Five Things I Wish I’d Known as a New PhD Student

adult blur books close up

I’ve been doing a lot of reflection recently around where I’ve come from and where I’m going. And that got me thinking, what advice would I give myself as a new PhD student? What did I wish I would have known when I started my PhD? To be honest there is quite a long list but I’ve narrowed it down to the most important five things. Had I known at the time, these would have made life a little easier and the journey a little smoother. I’ve excluded the things more specific to me that I couldn’t have directly anticipated e.g. a second lockdown.

For most of these you will learn and forge your own path through your PhD but a heads up is always nice. This is just in case you’re reading this and wondering where on earth to start! As I mentioned, these are all things I would tell my former self, but you might find something useful, hence why I’m sharing.

Hour glass with white sand in a wooden frame on a pile of sand. Grey background. If only I could go back in time and tell my younger, new PhD self...
Photo by Ron Lach on

Here’s my top tips for a new PhD student

1. Write as much as you can, in your own words, in the first 6 months even if it’s rubbish

Whilst I found myself doing a lot of reading in the first six months as a new PhD student, I didn’t do nearly enough writing. Writing takes practise and the more you do it, the better you get. Why do you think I write these blogs? I’ve started writing up to ten ‘Major Conclusions’ (my words) on each paper that I read. I also grade them based on #low, #medium or #high in Obsidian to tell me how much in detail I read it. Furthermore, I have a section called ‘Next Steps and Ideas’ which starts to link it in to my wider thoughts and other papers. However, I only started doing it this way about a month ago and I really, really wish I’d developed this from the outset.

2. Develop consistencies in your routine that you stick to and have clear periods where you can gather momentum

I have actually been pretty good at sticking to routines since the start of my PhD, but it would be something I would re-iterate to my former self. I’ve been presented with many challenges outside my research, which couldn’t be prevented. With hindsight I handled these as well as I could. It perhaps takes a little while to develop and understand your own practise.

Over the last couple of years, I have also struggled with momentum. A PhD will pull you in many different directions but I’ve learnt that consistency helps build momentum.

Detailed planner with colourful tags showing the month of January. It sits next to a green oil burner and three pens on a wooden effect desk. Although you might not create something this bespoke, I would tell my younger self to find consistent routines and stick to them.
Photo by Bich Tran on

3. Spend time honing your workflow

This is the single biggest piece of advice I would give my former self. I wished I would have spent time tailoring my workflow patterns so that I had a smooth transition from information acquisition to interpretation. Back then, and even now, the way I read and comment a paper varies. Sometimes I printed it, sometimes I put notes on the PDF version of the paper, sometimes my notes were in Word, sometimes Overleaf and sometimes one notebook or another. So now I’m left picking up all the pieces of notes all over the place. And to go back to point 1, notes that often then need interpreting into my own way of thinking.

4. Take time to understand you and how you work

The best piece of advice I was given as a new PhD student was that ‘a PhD is about learning how to learn and how your brain works’. I can’t say enough how true that is! Take some time to work out the systems that work for you. What time or day of the week do you work best? When should you do the this-feels-like-such-a-waste-of-time-tasks and when should you do deep brain work? What foods make you feel good? Do you work better in small chunks or one big long session? How can you keep yourself motivated? What’s preventing you from being at your best and what can you do about it? What’s my ‘why’ (for doing a PhD)?

Like me, you will probably learn much of these through your PhD but it can help to have an ‘if this happens…’,’then I’ll…’ plan. For example, if I’m struggling with motivation, then I need to stop, step back and look at the bigger picture. This will help me to understand how what I need to do fits in with that picture.

You’ll also probably change how you work over time. If you’d asked new PhD student me about whether I liked To Do lists I would have replied that I can’t live without them. The reality now is I hate To Do lists, or at least task managers. They make me feel stressed and anxious because, particularly in a PhD, they just never end! I found this out when I tried starting using apps such as ToDoIst, Monday, Outlook Task Manager and many others… . I always thought it was the app, but, reflecting it was me. They always ended up too complex and unmanageable because I had to put everything in them.

I realised that what I like is an occasional ‘Remember’ or check list which you could view as a type of to do list, but it’s generally on things that must be completed in a particular order. In experiments for example. I love a To Done list (the cheaters to do list?!) and a weekly review to track progress. Most importantly time-blocking in my calendar keeps me on track so I know what I should be doing when.

5. Narrow it down, narrow it down some more and then a bit more

To be honest finding your niche is a big part of the process of doing a PhD. However we all tend to start with very grand plans in the beginning. The likely reality is that what you do will be a very small contribution (but of course very important 😉 ) to a very specific field. Don’t let this put you off. It is a great opportunity to use the initial few months to go big and learn about the wider context of your field. At this time you probably won’t really know exactly what you’ll end up doing, so do use it to explore different ideas and avenues. However having a bit more focus at the start would have helped me in the longer run.

It also takes a certain skill to recognise when you’re going off on too much of a tangent. I did this in the beginning. Whilst it’s still relevant and useful, I feel I could have spent the time more wisely.

A women in a yellow dress taken from the back. She is walking down a very narrow alley which has yellow walls. This alley represents your PhD subject - very narrow!
Photo by Dương Nhân on

These are the main five tips I would pass on to myself as a new PhD student. The reality is that they will probably all take some time to work out. But I’d like to think younger me would listen to older me and take note!

Coffee I’m drinking: Horsham Coffee Roaster: Costa Rica, Aguilera Brothers

Books I’m currently reading: The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron and Killing State by Judith O’Reilly

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Annette Raffan

Annette is a mum of one and a postgraduate researcher at the University of Aberdeen. She loves learning about new things and sharing them with the world, particularly knowledge management, plant and soil science, the world of research and things she has read along the way.

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