Year One: What I Learned and Wish I Knew…

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February fades, and the prospect of a new academic year beckons.  Starting the second year of my PhD has made me ponder what today’s me would tell the me of 12 months ago (or indeed anyone starting a PhD now).

I remain fortunate to be standing on the shoulders of giants – a position that gave me a headstart when taking my first tentative steps on PhD year one. Here is the first piece of advice – start by listening and seeking out the wisdom of others.

Take initiative in making contact with academics whose work you’ve long admired, fellow students who will form your support network or future contacts, and the support staff you may lean on from time-to-time.

Taking that first step is an important gesture, and it’s how you spark the conversations that will take your thinking further.  Do what you can to approach that person who says something brilliant at a symposium.  As I look back on the last 12 months, some of these spontaneous conversations really stand out as wonderful memories.

This cuts to one of the first pieces of advice I got – to take responsibility for your own learning.  This takes a number of forms, many of which will push the boundaries of your comfort zone.

This boundary pushing is integral to the essence of doing a PhD.

Another part of taking initiative is getting immersed in campus life, particularly the intellectual side of it.  Go to symposiums, guest lectures, get involved in reading groups and if you can, take opportunities to be involved on committees. These are free to you, and provide some of the best development opportunities you’ll find.  They can also help with the feeling of isolation that can come from the focus that is part of taking on a PhD.

Another standout piece of advice I received, was to write early and write often. I’ve found this important for a number of reasons: What you write in year one won’t necessarily end up in your final document of course.  But as it is created, language creates.  The writing process is important in ordering your thoughts, and making new ideas emerge.

“Just writing” is also a great way of overcoming the dreaded writers’ block, which can lead to deeper states of paralysis motivated by fear of failure. This is not where you want to be stranded.

These days of course, paper is cheap if don’t press print!  I’ve written a lot (this website being part of that) and from each attempt I take something with me.

Last but not least, is the importance of listening and reading deeply.  Particularly, be sure to learn from your supervisors’ experience – ask questions, engage with their work and benefit from the path they have travelled.  After all, this is the idea of supervision, right?

Amongst the relentless pace of things, year one of your PhD is a wonderful opportunity to get lost in what you’re researching.  Your topic will morph, focus will change and your thinking will evolve.  Take on that uncertainty as part of the fun.

These lessons have helped me through year one.  How about you?  Feel free to share any thoughts below…

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