First steps in the PhD program

Pranav S. Kulkarni
20 Feb ’20

So, you got the admission to a PhD program, Congratulations! It is a big thing, the start of a new chapter of your life. You must be elated and bewildered at the same time. “I got what I wanted; I am in…Now, what do I do?”. Maybe you have a very vague idea about where to start, what are the first steps and so on. I have written this blog to especially address these questions. Like you, I am going through the initial first few months of my PhD program and it seems like the right time to share my experience and some tips about the first few steps of “what to do” in a PhD program. 

The initial meetings and the office

Meeting your supervisors and the team

If you are following a European PhD program you will have a daily supervisor who overlooks and supervises all your current activities and other colleagues, supervisors, promoters, etc. who form the core team of your project. Quite naturally, the first few days of your work, you will have to spend time meeting and getting to know this team. This entails who are doing what, what is it that you are expected to bring to the table and a “not-so-idle” conversation about the bright ideas that you would like to work on during your PhD study. My suggestion will be to ask as many questions (even silly ones) as you can about how research is conducted in your department, what is the hierarchy, what is each team member doing currently, etc.

Meeting your colleagues/ co-PhD students

Once you know your team, the next best source of information is your co-PhD students. These are voyagers in the same boat. A nice conversation with them will give you a lot of information to come to grips with your work and all the other administrative paraphernalia that you are expected to tackle. Additionally, they are your support group if you are in some soup and you are theirs! I have a large number of co-PhD students around me and that has been really great. I learned a lot from them and besides that, it is great fun as well.

I would also suggest going ahead and sign up for different activities entailing PhD experience with fellow scholars like “PhD councils”, “monthly PhD meetings”, etc. This will help you get a sense of community as well as help you make new friends.

Meeting the office staff and “het secretariaat”

I think that behind every successful PhD career is the unbounded support and help from the team of administrators, HRs, secretaries and helpers. These people are who actually make everything happen in any office and not just in a university. A quick round of meetings with the secretary will help you understand all the things that you are supposed to do. Without these people, even the most experienced of us will be left clueless as to what to expect and what to prioritize.

Setting up your office

Once you are relatively settled-in with your team and other colleagues, I believe that the first order of business is to set up your office. You can make the place your own by putting up personal stuff and arranging your desk. You will be using this as your battle-station for all the “wars” to come until you graduate as a doctor. So, it is important to personalize your space and make it comfortable. There is no shame in mixing ‘business with pleasure’ in this context.

Setting up a work routine and planning

Planning your first year

If you are following a European PhD program, this step is part of the initiation procedure and you will naturally have to do it as a part of duties. Nevertheless, I would like to mention that you are not always going to follow the plan quite literally. In that case, I think that it is very important that you keep on updating your plan and not just doing whatever is important by the top of your head. I think that good planning is what will eventually help you complete your degree without some major hiccups. By nature, I am sure that most of us are not born organized and have to work towards setting some order in our work life. This is the best way to start getting this so-called order and balance.

Finishing the necessary documents

In a European PhD, you will have to first create a concise project proposal and a tentative plan called as TSP or training and supervision plan (may be named as something else like a research plan or research overview, etc.) in the first few months of your PhD. This seems like a very tedious task to put everything in a concise and clear format. But don’t worry. All PhD’s go through it and survive. Also, starting the literature review as early as possible is also a good idea. It makes things clearer and your life easier in the days to come.

Meeting schedule with daily supervisor

It’s very important that you decide on a uniform meeting schedule with your daily supervisor at the earliest. This schedule can be kept as fixed or flexible as both of you need. Personally, I have a bi-weekly scheduled meeting  where we discuss 3 ‘whats’:

  • What did I do in the past 2 weeks?
  • What issues did I encounter in doing that work?
  • What do I plan to do in the next 2 weeks?

It is not always the same format, sometimes we do more brainstorming, or we stick to a topic that needs more attention, but in general, the 3 ‘whats’ practice works well for me and my supervisor. Beyond that, it also doesn’t hurt to agree upon a meeting schedule with other members of your team. In my case, I have a meeting every 3 months with all the members of my team to troubleshoot and keep everyone appraised of what is going on.

Planning your research

Work packages and sub-projects

Generally, PhD’s across the world include working on a central idea that you want to explore by working on some specific research questions and objectives which form work packages (or sub-projects). These form the milestones of the plan that you will eventually aspire to follow over the course of your PhD. It is always best to try and make the subprojects as clear as possible.

Flexibility of the project

Sometimes, the project and its sub-projects can be pre-defined based on funding agencies or university guidelines or the type of project (like industrial PhDs, fixed projects with many collaborations, etc.) and sometimes, they are not-so-well-defined when you have some creative freedom to pick and choose.  In the latter case, it is very important to think very carefully as to what might be interesting. Since the impact of your work depends on what you choose to address, it makes sense that you will define objectives which target the core research questions of your central idea. It is also very important that you learn to delimit your ideas and creativity in terms of time available and feasibility. It does not help you if you have a very interesting research question but the work required for it involves years and years of engagement or something that is untestable except with very rare and elaborate laboratory setups or expensive machinery.

Anticipatory budgeting

Again, depending on the nature of your PhD and all the contracts and funding agreements, you will have a wide range of responsibilities concerning the finances and budgeting of your work. But in a broad sense, you will have to think carefully about budgeting especially when your work involves studies needing specialized equipment or third-party consultation, travel or boarding expenses when you have to travel for conferences, symposia, courses, project meetings, field work, etc. for your PhD. In such scenarios, I think that you need to anticipate coming issues related to finances and start finding solutions for them before they arrive.

Research work-life balance

PhD can be a delight with some stressful instances and you must take care of your mental and physical health. I think that you can avoid being exhausted and enjoy the PhD experience by simply maintaining a healthy balance between your work and private life. It is great if you are passionate about what you do, but at the same time, you should not let your research consume your life. So, I think that good-old planning and organization is not only necessary but one of the  first few steps that you take.

So, these are some of the steps and tips that I think mark the first phase of your PhD. I hope you can find some help and guidelines in this blog. Next time, I will provide some tips about scientific publishing for undergraduate students.

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