Your first 100 days as a PhD student: a checklist

Starting a PhD might feel like beginning a journey into uncharted territory, so having a clear sense of direction in the first 100 days is vital, explain Kevin O’Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

November 2, 2016

Getting a good start to your PhD is vital, so it is important to establish good habits and achieve key tasks in your first 100 days as a PhD. Here, two Heriot-Watt University professors share their to-do checklist with new PhD students.

If you want more PhD advice, make sure you check out our essential PhD reading list, which all doctoral students should read.

Know what you are aiming for – read a PhD

Make sure that you have read a finished PhD cover to cover and made notes. Ask your supervisor for a recommendation. This example thesis should use similar methods to those you intend to adopt and should be in a similar discipline to your own. The British Library has an excellent and growing catalogue of electronic PhD theses.

Get the basics sorted

Have a working abstract, research question(s), aim(s) and set of objectives in written form, even though these will likely evolve over time.

Deal with the housekeeping

Have a formatted (to your institution’s style), full working document of your thesis, with placeholder headings and subheadings, a table of contents, list of references and so on. While these vary from institution to institution, there are some broad rules of thumb on length and content available.

Establish a work ethic – write 10,000 words

Get used to the idea that PhD writing involves a great deal of over-production and subsequent sub-editing. Aim to write 10,000 words on a key area of your literature (it sounds a lot, but it is only 100 words a day on average). Just accept that you probably won’t use all of it in the final draft of your thesis.

Understand when you write best

Is it morning, afternoon or evening? Make sure that you create diary entries for writing time that align with this.

Be realistic

Calibrate what you mean by being a “full-time” PhD student. Being clear about how much, if any, of the time spent on related academic things such as tutorials or marking is accounted for and how much is actually “overtime”.

Full-time should really mean most working days for most of your time even when you’ve allowed for an appropriate amount of annual leave, lunch breaks and the like. Track how much time you are actually working on your thesis.

Get yourself supervised by establishing a feedback routine

Ensure that you have received written and verbal feedback from your supervisor on those 10,000 words and, specifically, on your research question, aim and objectives.

Get out there

Discuss your work with your supervisor and make sure that you have thought out a strategy for a conference where you will eventually present your research in, say, the second year of your studies.

Sort diaries six months ahead

Have scheduled meetings agreed with your supervisor at appropriate intervals for the first six months, and make sure that you keep updating that forward meeting schedule.

Familiarise yourself with your territory – seek out your leader(s)

Find out who are the key people in your subject area, both living and dead. For those both living and local (that is, at least the same country), figure out where you might meet them or at least hear them talk; this could be at a conference, research seminar or similar event. Be sure to have read at least enough of their material to sound knowledgeable before meeting them.

Make some friends

PhD study is sometimes described as a lonely process, so make sure that you establish a peer-support network early. This will likely include some other new PhD students, although they might not be studying exactly the same thing as you, some more advanced PhD students, perhaps working with the same supervisory team or research group, who could offer wisdom and (dubious) moral support, and some recent graduates, who can remind you that there is life on the other side of the viva.

Get to know everyone

Figure out who is who in the school/institute/department/faculty/college in which you are studying. Alongside all the other academic advice, it is important to realise that you are joining an organisation with a plethora of established routines and processes.

Also get to know how you claim expenses, where you can book meeting rooms, who deals with ethical approvals, who administers the PhD programme, who runs admissions, where the stationery cupboard is located, and who services the IT. These people are also your colleagues and can help you feel that you belong.

Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data blog.

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Reader's comments (1)

This article is very encouraging. Please can you refer me to any article you have written on prospective PhD students, especially one that addresses a PhD in Education/ Music Education. Thanks

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