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Things I wished I'd known when starting my PhD

If you’re about to begin your PhD studies, you may be feeling a little apprehensive about what lies ahead. To help you settle in, we've asked our current crop of researchers to share the one fact they wished they'd known when starting their journey. 

Keep an eye out

“I wish I’d known about literature managing software such as Zotero and Feedly, as well as the importance of keeping track of reading materials.

"I also wish I’d known about online events targeted at PhDs - there are a lot of free events out there that will make you feel part of a community.”

Simeon Shtebunaev, award-nominated researcher in future cities.

Take regular breaks

“I wish I would have known that it is okay to take a break. There needs to be a work/life balance. Sometimes, it is best to take a break and not think about your thesis. When you do come back, you will be refreshed to tackle any task.

“Also, don’t let people make you feel bad for taking a break. During this PhD process, so much will happen to you and your fellow classmates.

"Don’t stress yourself out and don’t compete with someone else. Everybody’s PhD process is different.”

Ashley Cole, noted researcher on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Be flexible…but set deadlines

“Be flexible and ready to change the plan if needed. You need to be ready for changes, not panic and find solutions for unpredictable problems (equipment breaking during a user study - been there).

“You need to make sure you can finish on time, by setting deadlines for every goal you have. This way you will always be aware of time and have a sense of achievement every time you complete a goal.”

Andreea Blaga, CEBE researcher and PhD blog contributor.

Your definition of ‘organisation’ will change

“I wish that I had fully appreciated how much time moves differently when you embark on a research project.

"If you consider yourself to be organised, prepare to revaluate your opinion on what form this takes. Work with these changes instead of trying to shoehorn creativity into a timetable.

“The research has its own ideas and will lead you down a different working pathway. Be comforted by the research taking the lead on how you settle into work.

"This will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by seemingly not achieving anything.”

Harriet Carter, Birmingham School of Art researcher.

Get a good work/life/friend balance

“One of the things I wish I’d known when starting my PhD was to establish a routine as soon as possible.

"Keep to ‘office’ hours where practicable. Be organised and professional in your approach to your research and colleagues. Set realistic targets and stick to them.

“This is your job – but do not let it become your whole life. Fiercely maintain your friendships. Make new mates within the PhD community.

“Think of your friends like footwear – you need different types for different situations, and there is room in your wardrobe for all of them!”

Sally Bailey, Birmingham School of Art researcher and PhD student rep.

It’s fun!

“I had been told the PhD would be like a roller coaster, but I did not really believe it: one day you feel like you are on top of the world and the one after, you are facing a blank page and cannot think of anything.

"This was especially true of my first year.

“However, my hard work and stubbornness was rewarded – since then, I have been on field trips to China, enjoyed international conferences, had articles published and engaged with the PGR Studio.

“This has helped me realise that, for all the hard work, a PhD is highly rewarding and fun!”

Federica Mirra, PhD researcher within the Chinese Centre for Visual Arts.