Get a head start in the first year of your PhD

Even a marathon begins with first steps, and so it makes sense to master motivation, set healthy habits and get writing early to reap the reward of a polished dissertation at the end of the PhD journey, writes Andreï Kostryka

Andreï V. Kostyrka's avatar
21 Jun 2024
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The first year of a PhD programme can be overwhelming. The success of a dissertation in many fields depends on the polish, iterations and revisions the research has undergone. So, what you do, what habits and routines you set up in the first year, will make a difference to the result at the end.

The first year is also crucial for learning – not least because neuroplasticity wanes as one grows older (as does the amount of time before the defence). First-year doctoral students might be exempt from research-related events such as conferences, brown-bag seminars and faculty talks, yet there is no time for complacency.

Here are insider tips for making the most of the first 12 months. 

Start writing as soon as possible

Do not let provocative articles that explain how to write a PhD dissertation in three months delay the start of your writing. Unless you are John von Neumann or Paul Erdős (which you are not), it is impossible to write a proficient thesis in three or even six months.

Your early writing does not have to be grandiose or purposeful. It can begin with any thought related to your topic of study. In applied sciences, a good starting point is describing an output table or interpreting a few plots in simple language, as most applied research articles include a Discussion section where findings are explained in layman’s terms. If your work is more theoretical, any attempt at a derivation or a proof is valuable. Even a well-crafted email to your adviser can become the foundation stone. Generate as much material as possible, and you will have plenty to choose from for the thesis.

Iterations take time and effort. Reflection and re-evaluation are essential for shaping one’s ideas.

Give yourself the earliest opportunity to pick up the language appropriate for academia by receiving criticism and suggestions on your writing. Your first research poster will probably look amateurish, and your first empirical analysis will likely yield mixed conclusions – but this is not a cause for concern. Babies learn to walk by trying, falling, getting up and trying again.

Remember that chapters are not the endgame

Your PhD should reflect a deeper understanding of the subject, and this does not come overnight. It results from pumping large volumes of information into one’s head and allowing it to roam among the neurons.

Attend conferences, seminars and courses outside the university to hone your skills because the chapters are not the final goal. Presentations at informal seminars in front of one’s colleagues are a reliable way to build horizontal networks with postdocs, other students and specialists.

Keep a research diary

Document your methods, results and ideas in a research diary. If you are not writing the thesis in your native language, jot down ideas in your preferred language. A notebook of ideas is invaluable during meetings with your supervisor. It is easier for them to give feedback on clearly written statements.

Communication with your supervisor, positive or negative, can be a part of the research diary. It often takes extra effort to prove to a professor that their ideas need refinement. Reinforce your points with plots, tables and other printed material that will help you cast your mind back after a couple of years. Professors may lag behind the state of the art if the subject is outside their research interests – read the best practices in the field, take notes and share them during discussions.

Back up your work

Always make backups, even after small steps, because old versions and old results are valuable if you need to retrace your train of thought. The most convenient option is setting up a trustworthy cloud synchronisation service that automatically saves everything you write and stores multiple versions. If you do not trust those providers, synchronise your working folder with an external storage device every week or set up a self-hosted home cloud. Remember the 3-2-1 principle: have three versions of your data – two on different physical media and one on the server of your choice.

Work in small increments 

List small tasks for each day and set deadlines for yourself. It is normal to work harder on some days and make less effort on others. The flexibility of a PhD researcher’s job allows you to get the most out of your rushes of inspiration.

Punctuate stints of work with exercise breaks. Health directly impacts the clarity of thinking, so set a timer to stretch out and do sit-ups every hour (for example). There might be swimming pools, gyms or sports classes nearby. Student groups often organise collective events (like hiking or yoga) and provide free tickets for cultural events.

What to do when motivation flags

Other academic activities on campus may be more engaging than writing the thesis. With summer schools, conferences and workshops, it is easy to lose track of time and neglect your work. Writer’s block is another reason to postpone writing. Certain PhD students focus on teaching, believing that their foremost duty is to be helpful teaching assistants or exam invigilators.

Everything takes time, even if one considers Hofstadter’s law, which is why we present a list of tips on what to prioritise to free up time that would otherwise be wasted on non-thesis-related tasks.

  • Write in plain text and do the formatting last. 
  • Get a distraction-free plain-text editor that autosaves your input and restores it, even after a power outage.
  • Type long passages instead of hand-writing to eliminate the need for retyping.
  • Create figures using preferably free and open-source software; avoid relying on Microsoft Office.
  • Use specialised software like JabRef or Zotero to arrange bibliographies and citations.
  • Do not tolerate software quirks. Demand the right to install open-source tools from your IT team without needing support tickets.
  • Do not try to solve bureaucratic or logistical problems outside your competence; there are non-research university personnel for those.

Writer’s block or frustration can result from stress. Being stuck at a certain point and without the courage to move forward is not uncommon in any job, including research positions. Should the stress pile up to the extent that it causes physical or mental unwellness, contact a healthcare provider and do not hesitate to book an appointment with a psychologist.

One possible remedy for writer’s block is switching to literature review. Prior reading is essential for smooth writing. The more you learn, the more you can say about the subject. Alternatively, you may try to process measurement data, prove a lemma, create a plot or engage in any other part of research that does not involve writing out words.

Finally, get enough sleep (at least on average). Force yourself to stop working in the evening and go home. If the crickets start chirping when you are still at your office, it is a sign to clock off.

Andreï V. Kostyrka is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of economics and management at the University of Luxembourg. 

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