaving you with mixed messages from separate meetings.
* When you’re doing your reading, you will come across millions of really interesting tangents, some of which may even end up in your research. Just remember you can’t write a PhD on all of them.
* jstor.org and Google Scholar are your friends. (key word searches). Another easy way of figuring out who you need to be reading is to raid other peoples’ bibliographies. Once you’ve read a few things, check out the bibliographies and there will probably be a few sources that come up again and again. Those are the ones you definitely need to get hold of. Get other stuff by those same authors. Even now, I still look at bibliographies to see if there are any references I’ve missed.
* If you have to pay for the printing of journal articles, save them on your memory stick as pdf files instead, read them off your computer, and save the rainforest (and your bank balance).

Data collection (mainly based on qualitative research, and specifically doing interviews, as that’s what I do)
* When arranging your first interviews, try not to have your dream interviewee interviewed too early. The chances are your first two or three interviews will be rubbish until you get into your stride. Once you know what you’re doing, that’s the time to interview the really important people (by really important I don’t necessarily mean in terms of their position, but rather in terms of their importance to your research).
* However rubbish you feel an interview has been, the chances are there will still be nuggets of gold in it, though you might need a bit of distance before you see it.
* It’s better to interview too many people than not enough. You’ll probably only be able to use a small percentage of the material in your interviews, but having too much stuff is a much better position to be in than not having enough. Just talk to anyone who’s willing! Be open to talking to unexpected people (I never imagined in my health-related research that I would end up talking with people from the media, for example, but I got some cracking stuff from them)
* If you are doing a focus group, or even just interviewing a couple of people at the same time, ask them that only one person speaks at a time. Trying to transcribe an interview where people are speaking over the top of each other is a nightmare.
* At the end of the interview, ask the interviewee if you can contact them again (either by email or with a further follow-up interview) if you have any further questions. This is especially important in the early interviews – as you go along you’ll notice themes emerging and things that you hadn’t thought about before that you might want to ask the people you’ve already interviewed.
* Keep a fieldwork/data collection diary. Make notes on the whole process – how you felt about the interview, what sort of mood you were in, what barriers there were to arranging the interview, what was good about it, all that sort of thing. This is the sort of stuff that methodology chapters are made of.
* Do your own transcription. If you can’t do your own and pay someone else to do it, you’ll still need to listen to the interviews again with the transcription to check for errors (can you tell this is the voice of bitter experience?!). Remember that transcription will take loads loads loads longer than you think it will and you will be utterly miserable while you do it, but it really is a great way to get back into your data, as you won’t remember everything from every interview.

Other random stuff
* Once you’ve collected your data, you’ll probably need to totally redo the lit review that you did before you started data collection, rereading the lit in the light of what you now know from your own data, and accessing other literature that hadn’t occurred to you to look at before. You’ll see things in the literature you’d never noticed before, and will be able to critique it in the light of your own findings. This is also good to help you figure out where your research fits into the wider research, and also which gaps your research is helping to fill.
* Don’t worry about getting all the academic jargon straight off. The more you read and talk with other researchers, the more it will start to sink in.
* Remember that very early on in the process, you will pretty much be an expert on your topic.
* Enjoy it! 😀

What’s the betting as soon as I press ‘save’ I’ll remember a ton more stuff? I’ll add more in the comments if I think of any more later!

7 thoughts on “Advice for new PhD students

  1. There’s a start of a PhD on PhDing there!

    Can I add "prepare a sentence on describing your PhD to people who are polite and interested enough to ask, but who won’t understand the finer points of financial regression/physical science/17th century crime literature etc."

  2. Thanks for that. It was a very thought out post. Can’t see myself doing a PhD but if I do, I’ll check back here 😉

  3. Wow. If ever I am mad enough 🙂 to consider one, I will refer to this.

    And thanks for the link to jstor.org ; may help with my Post Grad Diploma research.

  4. Oh, I am such a fan of google scholar – truely the work of genius. And I say that as someone doing a library and Info management masters…

  5. Thanks loads Jack, am going to save that onto something easy to find and try to put it all into practice – you are a gem

  6. Wow, you are SUCH a boffin! I used to think I had a brain, but obviously not …. actually, I do, but I’m lazy, so even thought of reading all this was almost too much for me 🙂 …a lot of good sense and experience in there though!

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